She smoked, she liked her beer, she was twice divorced, and her eldest child was born out of wedlock. She left liturgy to answer the door and refused to serve the people she fed the fasting food that she herself, as an Orthodox nun, was supposed to eat. “They share their food with us nuns as our guests,” she said, rather than as recipients of charity.
St. Maria Skobstova was born Elizabeta Pilenko (her family called her Liza) in southern Russia in 1891. Raised by devout Orthodox, she left the faith at 14 when her father died, because to her it seemed senseless and unjust. Her family moved to St. Petersburg, where she encountered the radical literary circles and found in them people as interested as herself in changing things for what they believed to be the better. Her first book, a collection of poems, was published in 1912, but she became dissatisfied with the members of the group. They were happy to talk revolution and theology for hours, often staying up all night in their discussions, but “seemed to do nothing but talk.” She wanted action. Gradually, she returned to her faith, focusing first on Christ, not as God incarnate, but as a man.
She married in 1910, but left her husband to return to Anapa, her childhood home, in 1913, where she gave birth to her daughter Gaiana, and in 1916, applied for admission to the Theological Academy of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. It was granted, and she was the first woman to ever study there.
In 1918, she married Daniel Skobstova, the man who had saved her from execution. She had been acting mayor of her town when she was arrested and tried on charges of being a member of the Red army. Daniel, her judge, found her innocent of the charges, and released her. She sought him out to thank him, they fell in love and were married within days.
The situation in Russia was becoming worse and worse, as the Bolsheviks gained power, so the entire family, including her mother, left Russia not long after the wedding to escape the turmoil and anarchy of the revolution. They eventually settled in Paris after wandering through Georgia, Tblisi, Istanbul, and Yugoslavia. By that time, Liza had borne two more children – Anastasia, a daughter, and Yura, a son. During the harsh winter of 1926, the family contracted the flu, and all, except Anastasia, recovered. She was diagnosed with meningitis, and taken into the Pasteur Institute, but to no avail. Anastasia’s death deepened Liza’s faith, and gave her a sense of an “all-embracing motherhood.” She threw herself into social work with refugee Russians and into her theological writing, determined to seek a “more authentic and purified life.” Her marriage floundered, and she moved with her mother to central Paris to devote herself to her work.
While it was satisfying and necessary, she still craved more, something she envisioned as a “new type of community, ‘half monastic and half fraternal,’” which would connect spiritual life with service to those in need. She found her craving filled when, in 1932, after a church divorce, she was tonsured “Mother Maria.” Her intention was to “share her life with paupers and tramps,” but she was to do far more than that.
She established a home at 77 Rue de Lourmel and fed up to 120 people a night. The dining room was regularly transformed into a lecture hall where the leading Orthodox thinkers gave classes and lectures and led discussions on the faith. She rented buildings to house the poor and families in need. She opened a sanatorium for tubercular refugees and established schools for children, sought out Russian refugees in mental hospitals and discovered many of them were sane. The language barriers and their poverty had kept them imprisoned. With her help, they were released. She co-founded “Orthodox Action,” an organization which sponsored projects “including hostels, rest homes, . . . camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, and the publication of books and pamphlets.”
It was inevitable that she would become involved saving Jews from the Holocaust. Her priest, Father Dimitri Klepinin, made out baptismal certificates for any Jew who asked, and Mother Maria, Father Dimitri, and her son Yura set up escape routes for them. In 1942, after a mass arrest of Jews, Mother Maria managed to get into the Velodrome d’Hiver, where they were imprisoned before being transported to the death camps, to give what comfort and aid she could. She organized a scheme to smuggle children out in the bottoms of trash cans.
Mother Maria was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and ended up in Ravensbruck, where a survivor recalled that she “was adored by all. The younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.” She survived until April 30, 1945, when she was either selected for the gas chambers, or took the place of someone else who had been chosen to die. Accounts differ, but her friend Jacqueline Pery wrote, “It is very possible that [Mother Maria] took the place of a frantic companion. It would have been entirely in keeping with her generous life. In any case, she offered herself consciously to the holocaust.” She was canonized in 2004, and her feast day is July 20.
St. Maria felt it was her Christian duty to help those in need. “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked,” she said. But she took it further than that – she insisted on treating everyone as “the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” It wasn’t enough to just feed the hungry. “I should say that we should not give away a single piece of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us,” she wrote. And she meant it. Late at night, she would travel to the Parisian market, Les Halles, to a restaurant that stayed open all night. For the price of a single glass of wine, anyone could sit (and sleep) there. It wasn’t unusual for St. Maria to bring several people home from the place, or to tell them, while collecting the food that the merchants in the market donated to her, to come to her house for dinner that night. She would often skip liturgy, or leave it early in order to begin preparing a meal for up to 120 guests.
Her legacy to us is clear: we need to help each other, and look upon everyone – every single human being with whom we interact, whether our family, our friends, or a stranger on the street – not only as a brother or a sister in Christ, but as the very icon of God in the world. For, as she pointed out, “About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person, the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . It fills me with awe.”
By St. Maria:
Silent as a Stone. By Jim Forest – a children’s book about the Trashcan rescue
Pearl of Great Price. By Fr. Sergei Hackel – biography of St. Maria
Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, edited by Hlne Klepinin-Arjakovsky, daughter of St. Dimitri Klepinin, the priest who worked closely with Mother Maria and who also died in a German concentration camp.