I love Dorothy Day (featured in both Interfaith Heroes 2 and Blessed Are the Peacemakers)—I consider her one of my grandmothers on my peacemaking family tree. Mother Maria is a Christian Orthodox Dorothy Day—my highest praise that says: “You’ve got to know about this woman!” Like Dorothy she would be mortified to be considered a saint because she would want to continue to disturb us out of comfort into caring and justice.
Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945)
“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 Skobtsova lived a radical life in the middle of some of the greatest turmoil in history. Born as Elizaveta Pilenko in Riga, the Latvian city that was under the Russian empire at that time. Raised in an Orthodox Christian home, she aspired to be a nun. However, her father’s death when she was 14 caused her to cast aside her belief in God. When her mother moved to St. Petersburg in 1906, the young and articulate Liza threw herself into the leftist politics boiling toward revolution.
She began to see through the idealistic talk of the revolutionaries and hunger for a deeper respect for humanity. She began to re-explore the religious life even entering an all-male Orthodox seminary that trained priests. She brought her radical rethinking into the religious experience, as well, and came to the conclusion that Christian asceticism needed to focus not on mortifying one’s body but on meeting the needs of people and creating more just social structures.
The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and subsequent civil war saw Liza barely escape execution, become the mayor of a town, and flee yet again targeted by one side or the other. She said, “Red or White, my position is the same—I will act for justice and for the relief of suffering. I will try to love my neighbor.” With the child of an earlier marriage she married Daniel Skobtsov, and the family eventually fled to Paris.
Living among the Russian refugee community in Paris, Liza’s daughter Nastia died of meningitis. Her daughter’s death prompted a spiritual crisis out of which came a new vocation, “to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection.” She began doing social work with the Russian refugee community, addressing a wide range of human needs. Her interaction with people’s needs sharpened her vocational focus. Her calling came together to live out a new monasticism that would be characterized by the “complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.” The Orthodox Metropolitan accepted her vows to become a nun, and she was renamed Maria.
Mother Maria began to work with the most desperate needy among the refugees. To carry out this work she opened a house of hospitality for poor women, to which was soon added a second much-larger house. She actively sought out the homeless, visited the mental hospitals, started a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, and a wide range of other social projects. In all her work she sought to engage the people receiving the services in how the programs would be, building a “communal organization” to keep every recipient of aid from becoming a “routine cipher.”
Then World War II broke out, and Hitler’s forces soon captured Paris. Mother Maria had seen the catastrophe coming. “Everything is clearly in its place. Everyone must maker their choice.” Her choice was to stay with her women, which soon expanded to the targets of Nazi ruthlessness. Russian refugees were targets, thousands of whom were arrested. But the main target was the French Jewish population. Mother Maria and her son Yura along with the Orthodox priest Father Dimitri Klepinin joined with the French underground in hiding Jews and helping them escape.
Mother Maria welcomed Jews into the hospitality house. Jews asked Father Dimitri to issue false baptismal certificates to them, which he willingly did, registering the “baptisms” in the parish register assuming the Gestapo would check. They helped provide other forged documents to help Jews travel out of Nazi-occupied territory. Mother Maria and Father Dimitri understood that they risked punishment. When the order came for Jews to wear the yellow star, Maria said, “There is not only a Jewish question, but a Christian question. Don’t you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived.”
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. She smuggled out some children with the aid of garbage collectors who hid them in trash bins. She said if anyone came to their house looking for Jews she would show them the icon of the Mother of God.
In February 1943 Father Dimitri, Yura and Mother Maria were arrested. Father Dimitri and Yura were eventually sent to Auschwitz where they perished. Mother Maria was sent to Ravensbruck where she survived for two years. One of those who knew her in the camp said, “She was the kind of person who made no distinction between people whether they held extremely progressive political views or had religious beliefs radically different than her own.” She was sent to the gas chambers on March 31, 1945, Good Friday, even as the artillery of the advancing Russian Army could be heard signaling the approach of liberation.
Mother Maria Skobtsova wrote extensively, including poetry and theological essays. Her writings in Russian and French are starting to be translated into English. In 2004 the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized her, her son Yura, Father Dimitri, and one other colleague as saints.
Source: “Mother Maria of Paris: Saint of the Open Door” by Jim Forest
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