In 1873, in the Tula and Kaluga region of Russia (just south of Moscow) a wealthy landowner had a daughter and named her Sophia Grineva. Sophia was raised in the countryside. When her lawyer father died, Sophia and her brothers and sisters went to stayed for a while in a convent in Belev (their hometown) because the abbess there was their old governess. The children also often visited the Optina Monastery, where they would play “monastery” together and Sophia would be the “abbess.” When Sophia was 12, Elder Anatole of Optina called her “abbess,” which came true when she was older. Sophia grew, and when she became a young lady, she had a very beautiful singing voice. She was sent to a music school (called a conservatory) so that she could become an opera singer. This is not really what she wanted to do, though: she wanted to become a monastic.
Near the Grineva family’s estate, there was another wealthy family, the Znamenskys. They had a daughter named Anna who, like Sophia, was now grown up and had finished all of her years of school. Instead of following the wealthy lifestyle she could have had, Anna chose to live in a way that allowed her to spend more time in prayer and service to God. She began to teach in the village school. Because of how much Anna loved God, she would gather people together and give spiritual talks and then they would sing akathists together. Hundreds of people came to those gatherings, and Sophia Grineva was one of them. Anna and Sophia came to be very close friends. One night after one of their gatherings, Sophia was on her way home. It was late at night, and it was dark. She was very frightened when she suddenly came upon a wolf. There was no one nearby to help her, and she thought she would die! In those days, the wolves were hungry, and they had already killed some large animals like cattle, and one had even recently killed an armed officer. As Sophia faced what she thought was her last moment, she prayed and asked God to save her. She promised to become a nun if He did. Then, she made the sign of the cross over the wolf. Immediately the wolf turned and ran away into the woods! She was saved!
Not long after that, Sophia got sick. She had a kind of diphtheria that made her lose her voice. She was not just sick: she was also very upset because her voice was gone, so the doctors suggested that she should go to Switzerland to recover. But her friend Anna had recently begun a monastery on a piece of her family’s land, and she invited Sophia to stay with her and the other sisters at the monastery until she was well enough to travel to Switzerland. Unfortunately, Sophia got sicker while she was staying there. It got to the point once when the sisters called the elder who was serving at the monastery. He came to give Sophia her last confession and communion. Since she could not speak, Sophia just cried on the comforting elder, who then gave her communion. After she communed, Sophia fell asleep.
When she woke up, Sophia could speak again! The community offered a thanksgiving service right away, and she began to completely recover. After that miracle, Sophia did not want to go back into the world: she wanted to become a nun and serve God for the rest of her life. So she stayed in the convent with Anna and helped the sisters cut down trees, chop firewood, dig a well, and build a church dedicated to the Holy Trinity where they could offer the daily services. It was a hard but good life and the monastery grew quickly! Unfortunately, Matushka Anna was so successful that she was lured away from the true Faith, and fell into spiritism. She left the convent, and some of the other sisters left, too. Sophia went to another convent, St. Nicholas Convent, where Elder Gerasimus of Kaluga was in charge. Fr. Gerasimus’s spiritual son was given the name Gerasimus as well, and he and Sophia developed a spiritual friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.
Sophia and another sister left that convent and started another community on the bank of the Oka River in an abandoned church. The sisters lived in poverty, but offered up daily services and worked hard. The way that they lived inspired others, and before too long a new monastic community began. It was dedicated to the Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos that is called “Comfort and Consolation,” and the people who benefitted from the community’s presence included local factory workers (most of whom used to be prisoners).
Sometime after that, the church leaders asked Abbess Sophia to be in charge of the Protection of the Mother of God convent in Kiev. This was a big move for the abbess, and she would need to leave the community that she had started, but she obeyed and went. Even though she was now in charge of one of the largest convents in Russia, Abbess Sophia still lived simply and purely. It didn’t take long for the sisters in the monastery to love the Abbess. She was kind and generous. If someone needed something and came to her, they got help. She supported everyone. Because of how Abbess Sophia acted, everyone loved her.
It was at this time that the Soviet Revolution began. The government tried to change the Church and the monastery. Several times, Abbess Sophia was arrested and released for various reasons. Finally she and a few sisters and some clergy members, including Fr. Dimitry Ivanov went to live in the Kiev suburbs summer home of Mrs. Barbenko, a wealthy lady who offered her home, near a miracle spring that had just been discovered, to the community. Inside the house where the nuns lived, there was a large hall full of pointings. Every night, they would secretly take down the paintings, replace them with icons, and hold Divine services in the hall. In the morning, they would put the paintings back up so no one knew that this was now a secret church! They even used special language to communicate with those outside about the community. Abbess Sophia called Metropolitan Sergius “Dr. Sergiev;” churches “clinics and drugstores;” and Holy Communion “treatment” in some of her letters to others. Above all, the abbess tried to live a pure Orthodox monastic life. She and some of the clergy continued to be put in and out of prison. Once time, when she and Bishop-Confessor Damascene were both out of prison, he tonsured her in the Great Schema. This was around 1934: we know because there’s a picture of Mother Sophia and her flock, taken then, with the Bishop-Confessor.
And then things got worse for the Orthodox Christians. Mother Sophia’s priest-friend Fr. Dimitry was arrested and beaten many times for his beliefs and for his sermons. Finally, he was sent to live far in the north of Russia, in the city of Archangelsk. His wife went along and was with him when he finally got so weak that he fell down in the middle of a street and died in the home of a Jewish doctor who was trying to help him. Other members of the community were arrested and sent far away, as well.
Abbess Sophia was arrested before the rest of the community, and she was sent from one prison to another. She became sick with asthma and other diseases. But even though she was sick and in prison she kept telling people about her Orthodox Christian faith! One time a lady asked the Abbess to talk to her son, who did not believe in God. The man was an engineer, very smart, and very stubborn. Mother Sophia talked to him about the Orthodox faith, and it was not an easy discussion. But the Abbess prayed for him and kept talking, and a miracle happened: the man’s disbelief was shaken so strongly that he became a believer, left his job, and became a pilgrim, praying the Jesus Prayer!
Abbess Sophia became so sick that they released her from prison so she could go die. On the morning of March 22, 1941, while living with some of her spiritual daughters on a farm near Serpukhov, the Abbess asked to be left alone. She had not eaten for several days and was exhausted, but wanted to read her favorite book, the Gospel. The sisters could hear her coughing and gasping for air for 3 hours, as she read. Then she turned to look at an icon, closed her eyes, and departed this life.
Throughout her life, Abbess Sophia chose to love God and follow Him to the best of her ability. She knew that doing so would get her into trouble with the government, but she did not panic or worry: instead, she happily loved and served God by helping those around her to have what they needed, and to know more about God and His Holy Church.
Saint Sophia, Abbess of Kiev, please pray for our salvation!
Here are additional resources that can help you as you prepare to teach your Sunday Church School students about Abbess Sophia of Kiev:
Read more about Abbess Sophia of Kiev’s life here:
Find Abbess Sophia of Kiev’s story with a few pictures here: http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/11/abbess-sophia-of-kiev-canonized.html
There are more pictures of Abbess Sophia here, but the page is in Russian. (If you do not speak or read the Russian language, allow your computer to translate it for you. Enough of the text will translate for you to be able to get a basic idea of what each picture’s caption says.) http://idrp.ru/igumeniya-sofiya-kievskaya-ispovednica-lib47/
Here is an icon of Abbess Sophia of Kiev:
Share Abbess Sophia of Kiev’s life with younger students. You could do so using a series of pictures. For example, find pictures to illustrate the main parts of her life (a map of the Moscow area showing where Tula and Kaluga are; a photograph of a convent and/or children playing “nuns,” a picture of a woman singing opera, a wolf, etc.) and show each pictures as you share her story. When you finish, ask each student to select a photo and retell that part of the abbess’ life.
Talk with your middle years students about Abbess Sophia of Kiev’s life. Encourage them to think about what life was like for the abbess and her fellow monastics, living under the Soviet Revolution. Provide writing supplies and challenge your students to write a letter. It could be a letter to the Abbess herself; or a letter that she may have written during her life (say, to her friend Anna); or a letter to one of their own friends about your church, using the same “secret medical language” that the abbess and her friends used to communicate when they wrote letters. After they have finished writing, allow time for students to read their letters aloud if they want to do so.
Before sharing the life of Abbess Sophia of Kiev with older students, encourage them to look for a theme in her life. After telling them her story, ask your students this question: If they could describe the abbess in one word, or short phrase, what would it be? Then offer each of them a copy of this quote about her:
Talk together about what Abbess Sophia’s life must have been like in order for this to be said of her. Brainstorm together and think of ideas of how each member of your class, in this hostile-to-Christianity culture can live in such a way that this could be said of you. Encourage each student to write or draw as many ways as they can think of to live in that way in the margins around the quote.