‘But I felt I had to stand on my own feet and learn the hard way, for the hard way is the only way. I know from bitter experience where it leads to, to lean on others. It is only when one has learned to stand on one’s own feet, when one has found a solid foundation, that it is wise or good to accept help.’ (I Live Again)
Here’s an unconventional life: A princess, great-grand daughter of Queen Victoria of England and Czar Alexander II of Russia, twice divorced (!), founder of the European equivalent of the Girls’ Scouts, gives up her pampered princess life to found and direct the first English-language Orthodox monastery in rural Pennsylvania. Although she passed away in 1982, her life still inspires, serving as a testament to the attractiveness of the ascetic life that Orthodox theology encourages. Her worldly name was Princess Ileana of Romania, but her tonsured name was Alexandra, eventually she became known as Mother Alexandra as the igoumeni, Abbes, Mother Superior of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pa.
In my opinion, Princess Ileana’s story is a A Blessed Life of Extremes on so many levels. I have personally found Bev. Cooke’s narrative chronicle Royal Monastic: Princess Ileana of Romania: The Story of Mother Alexandra, a most fascinating account of the life of one of the twentieth centuries most unheralded, yet fascinating, persons. Mother Alexandra, formerly Princess Ileana of Romania, lived through two world wars, the communist takeover of her country, and finally saw its liberation. She lived a life of royalty and privilege, yet knew poverty, encountered opulent materialism, yet lived as an Orthodox nun founding a monastery in Pennsylvania in the later years of her life, married twice (!), yet became nun! Mother Alexandra’s experiences were varied and deep to the extent few others can claim. She was, by birth, related to some of the most powerful and historically significant people in modern history, yet never sought celebrity status. If you seek an inspirational biography, read this thrilling tale of love and loss, danger and rescue, sacrifice and reward. For all her shortcomings and ‘falls’, Mother Alexandra’s life stands in so many ways as a beacon of faith and holiness for women of all times and nations to follow.
Ileana was born in Bucharest on 5 January 1909, the youngest daughter of Queen Marie of Romania and King Ferdinand I of Romania. Although it was rumored that Ileana’s true father was her mother’s lover, Prince Barbu Ştirbey, the king admitted paternity. Ileana had four older siblings: Carol, Elisabeth – later Crown Princess of Greece, Princess Maria – later Queen of Yugoslavia – and Nicholas. Her younger brother Mircea was also claimed to be the child of Prince Ştirbey even though the king also claimed to be his father.
Before her marriage, Ileana was the organizer and Chief of the Romanian Girl Guide Movement. Later Princess Ileana was involved in Guiding in Austria and served as president of the Austrian Girl Guides from 1935 until Girl Guiding and Scouting were banned in 1938 after the Anschluss.
Ileana was the organizer of the Girl Reserves of the Red Cross, and of the first school of Social Work in Romania.
She was an avid sailor: she earned her navigator’s papers, and owned and sailed the “Isprava” for many years.
In Sinaia on 26 July 1931, Ileana married the Archduke Anton of Austria, Prince of Tuscany. This marriage was encouraged by Ileana’s brother, King Carol II, who was jealous of Ileana’s popularity in Romania and wanted to get her out of the country. After the wedding, Carol claimed that the Romanian people would never tolerate a Habsburg living on Romanian soil, and on these grounds refused Ileana and Anton permission to live in Romania.
After her husband was conscripted into the Luftwaffe, Ileana established a hospital for wounded Romanian soldiers at their castle, Sonneburg, outside Vienna, Austria. She was assisted in this task by her friend Sheila Kaul. In 1944, she and the children moved back to Romania, where they lived at Bran Castle, near Brasov. Archduke Anton joined them but was placed under house arrest by the Red Army. Princess Ileana established and worked in another hospital in Bran village, which she named the Hospital of the Queen’s Heart in memory of her beloved mother Queen Maria of Romania.
After Michael I of Romania abdicated, Ileana and her family were exiled from the newly Communist Romania. They escaped by train to the Russian sector of Vienna, then divided into three parts. After that they settled in Switzerland, then moved to Argentina and in 1950, she and the children moved to the United States, where she bought a house in Newton, Massachusetts.
The years from 1950 to 1961 were spent lecturing against communism, working with the Romanian Orthodox Church in the United States, writing two books: I Live Again, a memoir of her last years in Romania, and Hospital of the Queen’s Heart, describing the establishment and running of the hospital. [For an introduction to her memoir go here and for the full text here.]
On 29 May 1954, Ileana and Anton officially divorced and she married secondly in Newton, Massachusetts, on 20 June 1954, to Dr. Stefan Nikolas Issarescu (Turnu-Severin, 5 October 1906 – Providence, 21 December 2002).
In 1961, Princess Ileana entered the Orthodox Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God, in Bussy-en-Othe, France. Her second marriage ended in divorce in 1965. On her tonsuring as a monastic, in 1967, Sister Ileana was given the name Mother Alexandra. She moved back to the United States and founded the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, the first English language Orthodox monastery in North America. She was the third female descendant of Queen Victoria to become a Mother Superior in a convent of her own foundation. She served as abbess until her retirement in 1981, remaining at the monastery until her death.
She visited Romania again in 1990, at the age of 81 in the company of her daughter, Sandi.
In January 1991, she suffered a broken hip in a fall on the evening before her eighty-second birthday, and while in hospital, suffered two major heart attacks. She died four days after the foundations had been laid for the expansion of the monastery.
For more photographs about this extraordinary woman and her amazing story of courage and conviction go here.
An Associated Press article about Mother Alexandra
FORMER ROMANIAN PRINCESS FINDS LIFE IS RICHER AS A NUN
By Marcia Dunn
ELLWOOD CITY—Her family jewels are gone and her castle is property of the Communist state, but Romania’s Princess Ileana believes her life is blessed in far greater, grander ways.
The princess, 79, has found peace as the Rev. Mother Alexandra, one of 12 nuns who share food, work and prayer at an Orthodox monastery in rural Western Pennsylvania.
“One’s objects stand in the way,” she said. “I’m freer and richer spiritually, and mentally, too, I hope.”
The nun of 27 years has long since buried her royal roots as founder of The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, the, first English-speaking Orthodox monastery in the United States.
But vestiges of those days remain, even at the monastery.
Portraits of her parents, Romania’s King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, hang in the living room of the A-frame house she shares with another nun.
Gold and silver icons dating back to the 15th century fill a corner of her bedroom. Antique icons also decorate the monastery’s small, candlelit chapel as do crosses and triptychs, some of which she brought from Europe.
A small, gold container on a bed stand holds her most precious possession, a handful of Romanian soil snatched during her escape from Russian Communism in World War II. She wants it buried with her.
“There’s a big gap between then and now. So much has happened in between,” Mother Alexandra said.
“It’s been different so many times over,” she said. “But you see, one lives day by day, doesn’t one? So that really it becomes a sequence of its own and you take it as it comes. Thank God, I always had a really strong faith that carried me through everything.”
She refuses to compare her regal and- religious lifestyles.
“There is no, point,” she said. “I did my duty as a princess. And now I’m doing my duty as a nun.”
Her superiors, nonetheless, are impressed by her example.
“As a person, as an individual, I have admiration because even not having a position, she could have had a social life, which would be much more in keeping with other people of her background,” said Bishop Nathaniel Popp, 47, head of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America.
“Instead of saying she was a princess who became a nun, I think it was more she was a nun coming through the life of a princess,” he said.
Although just a child during the German invasion of World War I, Princess Ileana accompanied her mother, the queen, from hospital to hospital, administering to Romania’s wounded and hungry. By World War II, her parents were dead, her older brother, Carol, had ascended the throne, one sister had become queen of Yugoslavia and another queen of Greece.
Princess Ileana lived in a castle near Vienna, wife of an archduke of Austria and mother of six.
Fearful of the Nazi regime, Princess Ileana and her family moved in 1944 to Romania. There, she set up hospitals and did what she could for her suffering compatriots despite Russia’s growing threat.
On Dec. 30, 1947, her nephew, King Michael, forced by the Communists to abdicate. The next week, Princess Ileana and the rest of the royal family were exiled.
Princess Ileana immigrated with her family to Switzerland then Argentina before settling in 1950 in the United States, a move that ultimately led to divorce. To support her children, she sold her diamond and sapphire tiara, lectured about life behind the Iron Curtain, and wrote the autobiography “I Live Again.”
In 1961, after her children were grown, the 52-year-old princess became a postulant. She ended a second marriage to do so.
“In my heart, I have always wanted to become a nun,” she said. “But there was so much to be done in Romania when I was young.”
Princess Ileana took the monastic vows of stability, obedience, poverty and chastity in 1967 and, with that profession, became Mother Alexandra. Later that year, she put up a trailer on 100 acres of farmland outside Ellwood City and began building an English-speaking monastery for Orthodox women of all ethnic backgrounds.
Even though she has stepped down as the monastery’s abbess, Mother Alexandra’s work goes on. She oversees construction of a new complex to accommodate more activities and the growing number of women drawn to the cluster of redwood buildings on a hill.
Her royal background, surprisingly, has helped her cope with the austerity of monastic life: two-hour prayer sessions three times a day, black habits and headdress, renunciation of the temporal world and ail its trappings.
“As a royal person, you have to be very disciplined,” she said. “From the beginning of your life, you are a public person. You belong to the country. Your own personal amusement does not play any part. Your duty comes first.
From that point of view… I’ve watched the other sisters, the struggles they have I don’t. For me, it isn’t difficult.
What is difficult for her is dealing with the strangers who periodically show up at monastery, hoping for a glimpse of a real-life princess.
“It’s my cross I have to bear,” she said, sighing.
To her sisters in spirit, she is just another nun.
“We live quite equally here,” said the Very Rev. Mother Christophora, the monastery’s abbess.
“Each of us has a background and a past. It’s there and you think about it occasionally,” said the 34-year-old abbess, a former alcoholism counselor from Lopez, Sullivan County. “But most of the time, we’re just getting along, surviving, loving our faith. Of course, that’s the way it should be. We should leave our past behind.”
“Mother Alexandra is a nun, sure. She’s in the garden, in the flowers, digging like everybody else,” said the Rev. Roman Braga, 65, the monastery’s chaplain.
Although she treasures her secular past, Mother Alexandra has no desire to resurrect it by visiting Romania, even if she could. Her passport, British because of her House of Hanover ancestry, is stamped: “You have no right to return.”
“I couldn’t bear to see everything that my parents did, we all did and worked for, destroyed,” she said.
Still, there are times, especially around Romania’s National Day on May 10, when her heart longs for the land she left behind.
“I’ll always be homesick,” she said. “I think that’s an illness of which one is never cured. You accept it like one accepts anything else.
“Besides, what I’m homesick for doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the tragedy.”
Source: Greek American Girl
Tucked in the small village of Voroneț, Romania, you can find the great Romanian Orthodox Voroneț Monastery, one of a string of “painted monasteries” in Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, built mostly in the 15th and 16th centuries. Voroneț Monastery specifically was built in 1488 over a period of 3 months and 3 weeks (!), and is dedicated to St. George. The monastery was abandoned around 1775 due to political instability, and a monastic community didn’t return until more than two hundred years later in 1991. The building is famous for its beautiful frescoes and icons, both inside and out, which is how it got its nickname as the “Sistine Chapel of the East.”
The frescoes at Voroneț feature an intense shade of blue known in Romania as “Voroneț blue”. “The exterior walls — including a representation of the Last Judgment on the west wall — were painted in 1547 with a background of vivid cerulean blue. This blue is so vibrant that art historians refer to Voroneț blue the same way they do Titian red. Monastery of Voronet has been declared World Heritage by UNESCO. Below are some great photos of the beautiful sacred building. Enjoy!
Watch “Monastery Voroneţ” documentary at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1buejr72eY
Source: “The Sistine Chapel of the East”: Romania’s Beautiful Voroneț Monastery http://www.churchpop.com/2015/10/06/the-sistine-chapel-of-the-east-romanias-monastery/
The Romanian Orthodox Church is considering a Romanian monk persecuted by the communists and known as the “saint of Transylvania” for sainthood. … Boca, who became a monk in 1940, was harassed by the Securitate secret police, detained and did forced labor on the Black Sea Canal, a notorious labor camp where tens of thousands of political prisoners worked in the 1950s. In 1959, he was banned from leading worship and the Prislop monastery, where he is now buried, was converted into a retirement home. He was forced to retire from the church in 1968 and spent 15 years painting religious images and icons in the small church of Draganescu in southern Romania. The church’s interiors are now considered among the most beautiful in the country. Elder Arsenie Boca reposed in the Lord in early 1989, a month before Romania’s anti-communist revolt, aged 79. Though he is not yet canonized, Elder Arsenie’s grave, located in Prislop Monastery, is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims every year, where many miracles occur. One miracle which everyone can see is that the flowers over his grave never die or wither , neither in the hot summer or the frigid winter.
For his amazing life, the documentary “Fr. Arsenie Boca – Man of God” is a MUST. “His colleagues at the Theological Academy of Sibiu named him ‘The Saint’, he is considered a founding father of the Romanian Philokalia by father Dumitru Staniloaie, who thought of him as an unparalleled phenomenon of Romanian monasticism.
Sought after and followed by thousands of believers eager to quench their spiritual thirst from his inexhaustible spring of serenity; legendary for his prophesying and healing gifts, painter of souls and painter of churches, man of culture, philosopher of sciences and religion, father Arsenie Boca was, just like Saint Basil as depicted by him in his essential work The Path of the Kingdom.
A disciple calmly walking across the stormy seas, an unmoving pillar against the troubled waves, a man among people, providing guidance and strength with otherworldly serenity, unflinching in the belief that God alone is ruler of our world. An unequaled personality, a magnet for thousands of people in all walks of life, and also a target for suspicion for the authorities of his day, who failed to understand the source of his exceptional power to gather people around him.”
As one person interviewed in this documentary says: “Fr. Arsenie made Christ transparent to us.” He still does. His presence in the midst of us after his passing is a reminder of the proximity of Heaven. This film is an opportunity to (re)discover it for ourselves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptbTap5NHqw
The Sistine Chapel of the Romanians: the Draganescu Church
Father Arsenie Boca lived in Draganescu for 20 years and in 1968 he began painting the parish church, a work that took him more than 15 years. As he wasn’t allowed to celebrate service, some of the priests who visited the church over the years claim that Arsenie Boca has actually painted the sermons he delivered at Sambata de Sus.
Rainbow colors reverberating in frescoes, light flowing from Christ’s Resurrection, Heaven trickling down through the painting brush, that’s the way the murals painted by Orthodoxy beacon Arsenie Boca at the “St. Nicholas” Church of the Draganescu town – Giurgiu County can be translated and rendered into metaphor. …
Prophetic Artist in Shackles
His frescoes are diaphanous, and the images are accompanied by metaphors referring to people’s weaknesses and sins, by aphorisms, quotations from the Holy Scripture, sometimes by teachings of the Father and biblical scenes: the Resurrection, a picture of hell, the Group of the Righteous. The paintings are said to have a visionary, prophetic content, as it is known that Father Arsenie Boca had the gift of spiritual far-sight: one of the scenes, two tall buildings engulfed in flames, is said to allude to the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, not to mention those where items like a cell phone, a space shuttle, satellite dishes, all unusual things in that period, appear.
For his paintings, the art documentary “Picturi ale pr. Arsenie Boca pe biserica din Drăgănescu” at https://vimeo.com/82791105 is a MUST. Also, go to http://www.themidlandhostel.com/the-sistine-chapel-of-the-romanians-the-draganescu-church/ and http://www.agerpres.ro/engleza-destinatie-romania/2014/11/22/destination-romania-the-draganescu-church-swathed-in-father-arsenie-boca-s-prophetic-paintings-18-04-37 and watch a short art film “Father Arsenie Boca, one of Romania greatest Saint” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r6ZX8M8vwY.
Morning prayer by Arsenie Boca
Lord Jesus Christ, help me let go of myself today, as I can create great problems from small and insignificant issues, and this way, caring for myself, I will lose You.
Lord Jesus Christ, help me so that the prayer of Your Holy name will wander (work) through my mind more than lightning on the sky, so that I stay clear of even the shadow of bad thoughts as, look, I am sinning every minute.
Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, because we stumble as we are walking in the dark. Our temptations are closing the eyes of our mind, forgetfulness has become like a wall amongst us, turning our hearts to stone and all together have made the prison cell in which we keep You crippled, starving and naked, wasting our days.
Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us and set fire to this prison cell, light up the love in our hearts, burn the thorns of our temptations and make our souls bright.
Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, come and live within us, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prays through us with unspoken sighs, when word and mind don’t have the power.
Lord, coming secretly amongst people, have mercy upon us, because we don’t realise how imperfect we are and how close You are to our souls; and how distant we become through our sins. Shine Your light over us, so that we see light through Your eyes and live eternally through Your life. Our light and joy, praise be to You!