Note: There is so much information about St. Elizabeth the New Martyr! We have tried to summarize her life below in a way that children can understand. We recommend that you learn even more about this holy saint’s life before you teach your students about her. We could not include everything, and you know what will be interesting to your particular class!
On Feb. 24, 1864, the Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom (daughter of England’s Queen Victoria) had their second daughter, and named her Elizaveta (they called her Ella). Although they were of noble birth and means, the family lived simply, and the girls did chores at home instead of being waited on. The family gave freely to those in need, and the girls often went along with their parents to visit the ill, the orphans, and the infirm. Princess Ella loved beautiful things: flowers, drawing, and lovely music.
When she was only 14 years old, diphtheria made all of her siblings sick, and her mother caught it too after caring for her children when they were sick. Because of this, Princess Ella’s 4-year-old sister and her mother both died. This changed Princess Ella’s life completely. She began to live as an adult and helped her father with the younger children, since her mother was no longer living.
When she was 20, Princess Ella married the grand prince Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, whom she had known since childhood because he and his family would come for visits. When she married, she became a Grand Duchess, and moved to Russia. The now-Duchess continued to live in a manner similar to the one in which she had been raised: going out and meeting the people in her community, and helping them however she could. Now she had new people to meet, a new culture to learn, and a new language: Russian! She very sad when she saw how the serfs (Russian poor people at that time) lived. She had never seen such poverty before! Duchess Elizabeth found ways to help: she provided a much-needed doctor for their community, and also provided as much education as possible for whomever she could.
The Duchess had been raised with strong (Lutheran) Christian faith. Now that she was living in Russia, she encountered Orthodoxy which she knew very little about before moving there. She wanted to understand her husband(and her new people)’s faith, so she began to read and study it. Over time (and especially during a visit to the Holy Lands in 1888) it became clear to her that she wanted to become Orthodox. She wrote a beautiful letter to her father, explaining that she wanted to become Orthodox (her husband was not forcing her to do so). She sent the letter, hoping for her father’s understanding and blessing. He did not understand or bless her conversion. The Duchess really wanted to be Orthodox, though, so she was chrismated into the Holy Orthodox Church on Lazarus Saturday in 1891. She was so happy that she could commune with her husband at last, that year, on Pascha! Later that same year, Duke Sergei and his beloved Duchess Elizabeth were transferred to Moscow, where he was named governor. The two of them loved being together and did as much together as possible. The Duchess continued to love beauty and nature, so she loved when they paid visits to their summer residence at Ilyinsk, outside of Moscow. The sad part of their lives at this time was that they had no children.
In 1894, Nicholas II, who was married to the Duchess’ little sister Alix (Alexandra), became the new (and, sadly, the last) tsar of Russia. The Duke and Duchess took his niece Marie and nephew Dmitri into their home in 1901 and raised them as their own children.
Then in 1905, the Russians entered into war with the Japanese, and life became more difficult for all Russians, including the Duke and Duchess and their protégés. The Duke was constantly receiving threats from revolutionaries, and the Duchess was doing what work she could (organizing women to gather supplies for the Russian armed forces, and visiting the wounded). On Feb. 18, 1905, a revolutionary threw a bomb into the Duke’s carriage, just outside of their mansion, killing him instantly. The Duchess gathered what pieces she could of her husband, accompanied his remains at a prayer service on his behalf, and then immediately went and visited the gravely wounded carriage driver in the hospital so she could put his mind at ease before he died of his injuries.
The next months were difficult for the Duchess and also for Marie and Dmitiri, but the three of them grew closer to each other as they helped each other. The Duchess threw herself into her work.
The very next year, in 1906, Marie married a Swedish prince and Dmitri went off to school. When she wasn’t working, the Duchess began to learn about and visit Orthodox monasteries. The more she learned about the monastic life, the more she wished to rid herself of her worldly goods. She gave many of her things away, and sold some of them to purchase a Moscow estate that became the Martha and Mary Convent of Mercy. She was tonsured, and became an abbess. The now-Abbess Elizabeth opened the convent on Feb. 9, 1909, less than four years after her husband’s passing. The monastery grew quickly from a handful of nuns to nearly 100, all hard-working and dedicated women who prayed and served their community with fervor. Abbess Elizabeth worked and prayed, and she also applied her love for drawing to iconography. The abbess wrote icons for the sisters.
Because of how much the community trusted and loved Abbess Elizabeth and the mothers and sisters of the Mary and Martha Convent, it was a surprise when Red Army soldiers came in and took the abbess away from her convent during Bright Week of 1918. (They captured her because of who she had been when she lived in the world.) She and a handful of other nobles and members of the royal family were kept as prisoners in a school until July 5(18) of that year. The night of July 5(18) they were taken out into a woods and thrown down an empty mine shaft. As she was thrown in, Abbess Elizabeth quoted Christ, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34). Unlike most of the others, Abbess Elizabeth did not fall all 180+ feet to the bottom of the mine shaft. Instead, she landed on a ledge about 45 feet down. Another member of the royal family landed there as well, and was later found with his injuries bandaged (by either her handkerchief or part of her veil, depending on the version you read), so even in the process of being martyred, Abbess Elizabeth was helping others by using whatever she had! The Abbess and her fellow martyrs were heard singing the Cherubic Hymn and other hymns of the church as their executioners threw grenades into the mine shaft and then left them to die.
Months later, that region was safe again for a short time, so the bodies of the martyrs could be rescued from the mine shaft and taken away. They were hidden and secretly moved from place to place until they could be properly buried. Abbess Elizabeth’s body was taken all the way to Jerusalem, which is where she wanted to be buried. It took until 1921 (that’s almost 3 years!) for her body to arrive in Jerusalem. Along the way, her casket was opened a few times so people could care for her body. Each time it was opened, her body was incorrupt, as though she lay there asleep.
Emulating the Lord’s self-abasement on the earth,
You gave up royal mansions to serve the poor and disdained,
Overflowing with compassion for the suffering.
And taking up a martyr’s cross,
In your meekness
You perfected the Saviour’s image within yourself,
Therefore, with Barbara, entreat Him to save us all, O wise Elizabeth.
Additional note: There are many pictures of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr. You may want to print a few from different periods of her life, and show them to your students as you tell her story. Find her story with many pictures here: http://life.orthomed.ru/st-elizabeth/pics/efs_e.htm.
Find additional information about St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, as well as more photographs at these sites: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Elizabeth_the_New_Martyr, http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/princess_elizabeth.htm, http://www.pravmir.com/a-sacrificing-love-new-martyr-grand-duchess-elizabeth/, and http://romanovdreams.tumblr.com/tagged/Elizabeth-Feodorovna.
This picture book tells the story of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr for children ages 7 and up: http://www.stnectariospress.com/holy-new-martyr-elizabeth-grand-duchess-of-russia/
This chapter book tells the story of St. Elizabeth the New Martyr for ages 9+: https://www.amazon.com/Ellas-Story-Duchess-Became-Saint/dp/1888212705
St. Elizabeth the New Martyr is one of the women saints featured in this book: https://holycrossbookstore.com/products/encountering-women-of-faith-i?variant=693862019
St. Elizabeth the New Martyr is among the saints featured in these multi-leveled lessons on defending the faith. http://dce.oca.org/assets/files/mini-units/defenders-of-the-faith.pdf
St. Elizabeth the New Martyr once said, “I long to give thanks, to give thanks every minute for everything that the Lord has given me. I long to bring Him my insignificant gratitude, serving Him and His suffering children.” After studying her life, use this statement as a starting place for a discussion with older Sunday Church School students. What do you each think about her statement? Why do you think she who had – and then lost – everything can give thanks every minute for everything? How can we apply this statement to our own lives?
Talk with your Sunday Church School students about this quote from St. Elizabeth:
http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/st_elizabeth_new_martyr_we_work_pray_hope.pdf St. Elizabeth says we need to work, pray, and hope in order to truly experience God’s mercy in our lives. How did St. Elizabeth demonstrate this with her own life? Together create a list (on a board or whiteboard) of ways that each of you can better experience His mercy through work, prayer, and hope. Give each student their own copy of the quote and encourage them to copy ideas from the list around the border of the quote, to remind themselves of how they can better experience God’s mercy.