Modern Martyr: Poet, Nun, Rebel

September 22, 2022

Did you know the Eastern Orthodox Church has its own list of saints? Until recently, I did not. For me and maybe you, these men and women of faith are new. People who are mostly unknown in our little corner of Christianity. I would hate for their stories to pass by us unknown and never celebrated.

One such person is Elizaveta Pilenko also known as Mother Maria. A Russian noblewoman, poet, nun, and member of the French Resistance during World War II. She has been canonized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Born to a wealthy, upper-class family in 1891 in Latvia, she was given the name Elizaveta Pilenko. Her father died when she was a teenager, and she embraced atheism. In 1906 her mother took the family to St. Petersburg, where she became involved in radical intellectual circles. Yet the communism and activism of her youth did not satisfy the deep longing of her soul. She longed for transcendence and eventually tried to find it in romance.

Elizaveta married and her family found themselves falling out of favor with the communist party. The political tide was turning and in order to avoid danger, they fled Russia. They made their way to Eastern Europe and finally end up in Paris in 1923. In 1926, her daughter died of influenza—a heartbreaking event for the family. Soon after, her marriage fell apart.

In the middle of her personal pain the Lord became real to her. Elizaveta found God through the orthodox faith and gave herself wholehearted to Jesus. Soon Elizaveta was dedicating herself to theological studies and social work. She became widely known for her poetry and theological essays.

Her bishop encouraged her to take religious vows and become a nun, something she did only with the assurance that she would not have to live in a monastery. She never wanted to live a life secluded from the world. This disposition soon became a deep conviction that Jesus would never hide way from the people who needed him most.

In 1932, she took the monastic vows of the orthodox faith and chose the name Maria making a rented house in the middle of Paris her own personal convent. To be a proper monastic convent they needed a priest to be a confessor and oversee the rites of the order. The bishop found a willing priest in Father Dmitri Klepinin. Father Dmitri became the chaplain of the house.

The little "convent” was Maria, Father Dimitri, Yuri Maria’s son and Sophia Maria’s mother. The rented “convent” in the middle of Paris became a sanctuary for the weary and oppressed. It was an open door for refugees, the needy and the lonely. It was also well known as place for rousing and spirited intellectual and theological discussion. In Mother Maria these two elements—service to the poor and theology—went hand-in-hand.

When the Nazis took Paris in World War II, the little “convent” was not left unaffected.
As the injustice mounted against the Jewish people, Maria could not remain on the sidelines just out of view. The little “convent” and the nun soon became a part of the French underground. A resistance movement in occupied France made of French nationals and other noble rebels.

In July, 1942, when the Nazis’ requiring Jews to wear the yellow star, she wrote a poem entitled "Israel". In it a deep respect for a noble people can be seen. With wisdom and insight, she rightly reclaims the meaning of the Star of David from the attempt to make it into a mark of shame. Lifting it up as a sign of their sacred history and calling them to not fear the laws of men but fear God, the just lawgiver.

Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

In the same way her writing was an extension of her mind, her compassion was an extension of her faith. Soon Jews seeking help approached the house asking for certificates of baptism, which Father Dimitri would provide them. Many Jews came to stay with them. They often provided shelter and helped many escape.

She was know for being fearless in the face of injustice. For example, when the secret police would come around the “convent” looking for Jews Maria would show them the icon of the Mother of God.

When the Nazis began the mass arrests of Jews, they were all interred in a sports stadium. For three days Mother Maria used her monastic robe and social work contacts to gain access to the stadium. She provided food and comfort for many. She even smuggled out some children with the aid of garbage collectors who hid them in trash bins.

Eventually the the Gestapo closed down the house. Mother Maria, Fr. Dimitri, Yuri, and Sophia were all taken by the Gestapo. Father Dimitri and Yuri both died in the the concentration camp. Mother Maria was sent to the Nazi concentration camp called Ravensbrück in Germany.

In the midst of this unimaginable horror, it would have been easy for her to despair. Yet in that dark place, the light of wisdom was granted her. The wisdom conferred to her gave her new eyes. She gained the ability to see her situation not as misfortune, but as opportunity. She wrote a little prayer during that time:

“I am Thy message, Lord. Throw me, like a blazing torch into the night, so that all may see and understand what it means to be Thy disciple.”

Her prayer would be answered in the most dramatic of ways. Even as the sound of allied artillery informed the camp that the end was near. Mere days before Ravensbrück was liberated, Mother Maria would enter that great cloud of witnesses.

On Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, 1945, Mother Maria was taken to the gas chamber. Her fellow prisoners testified to her final moments. Even as the sound of freedom could be heard in the distance, she took the place of another who had been selected for death. She died like she lived.

“No amount of thought will ever result in any greater formulation that the three words: ‘Love one another,’ so long as it is love to the end and without exceptions.”

- Mother Maria



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Authors Note: this blog is not an endorsement of all of Mother Maria’s theology but it is a celebration of her life. She is an example of what Christ can do with one person who says “Yes” no matter the cost. Mother Maria’s love grew feet and moved her to help the hurting. May we all have courage and compassion like Mother Maria.

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