An Interview with Mother Maria
We met Mother Maria (Sidiropoulo), abbess of the only Orthodox convent in Germany, a few years ago in Moscow’s Marfo-Mariinsky Convent of Mercy. On that day, the director and telejournalist from Syktyvkara, Vladimir Krivtsun, was shooting a documentary on Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna. Imagine our surprise when we found a nun, fluent in Russian, in Pokrovsky Church, who had come from an Orthodox convent not far from Munich. The resourceful Vladimir immediately pointed the camera at her. She became one of the main figures of the film titled Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Now we are meeting with Mother Maria at the “Orthodox Russia” Exhibition in Manezh, where her convent has a booth, which we think is the only one representing the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
Hello, dear Abbess! I am happy to see you in Moscow once again. Your convent is located in Bavaria, where the local population is mostly Catholic. How do they treat Orthodox Christians there?
They treat us well, thank God! Our convent is the first and so far the only Orthodox women’s monastery in Germany, and I feel that its very existence should bear witness to Orthodox culture there. One aspect of Orthodox Christianity in Germany is that we establish parishes there but need to celebrate Liturgy in Catholic or Protestant churches, which are becoming empty. Thanks to this development, we were given the opportunity to establish an Orthodox convent on the site of a former Catholic monastery.
Our town is mostly made up of Catholics. They not only do not reject Orthodoxy, but welcome it. When they meet our nuns, some of our neighbors remove their Bavarian hats and bow their heads out of respect. We are often addressed not by our surnames, but as schwester so-and-so (that is, “sister” so-and-so). We are lucky because our convent is located in this particular Bavarian town, where the people are very pious. I remember when I came there on Western Christmas Eve, we went to town with some little souvenirs, to meet and greet our new neighbors. This was a good beginning, and helped our Orthodox monastery to develop in a new environment. The convent building was purchased from Catholic nuns, signing a 99-year lease with them. Of course, there are some inconveniences. We cannot feel fully grounded until we become the owners of this wonderful parcel of land. Our goal is to buy the land, so that we have all the rights to develop our convent.
How was your convent established?
I had the idea of starting a convent in Bavaria, and the Lord helped to manifest it. I thought
“Why are we sitting idly by, why are we living in an apartment, we could try to establish a convent in Munich under our irreplaceable spiritual father!”
I always say that His Eminence Mark, Archbishop of Berlin and Germany, looks like one of the ancient hierarchs: he is a monk first, then an archbishop. We wish to follow in his footsteps, and the Lord has given us this opportunity. Vladyka Mark gave his blessing for us to find a suitable place, no more than 80 km from Munich, so that he could continue to minister to us. But the Lord had different plans. Exactly a half-year later, we found a building only 19 km from the Munich cathedral and 17 km from the men’s monastery where Vladyka lives. On a map it looks like an equilateral triangle. And Vladyka, when he leaves to the cathedral for services, for example, sometimes stops by to take our confessions, and then continues on his way.
We served a moleben to start renovations in August 2005, but the official opening of our convent was November 1 of that year. From then on, we have been renovating it and setting it up in the Orthodox style. Of course, we don’t have sufficient resources, we can’t even begin to think about building a wooden church. But we would so like to show the local population all the beauty and grandeur of Orthodox Christianity! Our main focus at the convent is prayer and divine services. The sisters, regardless of their obediences, attend all the services of the daily monastic cycle. They start at 4 am, continue until 7 am, and when there is Divine Liturgy, until 8 am. Liturgy is celebrated three times a week, including Sundays.
Once a week, usually from Thursday to Friday, our Vladyka Mark comes to visit—he is the direct spiritual guide of our nuns. Services are performed in Church Slavonic, and once a week in German, with Vladyka Mark interpreting. With his busy schedule, he still regularly visits the nuns to take their confessions, give them spiritual guidance in urgent matters and pray with us. That is how, with God’s help, our convent was established.
How many nuns does your convent have?
We have ten sisters in all. We hope that this number grows with time. But not in the near future: we need to provide for our own needs now. We have no benefactors, we live essentially on donations and on the handicrafts of our sisters. If another sister is added, that is just one more mouth to feed. Medical insurance alone costs a good penny (140 Euros per person), which must be paid monthly, whether the person is sick or not. The government requires that every person living in Germany have insurance. Also, we need money to maintain the buildings, and for the monthly rent. So we rely directly on the main Benefactor, Who is in heaven. But I must say, over the seven years of our existence, the Lord has always nourished us, as He promised, He clothes us and sends us all that we need, so we are able to receive and console pilgrims.
Are there Russian emigres among the sisters?
Yes, there is one sister from Russia, she is old, and even became a German citizen, since she has lived there for a long time. We have a multi-national family: there are three native Germans who speak Russian well, two of them read and sing in Church Slavonic and even lead the choir, two Germans from Russia, one Russian sister who lived in Latvia, one Latvian woman, one Serb and a Greek woman from Russia.
What sorts of obediences do the sisters perform?
Some of them work the garden, work the soil, providing vegetables for the convent. Others bake prosphoras, serving the Body of the Lord, they bake the bread which is later transformed into the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. We bake bread, wheat bread, since the Lord Jesus Christ himself likened Himself to a grain of wheat. Every year on Lazarus Saturday we host a “Paschal Fair,” where we sell kuliches, Easter eggs and souvenirs.
We have a bookbinding studio; from olden times, bookbinding has been one of the monastic trades. Preserving the old tradition, the nuns not only professionally rebind old church-service books, tending to their preservation, but help people rebind covers of their own books, fix and mend tattered pages, making beautiful bookmarks.
As many convents do, we have a sewing workshop, where three nuns labor. The Most-Holy Virgin herself serves as our example in the task of sewing, for in her earthly life, in moments when she was not praying and contemplating God, she tirelessly sewed garments for herself, her Son and for divine services. Our nuns receive most of their orders for church vestments and baptismal gowns, because many believers want to keep their gown and cherish it like a holy thing, the very raiment they received the Holy Spirit during the Mystery of christening. We are especially happy when we sew these gowns for local people who wish to be baptized. In fact, my first trip to Russia had to do with this, because I had to go there to get supplies to set up our workshop, bring back various materials, church items, etc. We couldn’t find vestment fabric in Germany, so we went to Russia.
Your sell your handiwork in Germany?
We take vestment orders not only from Germany but England and Australia, but we can’t always fill them on time because we don’t have enough time. We have professionals help us, pious parishioners from some of our diocese’s churches. These volunteer “myrrh-bearers” bring their own “myrrh” by helping the vestment workshop. Actually, we are able to handle all of our affairs only thanks to volunteers who come from various parts of Germany to help us in the sewing workshop and in other areas.
According to our charter, all the nuns must attend divine services. We do not recognize the idea that “instead of church services I have my work.” The nuns try to follow the guidance provided by Vladyka Mark and whenever they fulfill an obedience, they combine prayer with the physical task. These are two inseparable labors, like the Gospels Martha and Maria, after whom the convent in Moscow established by Grand Duchess Elizabeth was named.
Is that why you decided to dedicate your convent to the name of Holy Martyr Elizaveta Feodorovna?
First of all, we got a blessing from our spiritual father, Vladyka Mark; secondly, being in Germany, there was no question as to who our heavenly intercessor would be, since it was this country who gave the Holy Church this great saint. Orthodox Christianity in Germany is of great importance, and it performs a missionary function. But we do not go out into the street to talk about our faith, people come themselves to learn about it. Our convent is often visited by various German social groups. Let them learn about Orthodoxy, our divine services and daily convent life. We take advantage of such opportunities to teach Germans about the spiritual accomplishment of St Elizabeth, one of their own. Some groups ask for a tour, and we oblige them: we explain things about our convent and answer questions. Some come back again to see how the convent is doing. These Germans possess a healthy curiosity. We tell them about Holy Martyr Elizabeth, the Royal Family. Many of course know their tragic history, but not all of them know how the Church views them.
Germany produced two Russian saints at the same time, both from the family of Grand Prince Ludwig IV of Hesse-Darmstadt and Princess Alice, granddaughter of the English Queen Victoria. Pilgrims to our convent learn about these two German princesses, glorified among the host of saints by the Russian Orthodox Church: Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna and her younger sister Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. We tell them about their families, too. Germans should know about the saints who brought honor to their homeland, saints who bind the German and Russian nations. It is notable that our convent is 18 km from Andechs, and one of Princess Alice’s ancestral branches hails from that city. We sometimes organize photo exhibits which show the life of our convent’s heavenly protrectress. These exponents have also been seen at other social events which benefit our young convent.
Who are the parishioners of your church?
About a year ago, a young woman and her son, and two Ukrainian families, settled in Buchendorf. They have a small construction firm. They live and work there. Many workers from Ukraine travel there. We are provided aid by these people, since a women’s monastery needs male physical workers at times. These Ukrainian fellows happily send us their workers when they are not busy, because they are God-fearing men and want to help the convent any way they can. So that is the extent of our parish. Sometimes strangers come to services, people who have a spiritual need for a monastic service. We had never had regular parishioners before, but members of the Munich cathedral would start to come, and from other Orthodox parishes in nearby towns.
The main flow of people is from quiet corners of Germany which have no church at all, and they must drive for many kilometers for services, for spiritual nourishment. A true test of devotion to God! I know one mother with many children who attends every service from 80 km away! I will never forget once seeing her conduct the choir with one hand, rocking a carriage with the other, rocking a whimpering child to sleep. Now this boy is 12 years old.
One priest in Germany is sometimes in charge of three or four parishes. There are parishes which only have Liturgy once a month, so during school vacation, the parents bring their children to spend some time in our convent. Our convent building, thank God, accommodates about 20-25 pilgrims. They can stay here, gaining spiritual nourishment, attend services and help us with our work.
What do the children do at the convent?
Children who come with their parents during school vacation try to merge with the flow of daily life here to the extent they are able, but of course we don’t require that attend church at 4 am. The rest of the time, they make their contributions, helping in the yard, the little garden, help clean the convent. Sometimes I gather them for a discussion on spiritual matters and so “sow the seeds into good soil.”
Is this your first time at the Pravoslavnaya Rus exhibition?
We had already heard of this event, but we never had any idea we would go—it is so far away. One of the parishioners at our cathedral is an exhibit organizer, Olga Azarova. She insisted on helping organize and curate our exhibit. This venue provides an important means of communication, we can learn about various monasteries during actual conversations with their representatives, not only through the internet. This interaction brings us great joy and benefit. The presence of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God and the daily moleben being served before the icon has created a special atmosphere at the exhibition.
Nun Justina and Fr Euphemius (Logvinov), the Abbot of St Job of Pochaev Monastery in Munich, came with me to this magnificent exhibition. Many people have approached our booth over the last few days, asked about our convent, about the children’s camp. They are surprised how much interest there is for Orthodoxy in Germany. Some can’t believe how developed the life of Orthodox parishes in Germany is. Many people think that there is a small mission there.
Others, it turns out, already know about St Alexander Schmorell. We would tell people about this saint of Munich, about St Elizaveta Feodorovna and a great deal more at the exhibition, and hope that we were able to give them a good picture of our Diocese of Berlin and Germany.
The readers of Tatiana’s Day know about Alexander Schmorell, too.
This saint will pray to the Lord for everyone who writes about him! Schmorell was born in Orenburg to the family of German Russians, who then returned to Germany in 1921. In 1937, he was drafted as a medic in the Wehrmacht and served at the front until 1942, including the Eastern Front. Upon returning to Munich, Schmorell became a member of a religious resistance group called The White Rose. This anti-fascist organization was discovered by the Nazis.
In February, 1943, 25-year-old Alexander was executed. He was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and called St Alexander of Munich. Passion-bearer Alexander is depicted in icons in a white medical smock holding a cross and a white rose.
Did you meet many interesting people at the Pravoslavnaya Rus exhibit?
We were happy to meet pilgrims here who had once visited our monastery. Some of them live in Germany but are now visiting Moscow. One of these visitors whom we did not expect was Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk. He was visiting our vladyka, Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany, and stayed at our convent. We gave him tea and talked with him. At the time, he was Archbishop of Vienna and Austria.
We made many new and interesting acquaintances. On the last day, before the exhibition closed, a Maria Brandler, a third-year college student from the sociology department of the Russian University of the Friendship of Nations approached us. Her ancestors lived in Germany, though she had never been there, and I invited her to visit us. She eagerly agreed, so that she could improve her German, having studied it in school.
We were also happy to meet representatives of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, who welcomed us warmly at the Church of the Icon of Christ “Not Made By Hands” in Usovo. These women prepared the fascinating exposition “Holy Martyr Patriarch Germogen: Podvig, Canonization; Veneration” at the Pravoslavnaya Rus exhibition, which they say will be transferred to the Clerical House of the church complex in Usovo.
Tell us about your visit to Usovo.
It was a great pleasure to see the Usovo-Spasskiy Orthodox Educational Center, where one can fulfill God’s work. What love, what warmth did Anna Vitalievna Gromova and Rita Borisovna Butova welcome us with at the Center, which has a cozy church and several buildings. The first thing you see is the great matushka herself, a sculpture of Elizaveta Feodorovna. The complex includes a small museum and many well-appointed spaces for study for adults and children. We saw the auditorium, the pottery workshop where kids make handicrafts out of clay, and music rooms. Everywhere you see finery and good taste, which inspires the image of St Elizaveta Feodorovna.
Everything I saw gave me joy. Of course, I always knew that the soul of a child is a great city which is difficult to get to know and comprehend. You can see the child’s soul in each thing they create, you can see what is in their hearts. You could see this great childlike fantasy in all their works. I loved hearing about the missionary, educational work they do at the center, about their future plans. May the Lord help them continue! It was so good to actually be in the estate where the Grand Duchess and her husband loved to spend their days. We also traveled to Arkhangelskoye and Aleksandrovka.
We have gotten to know each other because of Grand Duchess Elizabeth. In 2014, we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of her birth. In 2009 and 2010, Moscow hosted several children’s performances based on Rimma Koshurnikova’s play White Angel of Moscow, which was based on her life. How wonderful it would be to translate this into German and perform it in Germany, where “Princess Ella” was born!
We would be happy to share this play with a German audience. The theme is Marfo-Mariinsky Convent, and in Buchendorf, our summer girls’ camp is named after the two holy sisters.