Impressions of a Canonization

by Nancy Forest

The canonization of Mother Maria Skobtsova and several people closely associated with her was the occasion of a trip to Paris the first weekend of May, 2004, for many members of our Amsterdam parish. It was my first visit to the church on the Rue Daru. The name of the church itself is the Cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky, but the phrase “Rue Daru” is used far more often. For Orthodox Christians of the Russian tradition in Western Europe, it’s a way of distinguishing a jurisdiction: “our church isn’t Moscow Patriarchate, it’s Rue Daru.” After the Russian Revolution and the civil war that came in its wake, many Russians — including members of the nobility as well as intellectuals — fled to the west. Thousands ended their journey in or near Paris. With the Church in Russia enduring severe persecution, there was a real question as to the connection between this new diaspora church and the Moscow Patriarchate. The church of the emigres appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch and asked if they, as Russian Orthodox, could be received under his jurisdiction. This change took place, and now the “Rue Daru” church, so very Russian as it is, is still under the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul rather than Moscow.

This was the situation that Mother Maria Skobtsova and Father Dimitri Klepinin found themselves in. Not only that, but over the years, as more and more French people became Orthodox, and more of the Russians became real Frenchmen, a stressful situation developed between the Russian and the “French” parts of the congregation. The solution was to split the church, with the Russians having Slavonic service upstairs (where the canonization took place) and the French having services in French in the lower church (known among European Orthodox simply as The Crypt). This situation still stands.

This is important background information, and I think it was partly because I knew this that the canonization service struck me so profoundly.

The cathedral is a beautiful building. It’s often included among guidebook sites — one of the spots even a non-Orthodox visitor might wish to see in this part of Paris. According to the guide book Jim and I had with us, it was built in 1861, “designed by members of the St. Petersburg Fine Arts Academy and financed jointly by Tsar Alexander II and the local Russian community.”

The iconography reminded me very much of the work of the 19th-century Russian itinerant painters and iconographers, especially Vasnetsov. These were men who painted ordinary Russians — peasants, women, children — in a very compelling, compassionate way, a style which carried over into their icons. So even though the inside of the cathedral is quite splendid, there is something almost homely about the way it is decorated, something very human and solid. There are two large painted panels on either side of the church — one of Christ preaching from a boat on the Sea of Galilee to a great crowd of people, the other of Christ walking on the water, a small haloed figure in the moonlight moving across a vast expanse of water, and in both you sense that this is Christ of the people, the ordinary people. I have a feeling Mother Maria must have felt very much at home in this place, and that it may even have helped stir her feelings of great compassion for ordinary people.

We attended both the Saturday evening Vespers, which began with a panikhida — a final memorial service for those soon to be recognized as saints — and the Sunday Liturgy. The services were long, but no longer than you would expect for something of this magnitude in the unhurried Russian tradition.

In addition to the services themselves there were other things that struck meeven though we were “upstairs” in the Russian Church, there was a blend of French and Russian used throughout both services. (We spoke with a friend later on, the wife of a French priest, who said this has to be regarded as one of Mother Maria’s miracles.)

The archbishop for the Ecumenical Patriarchal Russian church in Western Europe, Archbishop Gabriel, is from Flanders, and his mother tongue is neither Russian nor French but Flemish. He conducted the service mainly in Slavonic and preached in French. We know him from years ago when he was the priest of the Russian church in Maastricht here in the Netherlands. (When I went up for the blessing during the Vespers service he smiled at me and said “Christus is opgestaan!”, the Easter greeting in Dutch.) Celebrating with him was Bishop Basil of Sergievo of the Moscow Patriarchate in Great Britain (successor to Metropolitan Anthony Bloom). Bishop Basil is an American but has lived in England for 35 years. So standing there in the center of that staunchly Russian church were two Western bishops. On the other side of Archbishop Gabriel was Bishop Silouan, who is serving the Romanian church in Western Europe.

Also present was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Paris, who was given a seat of honor in front of the iconostasis. Cardinal Lustiger was a dual representative at the canonization, not only of the Catholic Church but also of the Jewish community, since he is a convert from Judaism and always identifies himself as a Jew. He was born in Paris of Polish Jewish parents. When the Germans occupied the city he was sent to live with a Christian family and was baptized in 1940. His parents were both deported, and his mother was killed in Auschwitz. So this service, and the nature of the martyrdom of Mother Maria, Father Dimitri, Yuri Skobtsov and Ilya Fondaminsky must surely have meant a great deal to him.

We also noticed a very old, white-haired woman on the other side of the church — she had been provided with a chair and given a place of honor — and were later told that she was a fellow prisoner in Ravensbrück with Mother Maria and was with her until the end.

The church gradually filled to overflowing during both services. It must have taken nearly an hour to serve Communion.

Both the cathedral choirs provided music — the Russian choir and the French choir — and they switched back and forth. This meant that neither choir became exhausted, and the singing continued at the same glorious level all the way through both services. So here, again, was another sign of reconciliation — the Russian and the French choirs, singing together.

There were many priests involved in the services, but the most visually interesting was Father Serge Hackel. Father Serge wrote the book Pearl of Great Price, the story of Mother Maria, and it is partly due to his work that the life of Mother Maria became known to so many people in the West.

Father Serge was wearing an old, tattered, faded vestment of coarse fabric, obviously hand-embroidered. There’s a vestment with a story, I said to myself. Later on we discovered that this was a vestment Mother Maria herself had embroidered by hand for Father Dimitri. (We recalled that Mother Maria wrote with disdain about nuns who do nothing but embroider vestments for the clergy; so much for saintly consistency.)

After the Liturgy we met Father Serge out in the church parking lot, carrying his vestments in a plastic bag. Jim asked him if he could take a picture of the vestment, and he was only too happy to oblige. Then we asked if we could touch it, realizing instantly that this was a relic. He told us how he came to have this vestment. In 1967, a German film crew had come to Paris to do a film based on Fr. Serge’s biography of Mother Maria. At rue de Lourmel, in a room that served as the chapel vestry, Fr. Serge discovered vestments Mother Maria had made. Due to moth damage they were soon to be burned, he was told. Instead they were entrusted to Fr. Serge’s care and have since been repaired.

The high point of the canonization service occurred Saturday evening when the icons of the new saints were brought out. I knew this was going to happen, but I had no idea how strong the impact would be. There were actually five saints who were canonized, shown on two icons. One was an icon of Father Alexis d’Ugine Medvedkov, a Russian priest who worked in France after the Russian Revolution in great obscurity and humility; when his remains were unearthed they were discovered to be incorrupt. The other icon was of the martyrs Father Dimitri Klepinin, Mother Maria, Yuri, Skobtsov (Mother Maria’s son), and Ilya Fondaminsky, a Russian Jewish intellectual who was baptized after his arrest by the Nazis. [The icon plus two others are on the OPF website. Also on the site are articles about St. Dimitri, St. Ilya and St. Alexis. See St. Maria Skobtsova]

Many members of Father Dimitri’s family were at the services: his daughter Helene Arjakovsky and four of Helene’s children. Her daughter Tanya, Father Dimitri’s granddaughter, is a member of our parish in Amsterdam and is married to Deacon Hildo Bos. Tanya told us she and her mother felt as if they had been taken out of themselves, the services were so beautiful; they had to pinch themselves to make sure they were really awake. (Helene’s collection of essays — Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings — was recently published in English translation by Orbis Books.)

We were also happy to meet Father Paul Schroeder and Elizabeth and their two children at the canonization. The Schroeders had come all the way from California. After the Liturgy, we went to a small flat they had rented and went out to lunch with Elizabeth and Zachary (who, he told me proudly, is seven).

After visiting with the Schroeders we did something we had very much wanted to do — went on a pilgrimage to 77 Rue de Lourmel, once site of the house hospitality Mother Maria founded. It took some navigating by metro, but finally we found the place — a very ordinary Paris street, it was raining slightly, and once we got there we found that Mother Maria’s building was gone. In its place was a modern block of flats. But at the building’s entrance we discovered that someone had put up a white marble plaque with gold letters, explaining that this had been the place where Mother Maria and Father Dimitri had done their good work and saved the lives of many Jews, and that they had been killed by the Nazis. So even though the building is gone, they are commemorated on the streets of Paris to this day.

Nancy Forest-Flier is a translator and editor living in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

Photos of the canonization: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/164907/