KUREMÄE, ESTONIA Pühtitsa Dormition Convent
Pühtitsa’s Dormition Convent in the Republic of Estonia is situated near the village of Kuremäe (Stork-mount) between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland, not far from the Russian border. It is located on a site known as Puhitsetud, meaning “blessed” or “sacred” in Estonian, and has its own unique story that inspired the monastery’s founding and St. John’s spiritual and material help.
Byzantine-Russian Orthodoxy was probably the earliest form of Christi- anity in Estonia, with the baptisms of native Seto and Rus peoples occurring in the 11th-12th centuries, and the first Christian church constructed around the same time in Yuryev (now Tartu) (1). In Revel (Tallinn) the Russian Church and cemetery of St. Nicholas was established decades before its earliest written documentation in 1371, when it was described as being situated “between the Oleviste (Church of St. Olaf, King of Norway) and the town wall”. Viking-era hoards have been found in the region, as Estonia was not only on a trade route, but the site of frequent wars between the Estonians and their Swedish, Danish and German neighbors. By 1228 Estonia was a principality of the Holy Roman Empire, and over the next centuries found its territory divided and re-divided between the Poles, Swedes and Danes, with much of the population subjected to Lutheranism at the Reformation. Coming again under imperial Russian rule in the 18th century, Estonia declared its independence in 1920, retaining its sovereignty until invaded by the Soviets in 1939-40, when it was incorporated into the USSR. Twenty-five percent of the population was deported or listed as casualties of World War II. The Republic of Estonia finally obtained its sovereignty in 1991.
Pühtitsa Convent of the Dormition, Estonia.
Pühtitsa Convent was founded on the site of a late 16th-century appearance of the Mother of God to Lutheran shepherds from the nearby village of Kuremäe. The hill where she appeared had been considered a holy place from pre-Christian times, and when they climbed to the summit, the shepherds who had witnessed the appearance found an icon of the Dormition hidden in the fissure of a tree. As Protestants, they no longer venerated icons, but they told their story and gave the icon to local Russian Orthodox, who built a small wooden chapel on the site. The chapel was destroyed several times by Lutheran Swedes, but each time the icon was saved and the chapel rebuilt by native Orthodox who held fast to their miraculous image.
Seventeenth-century Lutheran records preserve the complaints of Protestant pastors about the existence of these Orthodox chapels, and Swedish authorities occasionally resorted to military force to destroy them. Accord- ing to Estonian historian Jaanus Plaat, “In 1699, the Jõhvi pastor reported that people came to the ‘great heretical party’ held in August [the Feast of the Dormition], from several parishes and even from Russia.ii During decades of Lutheran iconoclasm, the icon was intermittently sent to the town of Narva for safekeeping until 1818, when a wooden church dedicated to St. Elijah was built in nearby Vasknarva and the icon was transferred there. Ties between the settlements remained close, however, and an annual thirty-kilometer procession was held on the Feast of the Dormition to carry the icon from Vasknarva to the Pühtitsa chapel. According to Metropolitan Kornelius of the Estonian Church, “The [19th-century] procession was onerous. There was no proper road from the village of Vasknarva to Pühtitsa, only a narrow path that went through marshes and forests. The locals said that people went in single-file and waded through mud up to their knees. They took turns carrying the icon, pressing it to their chests.”
The tradition continues today, with a procession from Vasknarva to Püh- titsa a few days before Dormition, usually on the 26th of August. A later version of the original wooden chapel now stands in the same spot under the great oak outside the monastery gates, and the icon is enshrined a few hundred meters away in Pühtitsa Monastery’s Dormition Church. Petitions continue to be answered and healings occur five hundred years after the icon’s finding, and a second Dormition procession with the icon is held every August 15/28 from the church to the holy healing spring at the bottom of the hill for a moleben, and then back to the church.
Chapel with old oak where the Pühtitsa Dormition Icon was found.
Estonia was remanded to Russian control in 1721 after the Great Northern War, and in 1888 the Russian Orthodox Church sent a nun from Kostroma’s Ipatiev Monastery to found a convent in Kuremäe. Overriding objections from local German Lutheran landowners, Prince Sergei Shakhovskoy, the governor-general of Estonia, sponsored the foundation, which was formally established in 1891 as the Pühtitsa Convent of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The convent’s main church was designed and built by Mikhail Preobrazhensky in the Russian Revival style. There are six other churches in the monastery, which today resembles a small village.
After the Russian Revolution the newly independent Estonian government confiscated much of the monastery’s farm land, and at the outset of World War II Estonia was occupied and annexed to the USSR. Although monasteries were closed throughout the Soviet Union, and in World War II a German concentration camp for Russian, Estonian, Jewish and other prisoners was set up on monastery territory, Pühtitsa was not closed. It is nothing short of a miracle that throughout the persecution and vicissitudes of the Russian Revolution, Estonia’s annexation by the USSR, and two world wars, Pühtitsa was one of the very few Russian monasteries to have a continuous monastic presence throughout the 20th century. Thus it is a double treasure for pilgrims, for it is one of a few Russian women’s convents, and the only one associated with St. John of Kronstadt, to have an unbroken tradition from before the Russian Revolution.
St. John of Kronstadt and the Founding of Pühtitsa Convent
Saint John not only nurtured the convent’s founding, but often came himself to help form the spiritual and community life of the sisters. They in turn trusted him implicitly. As one sister relates, “Even after his repose, when his memory was reviled under a dark cloud of Soviet misinformation, there was not a single cell, or hardly a home in the nearby village where a portrait of “dear Batiushka,” as the sisters called him, did not hang next to the icons.”
Saint John’s commemoration days—Oct.19/Nov.1 (his birthday and translation of the relics of his patron saint, St. John of Rila) and Dec. 20/Jan.2 (the day of his repose)—were celebrated as monastery feastdays even before his canonization.(2) Monastery and farm work came to a halt, and after Divine Liturgy and a panikhida (memorial service) for Fr. John, a festive trapeza of baked fish, mushroom and potato piroshky, and sweet rolls baked in the archpastor’s memory was provided for the sisterhood, monastery workers, and guests. Panikhidas for Fr. John and Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg were served at other times as well, and when the monastery experienced sorrows and difficulties, help always arrived through their intercession.
Walking up the hill towards the monastery entrance, there is a tiny wooden chapel under an old oak tree to the right, which Fr. John called the “Oak of Mamre” and next to which he loved to pray. The chapel commemorates the 16th-century finding of the monastery’s great treasure on this site—the miracle-working Dormition Icon of the Mother of God. In the archway (the “Holy Gates”) leading into the monastery, the pilgrim is welcomed with frescoes of the finding of the miraculous Dormition icon and of St. John of Kronstadt.
The view from the Holy Gates opens onto Dormition Church, built with the blessing of Fr. John. Returning from the holy spring one day together with Abbess Barbara, he pointed to the monastery, saying, “Matushka Barbara, look at what a beautiful church we have on top of the hill.” The new church, which he saw as if it already existed, eventually replaced the original small monastery church dedicated to the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God.(3)
The holy treasure of the monastery, the miracle-working icon of the Dormition miraculously found in the 16th century, is given central place in the cathedral. As in the time of St. John of Kronstadt, on the Feast of the Dormition August 15/28, an assembly of hierarchs, clergy, sisters, and thousands of pilgrims still process with the icon from the church to the holy spring at the bottom of the hill.
Another icon in the Dormition church associated with St. John is a beautiful miracle-working Vladimir icon of the Mother of God, painted on Mt. Athos as a gift and blessing for Pühtitsa monastery in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Fr. John’s ordination to the priesthood in 1895. The large icon (175 x 105 cm.) required a decree from Tsar Nicholas II for its transfer from the Holy Mountain. The cathedral is also graced with a second icon painted on Mt. Athos, at the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon in 2000. The icon depicts St. John of Kronstadt and was given by the monastery brotherhood as a blessing for Pühtitsa convent.
A fourth highly-prized icon, the Pühtitsa Icon of the Mother of God “At the Spring”, is also connected to the archpastor. In 1894, one of Pühtitsa’s sisters painted the icon as a gift for Father John’s name day, portraying the 16th-century appearance of the Mother of God. The icon was presented by the sisters with the inscription, “To Archpriest Father John (Ilyich) Sergiev, the work of painters from Dormition Convent on the Holy Mount, Estlyand Province, October 19, 1894.” Father John kept the icon until his repose, after which it was cared for by a pious couple in St. Petersburg, and finally by a nun from the then-closed Convent of St. John of Rila in St. Petersburg, also founded by Fr. John. During those dark decades, the nun guarding the icon had a dream in which the Mother of God instructed her to return the image to Pühtitsa. This only became possible after the nun’s death in 1946, when the icon was received with great reverence by the sisters.
In 2006, to commemorate the appearance of the Mother of God and the finding of the icon, His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II established the feast of the Pühtitsa Icon of the Mother of God on June 18/July 1, which is celebrated annually at the monastery with ever-growing numbers of pilgrims. On the eve of the feast, an akathist is sung antiphonally by two choirs and after morning liturgy the icon is carried in procession to the site where the Theotokos appeared in the 16th century.
Remembering Saint John
According to the older generation of nuns, when Fr. John came to the convent the sisters decorated the belfry and the guesthouse with colored lanterns. The train from St. Petersburg would arrive at the nearby station at 2:00 AM, and the entire sisterhood along with pilgrims would wait for their spiritual father at the gate, where he was greeted with the ringing of church bells. As he approached, the sisters would begin the Lenten stichera, “Behold, the Bridegroom Cometh at Midnight”. Always “cheerful, shining and infinitely benevolent,” Fr. John would step out of his carriage and bless each person awaiting him, then accompanied by the sisters he would first go to church to serve a moleben before the Dormition icon, and only then retire to his cell for a short rest. By 4:00 am the sisters had gathered in church for the midnight office, and two hours later Father John would arrive to start Matins, always reading the canon aloud himself. After hearing confessions he would celebrate the liturgy, and give Holy Communion to the sisters.
Although Fr. John reposed before the Dormition Church was completed, he did participate in the 1895 hierarchical consecration of the nearby trapeznaya Church of Saints Simeon and Anna and served many liturgies for the sisters. One monastery tradition holds that once as Fr. John was preparing the holy gifts for liturgy during the Proskomedia, he cut his finger. When it bled, he prophesied: “This monastery will stand to the end of the ages; blood will be shed for Christ on this mountain, there will be martyrs.” He later predicted both world wars and everything that would happen to the monastery. “Hold to the grass, the enclosure will save,” he said to the first sisters.
Father John also frequently visited the small church dedicated to St. Sergius of Radonezh, built in 1895 over the tomb of the monastery’s first patron, Prince Sergei Shakhovskoy, where he served panikhidas in the presence of the Duke’s wife, Elizaveta Dmitrievna.
St. John’s Memorial Room
A short walk from Dormition Church and across from the trapeznaya is a hospice housing elderly and ill sisters. On the second floor are three small rooms, dedicated to the history of Pühtitsa Convent and containing a number of Fr. John’s personal belongings. As the pilgrim enters the first of these quiet light-filled rooms, the door creaking on its hinges, a standing wardrobe to the right displays two of Fr. John’s podrazniks, one a blue velvet and the other an off-white linen podraznik for summer. The cabinet is dominated, however, by a large black wool fur-lined winter ryasa, so heavy that it is difficult to lift. Much of Fr. John’s ministry was on foot or in sledges or open horse-drawn cabs, and such warmly-lined ryasas were indispensable to avoid frostbite in the bitter cold of northern Russia. Next to the cabinet is a portrait of Fr. John wearing the same ryasa.
Gatehouse, Pühtitsa Convent.
Other of St. John’s possessions on display include small personal items such as portraits, letters, a cane, icons, and a carefully-kept Gospel. Here also is his archpriest’s mitre, pectoral cross and the Nativity vestments in which he served at Pühtitsa, as well as a cross presented to him by Tsar Nicholas II.
Father John deeply loved Pühtitsa. “Kiss this land,” he would say, “it has been blessed by the appearance of the Theotokos.” Eventually Fr. John sent over fifty of his spiritual daughters to the monastery to live under the guidance of the Mother Superior Varvara and her successor Abbess Alexia. According to the monastery chronicle, he would often send them off with the exhortation, “Go to Pühtitsa, it is just three steps away from the Heavenly Kingdom.” The third Pühtitsa abbess, Rev. Mother Joanna (Korovnikova), was Fr. John’s goddaughter and the daughter of his church warden at St. Andrew’s Cathedral who had come to Pühtitsa as a young girl. One of the museum’s books inscribed by St. John reads: “To the pious maiden Anna Alexeevna Korovnikova with a blessing. Archpriest John Sergiev. October 1, 1890.”
In 2008, for the 100th anniversary of the repose of St. John of Kronstadt, the monastery issued its first in-house Russian publication, Pühtitsa Convent and its Protector, the Righteous Saint John of Kronstadt. Drawn heavily from the monastery Chronicles, the book recounts Fr. John’s visits to the convent, including passages of his letters to the convent’s first two abbesses, and the memoirs of sisters who knew him.
From the first days of the monastery’s existence the sisters provided for themselves and the pilgrims with their own hands by farming and raising animals. They participated in the monastery’s construction, and as the sisterhood grew, Pühtitsa eventually supported a community of lay medical nurses (Sisters of Mercy), a free clinic, pharmacy, an orphanage, and a school where girls could be educated to age eighteen. Father highly appreciated the labor of the sisters, and held them up as an example to others, saying: “The sisters in Pühtitsa are walking towards the Heavenly Kingdom with huge steps”. In later years, walking around the monastery cemetery where the first nuns were already buried, Fr. John would take off his hat and bow first to one side, and then to the other, saying to the sisters: “You have many relics resting here!”
Father John guided, instructed, and healed the sisters through his prayer. He concerned himself with their everyday needs as well as spiritual guidance, and his letters to the first abbesses often ended with such instructions as, “I am sending 500 rubles to buy flour and provisions… and am asking you to take care to provide good nutrition.”
Statue of St. John of Kronstadt in house-museum garden.
Sister Lyudmila’s Healing
Next to the wardrobe in the memorial room is a small chair on which Fr. John sat one day when he healed a novice close to death, a story that her spiritual daughter, Nun Ioasipha (Malyarova) repeated for sisters and pil- grims until her own repose in 1990:
My eldress, Nun Lyudmila (Kulikova), who entered the monastery at the age of 16 in 1892, used to recall her miraculous healing by Fr. John from a deadly disease. As a young novice, Sister Lyudmila was given the obedience to bring bricks by boat from the village of Skamya two kilometers from the monastery on the Narova River. Once, after loading the bricks, she slipped getting into the rowboat and fell into the icy water of the river. It was October and the water near the shore had already begun to freeze. Wet and chilled through, it took her several hours to get back to the monastery, and from the exposure she developed a consumptive lung condition. She was admitted to the hospital, but soon sent home with the words: “Prepare her for the long journey.” Father John arrived at the monastery shortly after, and Mother Superior Alexia asked him
to bless the sick novice. She was carried to the abbess’ quarters, and Fr. John sorrowfully shook his head: “What a sick girl, what a sick girl”.
Without turning his gaze away, he touched her chest and drew his fingers together as if gathering up the edges of a piece of fabric. Lamenting and praying, he touched another spot on her chest as if he was closing up invisible wounds, and then blessed the novice, saying simply, “Thank God, you will live and live long!” With the blessing of Fr. John, Lyudmilla was carried to church, where she lay behind the harmonium listening to the service. By the end of vigil she was able to sit up, and during the morning liturgy the sisters helped her to approach Holy Communion. After Fr. John gave her Holy Communion, she was able to walk to her cell without help.
St. John of Kronstadt.
The following year, the abbess went to Revel (Tallinn), taking Mother Lyudmila to be checked by the doctor who had predicted her death.
He was very surprised to see his patient recovered and after examining her X-rays, shook his head saying: “I do not understand this at all. You were sure to die. Your lungs were laced with holes, but some mighty hand repaired it…. A great miracle was accomplished for you.” Mother Lyudmila lived until 1966, dying peacefully at the age of 90.
Schemanun Sergia: Childhood Healing
Schemanun Sergia (Andreeva), who was born in 1900, also told the story of her wondrous recovery from a severe illness through Fr. John’s prayers: “As a child my family lived in Finland, and when I was five, I broke my leg. It was a complex fracture and although my parents took me to different doctors who did what they could, the leg remained weak. After a year I could hardly move, even with crutches. From Finland we went to Fr. John of Kronstadt, who sat me on a little chair. My mother cried out, ‘Father, heal her leg!’ Father moved his hand three times along my injured leg and said, ‘She will walk, but she will not be completely healthy’. Then he brought a prosphora and gave it to me. I was very glad about Father’s gift of prosphora, and we returned home consoled. On the way back, I hardly needed the crutches, and when we arrived home I began walking slowly by holding to the walls. To the great surprise of my parents, I began walking without the crutches and even running. When I turned eighteen Father John blessed me to join the monastery.”
Sister Sergia spent almost seventy years in the monastery at different obediences including caring for the farm animals and as a choir director for the monastery. Before her repose in 1985 she was tonsured into the Great Schema.
Father John spiritually strengthened the community with each visit, and as he wrote to Mother Alexia, the second abbess, “I pray God that in Pühtitsa, with the protection of the Heavenly Queen, there will be a blossoming of truth, sanctity and piety amongst the sisters.”
That God did protect the monastery was demonstrated during a visit of a local commissar during the years of Soviet occupation. Telling villagers that he was going to arrest the abbess “and drag her out tied to my horse,” he arrived at the monastery hostile and belligerent. The abbess came out and received him calmly, upon which he demanded food and drink. The commissar drank so much that he left without doing anything, and on the way home the unfortunate man fell from his horse in his drunken stupor and was himself dragged on the ground until dead.
Former Abbess Varvara with young pilgrim.
After World War II, the monastery managed to stay afloat through the last difficult decades of the Soviet period. From 1968 to 2011 the sisterhood flourished under the capable hand of Abbess Varvara, who drew many young Russian and Estonian nuns after the fall of Communism. Today, guided by Pühtitsa’s eighth abbess, Rev. Mother Filareta, pilgrims continue to be moved by the legacy and spiritual protection of St. John of Kronstadt, and the sisters apply to him the words of another luminous 20th-century wonderworker, St. John Maximovitch: “Tell the people, even though I died, I am alive!”
To reach Pühtitsa Monastery by public transport, take a plane or train to Tallinn, Estonia. From Tallinn’s central bus station at Lastekodu 46, there is a direct bus to Kuremäe, the village outside the monastery, once a day on Monday and Friday. On other days you can take a bus from Tallinn to Johvi, and then local bus 116 to Kuremäe, which makes the round trip several times a day. Tell the driver you want to get off as close as possible to Pühtitsa Monastery.
(1) Yuryev is illustrative of the multi-cultural history and Orthodox influence in Estonia: the first documented record of the area was made in 1030 by chroniclers of Kievan Rus when Yaroslav I the Wise, Prince of Kiev and son of St. Vladimir the Great, built a fort there and named it Yuryev after his own patron saint, St. George. Yaroslav I had strong ties with Scandinavia as he had been in exile at the court of the first Swedish Christian King, Olof Skötkonung, and had married Olof’s daughter Ingegard. Ingegard in turn became St. Anna of Novgorod.
(2) St. John of Kronstadt was formally canonized by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990. He had previously been recognized as a saint by the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1964. His feast days are Oct.19/Nov.1 (his birthday and translation of the relics of his patron saint, St. John of Rila) and Dec. 20/Jan.2 (the day of St. John of Kronstadt’s repose).
(3) Another famous icon, that of the Pühtitsa icon of the Smolensk Mother of God gave its name to the original convent church and was highly venerated by St. John and the sisterhood. It still occupies a prominent place in the newer Dormition Cathedral. The foundation of Dormition Cathedral was laid by St. John, but he did not live to see its completion.