Elizaveta Pilenko, the future Mother Maria, was born in 1891 in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, and grew up in the south of Russia on the shore of the Black Sea. Her father was mayor of the town of Anapa, while on her mother's side, she was descended from the last governor of the Bastille, the Parisian prison destroyed during the French Revolution.
Her parents were devout Orthodox Christians whose faith helped shape their daughter's values, sensitivities and goals. As a child she once emptied her piggy bank in order to contribute to the painting of an icon that would be part of a new church in Anapa. At seven she asked her mother if she was old enough to become a nun, while a year later she sought permission to become a pilgrim who spends her life walking from shrine to shrine.
At the age of 14, her father died, an event that seemed to her meaningless and unjust and led her to embrace atheism. "If there is no justice," she said, "there is no God." She decided God's nonexistence was well known to adults but kept secret from children. For her, childhood was over. When her widowed mother moved the family to Saint Petersburg in 1906, she found herself in the country's political and cultural center — also a hotbed of radical ideas and groups — and became part of radical literary circles that gathered around such symbolist poets as Alexander Blok, whom she first met at age 15. Like many of her contemporaries, she was drawn to the left, but was often disappointed at the radicals she encountered. Though regarding themselves as revolutionaries, they seemed to do nothing but talk. "My spirit longed to engage in heroic feats, even to perish, to combat the injustice of the world," she recalled. Yet no one she knew was actually laying down his or her life for others. Should her friends hear of someone dying for the Revolution, she noted, "they will value it, approve or not approve, show understanding on a very high level, and discuss the night away till the sun rises and it's time for fried eggs. But they will not understand at all that to die for the Revolution means to feel a rope around one's neck."
In 1910, she married Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev, a Bolshevik and part of a community of poets, artists and writers, but she later commented that it was a marriage born "more of pity than of love." In addition to politics and poetry, she and her friends also talked theology, but just as their political ideas had no connection at all to the lives of ordinary people, their theology floated far above the actual Church. There was much they might have learned, she reflected later in life, from "any old beggar woman hard at her Sunday prostrations in church." For many intellectuals, the Church was an idea or a set of abstract values, not a community in which one actually lives.
Though still regarding herself an atheist, gradually her earlier attraction to Christ revived and deepened, not yet Christ as God incarnate but Christ as heroic man. In time, she found herself drawn toward the religious faith she had abandoned after her father's death. She prayed and read the Gospel and the lives of saints and concluded that the real need of the people was not for revolutionary theories but for Christ. She wanted "to proclaim the simple word of God," she told Blok in a letter written in 1916. Desiring to study theology, she applied for admission to Saint Petersburg's Theological Academy of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, in those days an entirely male school whose students were preparing for ordination. As surprising as her wanting to study there was the rector's decision that she could be admitted.
By 1913, her marriage collapsed. Later that year, her first child, Gaiana, was born. Just as World War I was beginning, she returned with her daughter to southern Russia, where her religious life grew more intense. For a time she secretly wore lead weights sewn into a hidden belt as a way of reminding herself both "that Christ exists" and also to be more aware that minute-by-minute many people were suffering and dying in the war. She realized, however, that the primary Christian asceticism was not self-mortification, but caring response to the needs of other people.
In October 1917, she was present in Saint Petersburg when Russia's Provisional Government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. Taking part in the All-Russian Soviet Congress, she heard Lenin's lieutenant, Leon Trotsky, dismiss people from her party with the words, "Your role is played out. Go where you belong, into history's garbage can!" She grew to see how hideously different actual revolution was from the dreams of revolution that had once filled the imagination of so many Russians! In February 1918, she was elected deputy mayor of Anapa. Eventually, she was arrested, jailed, and put on trial for collaboration with the enemy. In court, she rose and spoke in her own defense: "My loyalty was not to any imagined government as such, but to those whose need of justice was greatest, the people. Red or White, my position is the same — I will act for justice and for the relief of suffering. I will try to love my neighbor." It was thanks to Daniel Skobtsov, a former schoolmaster who was now her judge, that she avoided execution. After the trial, she sought him out to thank him. Eventually they married.
As the course of the civil war was turning in favor of the Bolsheviks, the Skobtsovs fled to Georgia, where she gave birth to a son, Yura, in 1920. A year later, having relocated to Yugoslavia, she gave birth to Anastasia, Their long journey ended with their arrival in Paris in 1923, where to supplement their income she made dolls and painted silk scarves, often working ten or twelve hours a day.
A friend introduced her to the Russian Student Christian Movement, an Orthodox association founded in 1923. She began attending lectures and other activities and felt herself coming back to life spiritually and intellectually. In 1926, she grieved the death of her daughter Anastasia. She emerged from her mourning determined to seek a "new road before me and a new meaning in life, to be a mother for all, for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection." She devoted herself to social work and theological writing. In 1927 two volumes, Harvest of the Spirit, were published, in which she retold the lives of many saints.
In 1930, she was appointed traveling secretary of the Russian Student Christian Movement, work which put her into daily contact with impoverished Russian refugees throughout France and neighboring countries. She often lectured, but she was quick to listen to others as they related some terrible grief that had burdened them for years. She took literally Christ's words, that He was always present in the least person. "Man ought to treat the body of his fellow human being with more care than he treats his own," she wrote. "Christian love teaches us to give our fellows material as well as spiritual gifts. We should give them our last shirt and our last piece of bread. Personal alms-giving and the most wide-ranging social work are both equally justified and needed."
In time, she began to envision a new type on community, "half monastic and half fraternal," that would connect spiritual life with service to those in need, in the process showing "that a free Church can perform miracles." Father Sergei Bulgakov, her confessor, was a source of support and encouragement, as was her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy [Georgievsky], who was responsible from 1921 to 1946 for the many thousands of Russian expatriates scattered across Europe. Recognizing her devotion to social work, and knowing of her waning marriage, he suggested to her the possibility of becoming a nun. In time, Daniel came to accept the idea after meeting with Metropolitan Evlogy. In the spring of 1932, in the chapel at Paris' Saint Sergius Theological Institute, she was professed as a nun with the name Maria. She made her monastic profession, Metropolitan Evlogy recognized, "in order to give herself unreservedly to social service." Mother Maria called it simply "monasticism in the world." Intent "to share the life of paupers and tramps," she began to look for a house of hospitality and found it at 9 villa de Saxe in Paris, which she leased with financial assistance from Metropolitan Evlogy. She began receiving guests, mainly young Russian women without jobs, giving up her own room to house them while herself sleeping on a narrow iron bedstead in the basement. A room upstairs became a chapel — she painted the iconostasis icons — while the dining room doubled as a hall for lectures and dialogues.
In need of larger facilities, a new location was found two years later in an area of Paris where many impoverished Russian refugees had settled. While at the former address she could feed only 25, here she could feed a hundred. Here her guests could regain their breath "until the time comes to stand on their two feet again." Her credo was: "Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world." With this recognition came the need "to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God" in her brothers and sisters. As her ministry evolved, she rented other buildings, one for families in need, and another for single men. A rural property became a sanatorium. By 1937, she housed several dozen women, serving up to 120 dinners every day. Every morning, she would beg for food or buy cheaply whatever was not donated.
Despite a seemingly endless array of challenges, Mother Maria was sustained chiefly by those she served — themselves beaten down, people in despair, cripples, alcoholics, the sick, survivors of many tragedies. But not all responded to trust with trust. Theft was not uncommon. On one occasion a guest stole 25 francs. Everyone guessed who the culprit was, a drug addict, but Mother Maria refused to accuse her. Instead she announced at the dinner table that the money had not been stolen, only misplaced, and she had found it. "You see how dangerous it is to make accusations," she commented. At once the girl who stole the money burst into tears.
Mother Maria and her collaborators would not simply open the door when those in need knocked, but would actively seek out the homeless. One place to find them was an all-night café at Les Halles where those with nowhere else to go could sit for the price of a glass of wine. Children also were cared for, and a part-time school was opened at several locations. Turning her attention toward Russian refugees who had been classified insane, Mother Maria began a series of visits to mental hospitals. In each hospital five to ten percent of the Russian patients turned out to be sane and, thanks to her intervention, were released. Language barriers and cultural misunderstandings had kept them in the asylum. In time, she and her associates helped establish clinics for TB sufferers and a variety of other ministries. Another landmark was the foundation in September 1935 of a group named "Orthodox Action" — a name proposed by her friend, philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev. Cofounders included Father Sergei Bulgakov, historian George Fedotov, the scholar Constantine Mochulsky, the publisher Ilya Fondaminsky, and her long-time coworker Fedor Pianov, with Metropolitan Evgoly serving as honorary president. With financial support from supporters across Europe and the United States, a wider range of projects and centers were made possible: hostels, rest homes, schools, camps, hospital work, help to the unemployed, assistance to the elderly, publication of books and pamphlets, etc. In all of these growing ministries, Mother Maria's driving concern was that it should never lose its personal or communal character.
In October 1939, Father Dimitri Klepinin, then 35 years old, began to assist Mother Maria as she began the last phase of her life — a series of responses to World War II and Germany's occupation of France. While Mother Maria could have fled Paris when the Germans were advancing, or even sought refuge in America, she would not budge. "If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?" She had no illusions about the Nazi threat, which to her represented a "new paganism" bringing in its wake disasters, upheavals, persecutions and wars. With defeat came greater poverty and hunger, and the local authorities in Paris declared her house an official food distribution point, where volunteers sold at cost price whatever food Mother Maria had bought in that morning.
Russian refugees were among the particular targets of the occupiers. In June 1941, a thousand were arrested, including several close friends and collaborators of Mother Maria and Father Dimitri, who launched an aid project for prisoners and their dependents. Early in 1942, their registration now underway, Jews began to knock at Mother Maria's door, asking Father Dimitri if he would issue baptismal certificates to them. The answer was always yes. The names of those "baptized" were also duly recorded in his parish register in case there was any cross-checking by the police or Gestapo, as indeed did happen. Father Dimitri was convinced that in such a situation Christ would do the same. When the Nazis issued special identity cards for those of Russian origin living in France, with Jews being specially identified, Mother Maria and Father Dimitri refused to comply, though they were warned that those who failed to register would be regarded as citizens of the USSR — enemy aliens — and be punished accordingly.
With the subsequent mass arrest of Jews — 12,884, of whom 6,900 (two-thirds of them children) were brought to the Velodrome d'Hiver sports stadium and held for five days before being sent to Auschwitz — Mother Maria entered the stadium and for three days offered comfort to the children and their parents, distributing what food she could bring in. She even managed to rescue a number of children by enlisting the aid of garbage collectors and smuggling them out in trash bins. Meanwhile, her house house was bursting with people, many of them Jews. "It is amazing," Mother Maria remarked, "that the Germans haven't pounced on us yet." Father Dimitri, Mother Maria and their coworkers set up routes of escape to the unoccupied south. It was complex and dangerous work. Forged documents had to be obtained. A local resistance group helped secure provisions for those Mother Maria's community was struggling to feed.
On February 8, 1943, while Mother Maria was traveling, Nazi security police entered the house and found a letter in her son Yura's pocket in which Father Dimitri was asked to provide a Jew with a false baptismal document. Yura, now actively a part of his mother's work, was taken to the office of Orthodox Action, soon after followed by his distraught grandmother, Sophia Pilenko. The interrogator ordered her to bring Father Dimitri. Once the priest was there, said the interrogator, they would let Yura go. His grandmother Sophia was allowed to embrace Yura and give him a blessing. It was last time she saw him in this world.
The following morning, after celebrating the Divine Liturgy, Father Dimitri set off for the Gestapo office, where he was interrogated for four hours, making no attempt to hide his beliefs. The next day, February 10, Mother Maria was arrested and her quarters were searched. Several others were called for questioning and then held by the Gestapo. She was confined with 34 other woman at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Her son Yura, Father Dimitri and their coworker of many years, Feodor Pianov, were held in the same building. Pianov later recalled witnessing Father Dimitri being prod and beaten by an SS officer while Yura stood by, weeping. Father Dimitri "began to console him, saying the Christ withstood greater mockery than this."
In April, the prisoners were transferred to Compiegne, where Mother Maria was blessed with a final meeting with Yura, who said his mother "was in a remarkable state of mind and told me ... that I must trust in her ability to bear things and in general not to worry about her. Every day [Father Dimitri and I] remember her at the proskomidia ... We celebrate the Eucharist and receive Communion each day." Hours after their meeting,Mother Maria was transported to Germany.
On December 16, Yura and Father Dimitri were deported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, followed several weeks later by Pianov. In January 1944, Father Dimitri and Yura were sent to another camp, Dora. Within ten days of arrival, Yura contracted furunculosis. On February 6, "dispatched for treatment" — a euphemism for "sentenced to death." Four days later Father Dimitri, lying on a dirt floor, died of pneumonia. His body was disposed of in the Buchenwald crematorium.
Meanwhile, Mother Maria — now "Prisoner 19,263" — was sent in a sealed cattle truck to the Ravensbruck camp in Germany, where she endured for two years, an achievement in part explained by her long experience of ascetic life. She was assigned to Block 27 and befriended the many Russian prisoners who were with her. Unable to correspond with friends, little testimony in her own words has come down to us, but prisoners who survived the war remembered her. One of them, Solange Perichon, recalls: "She was never downcast, never. She never complained.... She was full of good cheer, really good cheer. We had roll calls which lasted a great deal of time. We were woken at three in the morning and we had to stand out in the open in the middle of winter until the barracks [population] was counted. She took all this calmly and she would say, 'Well that's that. Yet another day completed. And tomorrow it will be the same all over again.' ... She allowed nothing of secondary importance to impede her contact with people."
Anticipating that her own exit point from the camp might be via the crematoria, Mother Maria asked a fellow prisoner whom she hoped would survive to memorize a message to be given at last to Father Sergei Bulgakov, Metropolitan Evlogy and her mother: "My state at present is such that I completely accept suffering in the knowledge that this is how things ought to be for me, and if I am to die, I see this as a blessing from on high." Her work in the camp varied. There was a period when she was part of a team of women dragging a heavy iron roller about the camp's pathways for 12 hours a day. In another period she worked in a knitwear workshop. Her legs began to give way. As her health declined, friends no longer allowed her to give away portions of her own food, as she had done in the past to help keep others alive.
With the Red Army approaching from the East, the concentration camp administrators further reduced food rations while greatly increasing the population of each block from 800 to 2,500. In serious decline, Mother Maria accepted a pink card freely issued to any prisoner who wished to be excused from labor because of age or ill health. In January 1945, those who had received such cards were transferred to what was called the Jugendlager — the "youth camp" — where the authorities said each person would have her own bed and abundant food. Mother Maria's transfer was on January 31. Here the food ration was further reduced and the hours spent standing for roll calls increased. Though it was mid-winter, blankets, coats and jackets were confiscated, and then even shoes and stockings. The death rate was at least fifty per day. Next all medical supplies were withdrawn. Those who still persisted in surviving now faced death by shootings and gas, the latter made possible by the construction of a gas chamber in March 1945, in which 150 were executed every day. Amazingly, Mother Maria survived five weeks in the "youth camp" before she was returned to the main camp on March 3. Though emaciated and infested with lice, with her eyes festering, she began to think she might actually live to return to Paris, or even go back to Russia.
Such was not to be the case. On March 30, 1945 — Great, Holy and Good Friday that year — Mother Maria was selected for the gas chambers, in which she perished the following day, on Great and Holy Saturday. Accounts are at odds about what happened. According to one, she was one of the many selected for death that day. According to another, she took the place of another prisoner, a Jew, who had been chosen. Although perishing in the gas chamber, she did not perish in the Church's memory. Survivors of the war who had known her would again and again draw attention to the ideas, insights and activities of the unusual nun who had spent so many years coming to the aid of people in desperate straights. Soon after the end of World War II, essays and books about her began to appear in France and Russia. A Russian film, "Mother Maria," was made in 1982. There have been two biographies in English and, little by little, the translation and publication in English of her most notable essays.
On January 18, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint, along with her son Yuri; the priest who worked closely with her, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin; and her close friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky. Their glorification took place in Paris' Cathedral of Saint Alexander Nevsky.