The woman who would eventually be known as Mother Maria or Maria Skobtsova was born in Latvia and named Elizaveta Pilenko. Elizaveta’s family was considered “upper class” in Latvia in the year of 1891. When she was a teenager, tragedy visited her family in the death of her father. She was crushed at this loss and began to doubt the faith she had been taught as a child. Soon, she was an avid proponent of atheism because of a hurt that viciously denied the presence of a loving God. Shortly after the death of her father and Elizaveta’s faith, the family moved to St. Petersburg in Russia to hopefully leave behind bad memories and start a new and hopeful life. When she was a almost twenty-years-old–and nearly seven years before the Bolshevik Revolution–she married a man named Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev. He was a Bolshevik and heavily involved in the intellectual and revolutionary circles of Russia at the time. The marriage didn’t last long (ending approximately three years after it started) but Elizaveta became involved with poetry and literature because of it and gave birth to one child named Gaiana. She began writing her own poetry and this talent would serve to sustain and inspire her for years to come. More than that, though, it helped effect her conversion to the Faith of the Christians. She began writing about the crucifixion and death of Jesus because of its dramatic cultural importance. As she wrote and contemplated that terrible and wonderful moment, she felt her faith rekindled. When she considered that God has not simply left us alone in our suffering but had joined with us in all of it–even the lamenting–she converted.
Following the Bolshevik revolutio in 1917, she became deputy mayor of a small town in Southern Russia. When the imperial army came to take the town back, the mayor fled and Elizaveta became mayor. She was arrested for being a Bolshevik and put on trial but her judge was a teacher she had studied under in years past by the name of Daniel Skobtsova. She was acquited with Daniel’s help and they soon fell in love and married. They were forced to flee because of political complications. First they fled to Georgia where she gave birth to a son named Yuri. Second, they fled to Yugoslavia where she gave birth to a daughter named Anastasia. Finally they fled to Paris and found a place to call home for a little while.Elizaveta began studying theology and the faith that now gripped her but this was interrupted when Anastasia died from influenza. Elizaveta’s daughter Gaiana was sent to boarding school and the marriage between Elizaveta and Daniel soon broke into pieces. Daniel left Paris with Yuri and Elizaveta further devoted herself to ministry among the poor and outcast. She had now been divorced twice but she eventually agreed to become a nun–at the urging of her bishop–on the condition that she did not want to be isolated from the people she was learning to love. It was she took her vows that Elizaveta became Maria.
Maria’s home became a convent of sorts but mostly it was a house for refugees and the poor. She served meals, she provided beds, and she listened to stories of heartbreak and tragedy–in the part of Paris she lived in there were plenty of stories and not nearly enough meals or beds. The Nazis eventually occupied Paris and began rounding up Jews, outcasts, and dissidents to send them to concentration camps. Maria waged a war of mercy against the Nazi efforts to destroy. She convinced sanitation workers to do something revolutionary–they would carry garbage cans out of the city once Jewish children had been secreted in them. This worked for some time but soon her home also became a hiding place for Jews and others the Nazis wanted dead. She and her priest offered baptismal certificates to Jewish children and families so that they could wear the cloak of Jesus even if they were not his disciple–they offered mercy wrapped up in deception. Eventually, Maria was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, Germany. There, she again served as minister to outcasts and those in need. Finally, on Good Friday in 1945, she felt called to lay down her life for another. She was inspired by memory of that terrible and wonderful when Jesus laid down his life for us. She took the place of a Jewish woman on the way to the gas chamber and died that day only a little while before the camp was liberated.
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