A very unlikely nun
For a nun, Maria’s story is more than a little unconventional. At Bishop Anthony Bloom’s first encounter with her, Maria sat at a cafe table with a beer. She was often seen shambling around the Paris market in her tattered habit, cigarette perched on her lip, haggling for deals. And she kept company with the lowest of the low.
“She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw: in front of a café, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.”
That was her calling. Former-revolutionary, twice-married, twice divorced, cigarette-smoking, poet, painter, theologian, nun and martyr-saint, she knew the meaning of God’s mercy and desired only to share it with as many as she could muster. The number was not small.
Her backstory is the stuff of Russian novels. Born into a wealthy family in 1891, her father died when she was young, and the shock of the loss drove her to renounce her faith. Mixing with smart and fashionable of St. Petersburg, she published poetry, married a Bolshevik, and distressed over the state of the city’s beleaguered poor. But idealism couldn’t save her marriage, which ended in 1913.
The following year she moved to her family’s estate on the coast of the Black Sea with her daughter, Gaiana. Headstrong and independent, Maria was politically active and eventually became mayor of the town of Anapa as a single mom! She also rediscovered her faith, which informed her activism. “[T]he Christian,” she said, “is called to social work.”
The problem for Maria was that she was too conservative for the radicals and too radical for the conservatives. After the start of the Russian Revolution she found herself arrested and tried by the anti-Bolshevik party and only escaped conviction because of a kindly judge, Daniel Skobtsov. The two married within months of her acquittal.
With the Revolution in full swing, life in Anapa became impossible. The family fled, swelling in the sojourn. By the time they settled in Paris in 1923, Yuri and Anastasia had been born.
And now the obvious question: How did this wife of two men and mother of three children become a nun?
Not good, but revolutionary
It started when Anastasia succumbed to a wasting illness and died in 1926. The family, already strained, was devastated. Maria and Daniel separated and eventually divorced. But out of the devastation Maria’s calling to help the downtrodden was renewed.
Refugee life was terrible, especially for the Russians. Work was scarce. Despair and alcoholism was rampant. Maria saw herself as uniquely suited to help, to rescue, to comfort these victims and misfits. She would be, she said, “a mother to all.”
The proposed path was monasticism. Revealing is her conversation with her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy. “I could never be a good nun,” she protested. “I know,” he said. “But I want you to be a revolutionary nun.”
“[S]he went to the steel foundry in Creusot, where a large number of Russian [refugees] were working. She came there and announced that she was preparing to give a series of lectures on Dostoevsky. She was met with general howling: “We do not need Dostoevsky. We need linen ironed, we need our rooms cleaned, we need our clothes mended — and you bring us Dostoevsky!” And she answered: “Fine, if that is needed, let us leave Dostoevsky alone.” And for several days she cleaned rooms, sewed, mended, ironed, cleaned. When she had finished doing all that, they asked her to talk about Dostoevsky. This made a big impression on me, because she did not say: “I did not come here to iron for you or clean your rooms. Can you not do that yourselves?” She responded immediately and in this way she won the hearts and minds of the people.”
And so she was. There would be no convent for Maria. Her monastery, as she said, was “the whole world.” Several houses and a chapel were set up to shelter and serve those in need. Maria worked tirelessly, Gaiana and Yuri aiding the effort, Father Lev Gillet serving as the ‘convent’’s chaplain for many years. In addition to painting icons and leading religious discussions, she cooked, counseled, and combed the streets looking for anyone she could help.
“[E]ach of us,” she wrote, “is faced with the demand to strain all our forces, not fearing the most difficult endeavor, in ascetic self-restraint, giving our souls for others sacrificially and lovingly, to follow in Christ’s footsteps to our appointed Golgotha.”
Maria’s appointment emerged as World War II began and the Nazis seized control of Paris. The only response was obvious.
A martyr for our own time
Maria and her associates began working with the French Resistance, hiding Jews, forging records and papers, anything to foul Nazi aims. She was brazen. “If the Germans come looking for the Jews,” she said, “I’ll show them the icon of the Mother of God.”
* Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offense.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai? *
The Gestapo knew something was afoot, but it took time to foil the plot. When they finally did, the Nazis dragged Maria and her coconspirators—including her son Yuri—off to prison.
During her two-year confinement in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, she was a beacon, bringing hope to people in utter despair. She led prayers and Bible study, fed people from stores she smuggled away, and radiated hope to any and all.
But while her hope was invincible, her body was not. The trauma of the camp took its toll and she became increasingly frail. “Though she was unable to stand for roll calls, she traded some bread for thread so she could embroider one last icon.” It depicted Mary holding a crucified Christ. Before she could finish, she was taken to the gas chamber where she died on Great and Holy Saturday.
MOTHER MARIA OF PARIS: SAINT OF THE OPEN DOOR
*Maria’s own poem reflecting on the symbol Jews were required to wear during WWII*
* * If you are interested in more details about Maria’s activism, inspiration, grace, heroism, and hope-filled commitment, so needed in our world today, please visit: https://incommunion.org/2004/10/18/saint-of-the-open-door/
For ST. MARIA SKOBTSOVA RESOURCES, on her life and writings, please go to: https://incommunion.org/st-maria-skobtsova-resources/