The Venerable Martyr Maria of Paris
The story of an unlikely saint.
If you could get in a time machine and travel back to Paris in the 1930s, you would see wondrous sights. One of them might be a sight that startled an Orthodox bishop, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. Walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse, he saw a woman sitting at a table of a sidewalk café, in full monastic habit—dressed as a nun—having a beer and a smoke. You might have thought, as he did at the time, that this was a nun that he would stay as far away from as possible. In time, though, Metropolitan Anthony came to change his view of this most unusual woman, and today I want to tell you why.
The story begins in 1891 in the town of Anapa in Latvia. There a child was born to the family of Yuri and Sophia Pilenko, whom they named Elizabeth. Elizabeth was an unusual child. In temperament she was like a cross between Emily Dickinson and Wednesday Addams: introspective, given to premonitions, drawn to poetry and to dark thoughts. Elizabeth was very close to her father, and when he died at an early age, she was crushed.
Elizabeth was only 14 years old, and she responded to her father’s death by turning to atheism. A year later, after her mother moved the family to St. Petersburg, Elizabeth got involved in the artistic and literary circles of the city, and she made the acquaintance of some of the radical members of Russian society: radical politics, radical morality. At age 18 she met and married a young Bolshevik named Dimitri. This marriage lasted only a couple of years, but Elizabeth’s interest in revolutionary politics continued.
After her divorce, Elizabeth went with an infant daughter Gaiana (named for “Mother Earth”) back to her hometown in Latvia. In 1918, though she was only in her late twenties, Elizabeth was elected the deputy mayor of Anapa; she ran as a member of the Socialist-Revolutionary party. But then anti-Communist military forces took over the town, and Elizabeth was arrested and tried for being a Bolshevik. She defended herself in court and was acquitted, and soon after that she began a romantic relationship with one of her judges, Daniel Skobtsov. Within a few months they were married.
Very soon, though, Russia fell completely into the hands of the Bolsheviks, and an anti-Communist like Daniel could never be safe in Russian territory again. He took his family and fled to safety elsewhere. First they moved to Tbilisi, Georgia; then to Istanbul; then to Yugoslavia; and finally, in 1923, they arrived in Paris. Along the way two more children were born to Daniel and Elizabeth: a son named Yuri and a daughter named Anastasia.
The young family struggled in poverty. Then in 1926 an influenza epidemic swept through Paris and struck the entire Skobtsov family. Daniel and Elizabeth recovered, as did Gaiana and Yuri. Little four-year-old Anastasia, though, developed meningitis and slowly succumbed to that terrible disease. Elizabeth was affected deeply by the loss of her daughter. The faith in God that she had renounced in adolescence and rekindled in adulthood was challenged like never before. She saw before herself two paths: she could choose to view the world as random and meaningless, or she could look for the divine Wisdom that governs and directs all creation both in life and in death.
It was not long after the child’s passing that the mother and the father were divorced. The older daughter Gaiana went off to boarding school in Belgium; Daniel and son Yuri lived together in a suburb of Paris. Elizabeth moved to an apartment in central Paris, where she became more deeply involved in social services for the needy.
In 1932, Elizabeth secured permission to become a nun from the Russian Orthodox bishop in Paris, Metropolitan Evlogy. She would, however, be a rather unconventional nun. She was not drawn to the contemplative life or to a rich rule of prayer. She rarely attended the daily Divine Liturgy, and when she did, she rarely stayed for the whole service. She insisted that she would never live in a cloistered convent, away from the poor people she wished to serve. She hardly paid attention to the fasting calendar of the Church, even during Lent. Even so, on these terms, the metropolitan tonsured Elizabeth and gave her the monastic name Maria.
Mother Maria labored among the needy of Paris: the homeless, the destitute, the lonely, alcoholics, anyone in hunger or despair. She scoured the city for cheap food or food about to be thrown out. She carted it back to the home where she fed and housed those who had no place to sleep. She visited the workplaces of Russian emigrants and arranged for talks and lectures on religious and academic subjects, in order to elevate their hearts and minds even a little. Once she came to meet some miners after work to talk about lofty subjects. They told her that if she wanted to be of help, she could wash the floor for them. Whereupon she proceeded to find a bucket and a rag and commenced to washing floors. Her humility opened their hearts, and after the job was done, they found time to talk about the deeper things of life.
When the Germans advanced on the city in 1940, Mother Maria could have gone to the countryside or moved to England or America. Instead, she made the decision to stay and to continue to serve the downtrodden.
With the Nazi occupation, she began to serve a new group of people, the Jewish people of Paris. In July, 1942, mass arrests of Jews began to take place. Nearly 13,000 were arrested; over half were children. They were held prisoner in a sports stadium not far from Mother Maria's house. The German soldiers saw her nun’s habit and let her go in when no one else would have been allowed. She spent three days at the stadium distributing food and clothing and even managing to smuggle out some children by bribing garbage collectors to hide them in trash cans and transport them to a spot outside the city limits. Her own house was jammed with people, many of them Jews. Mother Maria said that if any Germans knocked on the door looking for Jews, she would show them her icon of the Christ-Child and the Virgin Mary
She worked with the local priest, Fr. Dimitri Klepinin, to distribute falsified baptismal certificates, thus sparing Jews from the Nazi roundups. This continued until February of 1943. The Gestapo raided Mother Maria’s living quarters and found the evidence of her activities. She and Fr. Dimitri were taken into custody and sent to concentration camps.
Mother Maria survived in Ravensbrück for over two years, sharing her meager food portions with her fellow prisoners, inspiring them, and taking care of those who were sick, frightened, or driven to despair by the conditions. Those who survived said that she was full of joy each and every day in the concentration camp. She was a beacon of hope for all the prisoners around her. Eventually, though, her long captivity and the brutal circumstances took away her last ounce of strength. She was sent to the gas chamber on March 31, 1945. It is believed that this happened, because Mother Maria switched places with a fellow prisoner who had been selected for death, at the last moment saving her neighbor instead of herself.
Just ten years ago, on January 16, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople recognized the sainthood of Mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris, and she is numbered among the martyrs of the Orthodox Church, as one who voluntarily laid down her life for the love of Christ.
I tell you the story of the holy and venerable-martyr Maria for this reason: she is a martyr-saint who is near to us in more ways than one. She lived almost in our times, less than seventy years ago.
She was, moreover, an unlikely candidate for sainthood, at least in human terms. She was a person who had gone through times of doubt and unbelief. She had involved herself in radical politics, and had moved for a time in a circle of people known for unconventional morality. She had been twice married and twice divorced. She was a nun who refused to live like a nun, but instead involved herself fully in society. She disobeyed the governing authorities during the war, and she used church documents for deceptive purposes. Her last act in life, in fact, may have been one final choice to defy and deceive by assuming the place of another prisoner.
This is a very different story from the martyrdom of St. George or St. Demetrios. This is the story of a very modern woman. But it is also the story of a true martyr, a true witness for Christ. The age of martyrdom is not in the distant past. The age of martyrdom is yesterday and today and tomorrow as well, until Christ comes again.
Christ said, “If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Follow him, that is, to suffering and death. We spoke of the Christians in Roman times, and how they viewed martyrdom as a gift from God, a special honor bestowed on a few, and of how they tried to prepare themselves daily, should they be hauled before the judge.
Would you give your life for God? Would you die for what you believe? I think that most of us, if we are honest, would have to say of ourselves, I don’t know. I don’t know if I wouldn’t sacrifice my integrity instead of my life.
I tell you the story of Mother Maria because she was a person, I’m sure, that many of her fellow Christians, looking at her, would say, This is not a person who has the makings of a saint and a martyr. But she did. She was chosen for this honor, and she was worthy of is.
Her life teaches another lesson about martyrdom. Before the concentration camp, Mother Maria was not a particularly cheery person. She was tough and argumentative, she could get in your face; she could also be querulous and pessimistic. But then in Ravensbruck, something changed. She was always cheerful, always a source of joy for those around her, never downcast, never pessimistic. Even in the frailest health, she was ready to reach out to those around her. She experienced what so many of the martyr saints discovered: that in their time of suffering, Christ mystically suffered with them. He was present bearing part of the load of pain, sometimes all of it, so that the martyrs hardly knew they were being tortured. This experience is attested again and again in the lives of the martyrs, down through the centuries. It is the truth that Saint Paul tried to express when he says, “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”
As you consider Christ’s eternal call to martyrdom, the call to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Him, remember that He will be there with you in your time of testing. Do not avoid the hour of crisis for fear that you will not have the strength to stand it. He will give you the strength; or rather, He will stand with you and in your place. For behold, He is with His disciples always, even to the close of the age.
Through the prayers of our holy mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris and Ravensbruck, may Christ have mercy on us and save us. Amen!
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