“We Must Not Only Remember the Works of St Elizabeth, But Emulate Her”
St Elizabeth Convent is preparing for a remarkable event: from May 20-22, 2018, a great relic will be brought from New York—a reliquary containing the hand of Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth and a part of the relics of Holy Nun Barbara. This will provide a rare opportunity to venerate the Holy Martyrs. The main relics, of course, are kept in the Holy Land—in Gethsemane Convent’s Church of St Mary Magdalene, Equal-to-the-Apostles, where they were brought from the city of Alapaevsk, where on the night of July 18, 1918, along with other martyrs, the Bolsheviks brutally murdered them.
We contacted Protopriest Andrei Sommer, who is leading a delegation bringing the relics to the convent in Minsk, Belarus, to find out more:
-Fr Andrei, we are overjoyed and excited about the arrival of the hand of Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Kindly tell our readers how her hand wound up in New York?
I am the Senior Priest of the Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign,” the cathedra of the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York. Our Synod meets in the building, as well as Councils of Bishops, saints are canonized there. One of the most important events was the glorification of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia in 1981. It was then, on October 31, that the Russian Church Abroad canonized Elizaveta Feodorovna and her companion Nun Barbara. It was for this great celebration that the right hand of St Elizabeth and a portion of the relics of St Barbara were brought to New York from Jerusalem. Since then, a reliquary containing them resides in our cathedral. In 1992, the Council of Bishops canonized the saints as monastic martyrs and established July 15 (July 5 Julian style) as their feast day.
-Tell us, how often does this reliquary leave New York?
Let me start by saying that I have the great honor of venerating the hand of St Elizabeth on a daily basis. It almost never leaves. I think that St Elizabeth herself directed us to Minsk, to St Elizabeth Convent, of which she is heavenly patron.
The reliquary first traveled to Russia 11 years ago, event before the reconciliation of the two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2017, the anniversary of the great tragedy of the Russian people, we were able to bring the relics to St Petersburg’s St Alexander Nevsky Lavra. Symbolically, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Royal Family, St Elizabeth and the other Alapaevsk Martyrs, she will once again leave New York and return to Holy Rus.
-How close do you feel to Grand Duchess Elizabeth? What do you see as her greatest podvig?
It is very important today not only to remember the martyrdom of this great Russian saint of the 20th century, but to think about the essence of her life, for which she was martyred. Although St Elizabeth was not a Russian by blood, she not only converted to Orthodox Christianity but began to live the faith.
It is especially important for today’s young generation to learn about the works of Elizaveta Feodorovna. She opened a new path for us, showing how necessary it is to build one’s life—to travel upon the path of love: help one’s neighbors, sacrifice one’s time and attention for the sake of another. She constantly helped the needy, the poor, she established Marfo-Mariinsky Convent, which at the time was a very complicated thing to do. We must not only remember her works, but emulate her. That way we glorify her in our memory and in our life.
Today’s youth is called “Generation Z” in the West. Of course, they have the desire to help the needy, they have sympathy for their neighbors, but the ultimate result of such help is not always clear. It is important for us to reveal to them how St Elizabeth led her life and the purpose she sacrificed her life—for Christ.
Holy Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna is a great example of selfless assistance to one’s neighbor. By the way, one of the main purposes of the trip to Minsk is to help the needy. Fr Andrei, tell us about who will accompany you to Minks and what their goal is?
Ten young people will accompany me, ages 18-23. These are children of immigrants, first and even third generation, who grew up abroad. Most have never been to Russia. As I prepare them for this trip, I have several goals: this will be a pilgrimage, they will learn about and communicate with Belarussian Orthodox youth, and perform volunteer social services.
Firstly, we will visit an orphanage operated by St Elizabeth Convent. During Great Lent, for the third year now, we ran a wonderful event called “Project Piggy Bank,” in which kids in parish schools of three dioceses of ROCOR brought their own savings to help the orphanage. I am happy to report that we raised a good bit of money from the children of North America. This is the most cherished thing for us to see: children helping other children. They joyfully handed over their own money for the sick children, thereby personally sensing what sacrifice and help for one’s neighbor means. When we come back, a full report will be sent to all the schools, so that the kids can see how and whom they helped.
-That is a great deed! Please extend our deepest respects to all who participated! I am sure that they will share in our joy when they see the results of their help to the orphanage: the sensory park, the petting zoo…
Yes, this is very important. Last year we helped an orphanage in Russia. Children are genuinely gladdened when they see what good their savings do, how they helped others who are in real need of help. Such deeds embolden our kids remarkably, they inspire them to continue to help others.
So we all must remember the centennial of the martyrdom of St Elizabeth, but also follow in her footsteps, emulate her, and answer the question: “Why did she do all this?” For the sake of Christ, for love and empathy for her neighbors! I think that this is how we need to rear our children, our youth, who were practically born with cell phones in their hands. Young people, sadly, don’t always understand the essence of our faith. The world is jostling them in all directions, so we must support them, direct them on the true path, bring them to church and reveal to them the beauty of Orthodox Christianity.
-How was the decision made to bring the reliquary specifically to St Elizabeth Convent in Minsk?
It all happened very naturally. Over the course of several years I had a long-distance relationship with the monastery—from time to time, nuns and their helpers at the convent would visit New York. Through their missionary work, we got to know each other. We grew more interested in the convent with time. Last December, I visited the monastery myself, and we had the idea of bringing the reliquary there. I got to know Fr Andrei Lemeshonko, and of course Metropolitan Pavel, who gave his blessing to bring the relics to Minsk. Metropolitan Hilarion of ROCOR also blessed this endeavor.
-For all the nuns and staff of the convent, the arrival of the right hand of St Elizabeth is a great honor and an inexpressible joy. The nuns are earnestly preparing to greet the reliquary. Do you have any words of guidance for the nuns and pilgrims?
Our youth are preparing for the trip: we are performing akathists and molebens. Thanks to the efforts of the monastic sisters and the convent’s assistants, and the Divine help, all will go smoothly.
The hand of St Elizabeth and relics of Nun Barbra is a special opportunity to bolster the work of the monastics, so they can pray to them, to almost physically see the saints. This is not just a tiny relic, but her actual right hand, which she offered to help others…They should take advantage of this opportunity to draw nearer to St Elizabeth, the “Great Matushka,” both spiritually and physically.