I wish I could embrace the whole world with love…
Grand Duchess Alexandra Petrovna, Nun Anastasia
In the blessed land of Kiev, the third earthly destiny of the Mother of God, new women’s monastery blossomed in 1889, as predicted by venerable St. Theophilus of Kiev, ascetic of Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, nearly half a century ago. He often liked to come for a lonely prayer in the shady gardens, which became the site of Pokrovsky monastery. Speaking to the owner of the estate one day, he said an inspired prophecy that this place will become a women’s monastery, and the royal person will be the founder and the ruler.
Panorama view of Kiev-Pokrovsky convent. 1912
At that time in St. Petersburg, in the family of Prince Oldenburg, the first child Princess Aleksandra-Frederica-Vilhelmina was born. Nobody could predict that this most august baby will have the future of the orthodox devotee and founder of a monastery.
Princess Aleksandra Petrovna was born on May 21, 1838. Her loving father and mother were committed to provide good education to their daughter. Aleksadra’s drawing skills were remarkable. She also studied history, music, and literature. Even in young years, she followed the example of her parents and gave out all her “pocket” money to hospital patients and poor children.
At the age of 17, the Princess married Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, the third son of Emperor Nicholas I. Aleksandra was born in a Protestant family and shortly before the wedding she converted to Orthodoxy. She devoted all her life to Orthodox faith.
Young Grand Duchess Aleksandra
The magnificent palace named Nikolaevsky was built for a young married couple as well as the summer residence in Znamenka, in vicinities of Peterhof, was given to them. The couple lived in love and consent, enjoying family happiness, and had two sons – Grand Dukes Nikolai (1856-1929) and Peter (1864-1931).
However, brilliant royal life did not attract the young Duchess. Only the opportunity to execute in practice the Christ’s precept about love to people gave her true sincere joy. Soon after marriage, with financial support of the spouse, Aleksandra opened the first-aid post for peasants in Znamenka where she received patients, provided free drugs, applied bandaging, and visited patients at home.
In November 1858, Grand Duchess founded the Pokrovsk community of sisters of mercy in St. Petersburg and became its trustee.
The community represented the whole town. Its thirty buildings included premises for sisters of mercy, a maternity shelter, hospital, outpatient clinic, a drugstore, and school for nurses. The community not only provided free medical care to poor people but also cared of education and further employment for their children and orphans.
For a long time, Grand Duchess was the chair of children’s shelters Council at the Department of Empress Maria institutions. Thanks to her efforts, the department received enough income to support 23 large and comfortable children’s shelters for 5 thousand orphans.
The seemingly happy grand ducal marriage did not pass the time test. After the birth of their second son, which hardly did not cost loss of life for mother, her spouse became emotionally distant and demonstrated indifference and hostility. It is hard to imagine how many sincere sufferings and torments the Grand Duchess experienced.
During the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878, Aleksandra Petrovna organized a medical unit in Nikolaievsk palace involving different social groups to help the front.
The Grand Duchess Aleksandra Petrovna Romanova
Soon the unforeseen happened. Once, when the Grand Duchess rode along the city, the scared horses rushed and overturned the carriage. Aleksandra Petrovna fell on stone blocks and got a serious spinal injury. The trauma was aggravated by nervous shock, and there came a serious long illness. Grand Duchess was paralyzed and could move only her left hand. The medicine was powerless. Doctors insisted on moving to a different climate. At the end of 1880, Aleksandra Petrovna left the northern capital of Russia and went by sea from Sevastopol to Italy. She lived some time in Naples and Corfu and received treatment in southern health resorts, but did not recover. All doctors’ efforts did not bring any results. Her heart missed the beloved homeland.
The Grand Duchess wished to visit the shore of the Sacred Athos Mountain on the way back to Russia. On June 18, 1881, the steamship “Eriklik” stopped at pier of the Russian St. Panteleimon Monastery. Aleksandra Petrovna had meetings with the hegumen of the monastery archimandrite Makari and accompanying monks who served liturgies and prayers in the church during a week. The monks noted Grand Duchess’ genuine modesty, piety, high Christian love, and graceful simplicity. During Aleksandra Petrovna’s stay at coast of Athos the brotherhood of the Russian Prophet Elijah skete asked her to put the first stone in foundation of the new cathedral which they wished to build instead of the old one destroyed by an earthquake.
The Grand Duchess responded with readiness and asked the accompanying her rear admiral Golovachov to send the foundation stone with an inscription to be laid in the cathedral basis on June 22. The church had two chapels: main church of Prophet Elijah and the side chapel of Martyr Alexandra the Empress, the heavenly patroness of the Grand Duchess.
Aleksandra Petrovna remembered the time spent at the Athos cost as the best days of the life. The connection with devotees of the Holy Mountain was treasured by her until her death.
Upon return from long voyage, Grand Duchess chose the sacred Kiev as a place of her residence. Family problems, adverse climate, and serious illness prevented her from returning to the capital. She accepted the new opportunity to live near the orthodox shrines with sincere joy.
First Aleksandra Petrovna lived in Mariinski imperial palace and then moved to the house rented for her in the aristocratic area of Lipki. After a while, she founded a small secluded monastery there.
Despite a serious illness, the Grand Duchess tried to visit the Kiev shrines, temples and monasteries. The pilgrims noted her modesty and simplicity.
Spending time in solitude prayer, she never stopped thinking about establishing a women’s monastery in Kiev. In 1888, the Grand Duchess bought a plot of land in Lukyanovka district previously owned by G.I. Dikovsky and P. Ya. Alpatova. Thus, the prediction of Venerable Theophilus of Kiev foretold almost half a century ago has fulfilled.
When Aleksandra Petrovna learned about the prophesy after purchase of this estate, she served memorial service on Theophilus’ grave in Kitayevo and since then revered his memory.
The place of future monastery construction as well as laying the foundation of Grand Duchess’s residency and house church were consecrated on January 11 (24), 1889. This date is considered the official date of founding the Kiev-Pokrovsky convent.
The construction works were carried out within a short time. The Lord blessed good intentions of the Grand Duchess. She participated in the most active way in creating and coordinating the monastery life, putting a lot of efforts in it. Her son Grand Duke Peter Nikolaievich, famous for his outstanding arts talent, created outline sketches practically of all monastic buildings and temples. Its development was carried out by the diocesan architect Vladimir Nikolaievich Nikolaiev.
The entire monastic settlement was built within a year. On May 14, 1889 Aleksandra Petrovna addressed to the metropolitan Platon with the request to officially establish the monastery.
At that time, the monastic ensemble included the building of monk cells with the adjacent beautiful Church of the Protection of the Mother of God as well as twelve other buildings. They maintained the hospital with house church, parish school for girls, a shelter for orphans and poor children, a shelter for blind and incurable patients, free outpatient clinic, drugstore with free delivery of drugs, various workshops, etc.
The Holy Synod gave its blessing on establishing the monastery on July 20, 1889. Shortly before it, the Grand Duchess accompanied by her first novices, under protection of family sacred icons, moved from Lipki to monastery in the middle of the night on July 1 (14), 1889. Soon after moving to the monastery, she received a wonderful healing from incurable illness, which had disabled her for about ten years.
Aleksandra Petrovna described this miracle in the letter to Kiev Metropolitan Platon: “Several years ago, the Archbishop of Volyn and Zhitomir Palladium blessed me with a sacred icon of the Pochayev Mother of God and said “Pray before this miraculous icon and you will receive the healing.”
In the morning of early July, I dared to pray to Our Most Holy Lady and begged “If it is Your Will, Mother of God, the Queen of heaven and earth, accept my sinful work and diligence and bless me to serve You and this sacred monastery created in Your name and under Your Holy Protection until my last breath!”
After the prayer, I took the crutches consecrated on the relics of Saint Agapit of Pechersk, but they were much shorter and I could not lean on them. I once again prayed to the Holy Mother of our Lord “Please help me!” then got up, and made several steps.
The great miracle that happened to me, sinful Aleksandra, I kept many days in secret and nobody knew about it even in our holy monastery. Gradually, Holy Mother of God strengthened me and soon everybody learned about God’s great mercy on me. Professor Vladimir Afanasyevich Karavayev used to say that medicine is not able to cure my illness and when he heard about this miracle and my ability to walk given to me by God, he came personally to ensure it and significantly said: “Do not think that it was our help – it was God’s help!” I realized that God’s Will in my recovery was pointing on the long-awaited monastic way. Aleksandra Petrovna sought to serve the Lord with all her heart in the monastic life. Her spouse Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolaievich did not object to her decision. The Emperor Alexander III also gave his consent.
In the fall of 1889, Aleksandra Petrovna received monastic tonsure from the Athos hieromonk who was on his trip to Kiev. It remained deep secret until her death. Only when her Will was opened after her death, everybody learned that she was the nun with the name Anastasia (Greek – “Resurrection”). The Grand Duchess called herself the novice Aleksandra until the end of her life.
The nun of royal descent
Having revived to new selfless life, the royal nun gave all her love to the monastery and suffering people.
The monastic town was expanding every day. It was not easy to manage such large estate financially. The Grand Duchess sold her jewelry to have money for monastery needs. She also wanted to sell the emerald, the most expansive and precious thing to her, as it was the wedding gift of the Emperor Alexander II. There was no buyer for a long time as the price of a stone was very high. The Emperor Alexander III, who respected his aunt’s charitable activities with big warmth, redeemed the emerald when he learned about her intension. As her daughter-in-law recalled later, Grand Duchess explained to her while showing the monastery: “This building is my earrings, here is my necklace, and here are all my rings.” The convent followed the Charter of the Studion monastery – a strict and selfless life of prayer and work.
The sound of bells informed nuns of monastery and inhabitants of Kiev of the beginning of church service. The Duchess-nun prayed constantly at all daily services and quite often read the Six Psalms, hours or a canon. After the service, Pilgrims often received religious readings selected by Grand Duchess, talked to her sharing their needs and griefs, and always received the words of support and consolation. People named it the “Duchess’” monastery. Everyone who came here burdened with griefs, found rest and peace for the soul.
The monastery opened the shelter for orphans and poor children as well as the school for girls, and the most august nun with great attention watched life and progress of pupils. Besides education, girls learned needlework: knitting, sewing, and embroidery. Painting and singing lessons were taught by novices of the monastery under the supervision of Grand Duchess who had excellent drawing skills since her youth.
In spring of 1892, Duchess-nun underwent a complicated breast cancer surgery in the monastic hospital. Although she could use the famous domestic and foreign clinics, she made a principal choice. She was convinced that if monastic clinic is suitable for treatment of other people, it had to be suitable for her treatment as well.
In gratitude to God for a good surgery outcome, the Grand Duchess expanded the existing hospital and transformed it into a larger perfectly equipped surgical clinic for poor patients. The best physicians of the city were invited to work in the hospital.
The Great Mother (as everyone warmly called the Grand Duchess), having gone through many sufferings, chose the hospital to be place of her work and “obedience”.
Princess-nun at the convent hospital
Full of energy and compassion to patients, the Great Duchess assisted the surgeons doing 3-4 operations in a row and standing on the sore feet. Having blessed herself with a sign of the cross, she assisted the doctors quietly and with great determination to fulfill her “obedience.” The royal nun took care of the hospital schedule, food for the patients, prepared them for surgery, and cleaned operating room. She monitored the patients’ progress, registered new ones, washed them, applied bandaging, prepared for operation, and spent nights at the bed of operated patients. The Grand Duchess used to come to the hospital at 6 o’clock in the morning and leave at 12 o’clock midnight.
Even the most scared and nervous patients became calm and confident in the presence of the Great Mother. Simple people and especially children very much appreciated kindness and delicateness of the Duchess-nun and so much believed in her help that wanted to take medicine only from her hands. It was a pleasure for her to respond to their needs.
“Work is a live prayer rope, Evangelical prayer rope… Do your work with love, – the Mother addressed to the young novice, – work courageously and the Lord will return a hundredfold to you. Accept everything with love as from the Lord’s hand and your heart will always be filled with joy. You will forget yourself and live for sufferers.”
“Our service to Church and to the needy people brings much happiness and kindness… It is necessary to live and carry happiness in yourself to make other people happy.” – Grand Duchess said.
Grand Duchess treated ailing people with sincere attention and helped them to develop their abilities so that they did not feel abandoned in the society. For example, 20 blind women were invited to sing daily in a choir during church services in the hospital temple, eulogizing the Lord. Mother’s heart was touched while listening to them: “My blind darlings greatly pleased me. In fact, they have sighted soles and we are shortsighted.”
In August 1894, Duchess-nun successfully underwent the second surgery. Afterwards, the monastic clinics were expanded and improved with upgraded equipment and could accept many poor patients from all over the country providing them with free qualified medical care.
The Great “Matushka” is assisting the surgeon in an operating room
Soon the Grand Duchess moved from the grand-ducal rooms to one of hospital chambers to be closer to the dear patients and continue to serve them. One of novices wrote in the diary about the regal nun: «She taught sisters to care of patients, setting an example not to be squeamish to any odor, purulent wounds of patients, their excrements and vomiting. She washed the dirtiest patients in a bathroom with her own hands. Sisters willingly performed the hospital obedience following their Mother’s example.
The Mother taught them to carry out their work diligently and sincerely, especially if it was related to fulfilling the doctors’ orders concerning patients, it had to be done without personal judgement or reasoning.”
The Duchess-nun wanted to build the monumental cathedral in honor of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker as St. Pokrovsky temple was rather small. The project and sketches of the Cathedral were developed by the Grand Duke Peter Nikolaievich, who deeply respected his mother devotee and supported her undertakings. The technical aspects of construction as well as detailed development of plans and drawings were carried out by the architect V. N. Nikolaiev.
The laying of the foundation stone of St. Nicholas Cathedral took place on August 21, 1896 in an extraordinary solemn ceremony and was attended by the Emperor’s couple. The tsar Nikolay Aleksandrovich laid the first foundation stone in the cathedral basis. The second stone was laid by the Empress Aleksandra Feodorovna and the third stone by the Grand Duchess Aleksandra Petrovna.
St. Nicholas Cathedral and Protection of the Mother of God Church
Their Imperial Highness visited the monastic hospital and Emperor Nicholas II made a generous donation. Those funds were used for construction of the new building of therapeutic hospital with the Church of the Mother of God “All Grieving Pleasure” and a new big outpatient clinic in 1897-1898. The new clinic could accept more than 500 people daily. These medical institutions were named in honor of the Emperor Nicholas II and were the best ones in Europe.
Grand Duchess and all the nuns shared deep sympathy to human grief during typhus epidemic of 1897. Neglecting danger, the regal devotee was the first in Kiev who opened the temporary hospital for hundred typhus women in the monastery. Soon Kiev Pechersk Lavra and Mariinsky community of the Red Cross followed her example. Then city philanthropists hurried to help the sick people and epidemic weakened rapidly and soon absolutely stopped.
Grand Duchess became a merciful mother and sympathizer in human grief. Her heart shared an aromatic oil of compassion with everyone who addressed to her. “I wish I could embrace the whole world with love. I wish my beloved monastery could understand me and would be even more beautiful internally than externally.” – she said before her death. A heavenly monastery was already prepared for this great soul full of God’s love. Even though Grand Duchess wanted to carry out many other plans, the Lord decided differently and called the tireless laborer to His place.
Grand Duchess died on Thursday of the Bright Week on April 13, 1900. The death came to her only to execute the law of human nature and to testify to the whole world the immortality of the righteous sole.
The Great “Matushka”
Memories of self-sacrificing life of the Duchess-nun were passed from generation to generation and continue to surprise contemporaries by the depth of her virtues, self-renunciation, and Christian love that created an imperishable image of eternal glory.
Being the most august relative of the Emperor and having a title of the Imperial Highness, the Grand Duchess relinquished world of luxury and glory for the love to God and to suffering people. The Lord glorified her as a bright example of kindness and love. Because the loving person sacrifices his life for others and stays alive.
The Mother even now invisibly remains in monastery. She belonged not only to the Highest Imperial family, but also to spiritual leaders who live by faith all their lives and become immortal.
Having considered the life, works, miracles and national honoring of the founder of Kiev-Pokrovsky convent, the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church adopted a decision on canonization of the Grand Duchess Aleksandra Petrovna, nun Anastasia, as a locally venerated saint on November 24, 2009.
Her solemn glorification took place during the Divine Liturgy on January 24, 2010, on the date of annual celebration of founding the Kiev-Pokrovsky convent.
The Divine Liturgy and glorification Service were headed by the Most Blessed Metropolitan Vladimir and the clergy concelebrating with him.
Glorification of Venerable Grand Duchess St. Anastasia of Kiev. 24 January 2010
Despite a cold frosty weather, the cathedral was overcrowded. The feeling of presence of the saint was evident to all. When the bishop from an amvon read about the life of Duchess-nun, many had tears in their eyes. People were touched by the distinguished virtues of the modest righteous sole, beauty of her ascetic life, and her real imperial nobility, which belonged to the successors of the kingdom of heaven.
The reliquary with the saint relics of St. Anastasia is established in St. Nicholas Cathedral. People come to the new Saint asking for help in their griefs and illnesses with faith and strong belief that her prayers rise to the golden altar before the Lord’s throne. The Great Mother spreads her protection over all of them healing the sick and giving them strength in carrying the life cross.
The canopy over the shrine with holy relics of Reverend Grand Duchess Anastasia of Kiev
The Saints live in another world and see the God’s glory and beauty through Holy Spirit. They also see our life and our deeds through Holy Spirit. They know our sorrows and listen to our prayers. During the earth life, they learned God’s love from the Holy Spirit; those who have love on the earth, will move into eternal life in the kingdom of heaven where there is a perfect love. If our love to the brother is not forgotten here, moreover, the saints never forget us and pray for us.
… The Lord gave them such a great power that they embrace the whole world with love. (Saint Silouan of Athos)