Saints of Recent Decades: St. Maria of Paris
In 1891, in Riga, Latvia, a baby girl named Elizabeta (“Liza,” to her family) was born to the Pilenko family. The Pilenkos were Orthodox Christians, and raised Liza in the faith. When she was 14, Liza’s father died, and Liza was so upset that she gave up her Faith. When the family moved to St. Petersburg, instead of going to church, Liza began to hang out with radical people who, like her, liked to read and wanted to make the world better. They would spend hours talking about revolution and about theology, but (in Liza’s words) they “seemed to do nothing but talk.” She wanted to actually DO something to make a change. Years passed, and Liza slowly came back to her faith.
When she was only 18, Liza got married. Three years later, she left her husband and moved back to the house where she grew up. While she was there, she gave birth to her daughter Gaiana. Three years after Gaiana’s birth, Liza was accepted as a student at the Theological Academy of The Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. She was the very first woman to study there! For a while in 1918, Liza was the mayor of her town. This was during the time that the Bolsheviks were taking over Russia, and she was accused of being part of their Red Army. She was arrested and taken to trial. Her judge, Daniel Skobstova, said she was innocent, and he had her released instead of executed. After she was free, she went to find him to thank him. They quickly became friends and were married only a few days later!
Right after the wedding, as the Bolsheviks got stronger in Russia, Liza and her whole family left the country. They didn’t want to be part of all the horrible things that happen during a revolution. They traveled through Tblisi and other parts of the country of Georgia; through Istanbul, Turkey; and through parts of Yugoslavia. They ended up in Paris, France, where they settled down to live. In the time that they moved around, Liza gave birth to two other children: her son Yura and her daughter Anastasia. Once the family settled in Paris, Liza made dolls and painted silk scarves to help provide for all of them. She also began to work with the Christian Student Movement to help other Russian refugees who lived there. Many of them had a much harder life than she did. But her bad things still happened to her family: unfortunately, in the winter of 1926, Liza’s whole family got the flu. Little Anastasia died from it. But this time, a death in her family did not drive Liza away from the Faith: instead, it made her faith stronger! She began to work even harder to help the refugees. She wanted to live a more real, more pure Christian life than ever. Sadly, all of this work was hard on her marriage to Daniel, and she left him, moved into her mother’s house, and continued her work.
In 1932, Metropolitan Evlogy tonsured her a nun and encouraged her to develop a new kind of monasticism: the life of a nun living in the city and serving the needy people there instead of living out alone in the countryside. So Liza, now “Mother Maria,” began her work of sharing her life with the poor and homeless.
She started with a small empty house, sleeping her first night on the floor under the icon of the Protection of the Mother of God. Others came to join her as she served the Russian refugees, and soon her room in the house was needed for others, so instead, she slept in the basement by the boiler. An upstairs room became the chapel, and Mother Maria wrote the icons on the icon screen. Before too long, she was able to set up a home at 77 Rue de Lourmel (77 Lourmel Street) in Paris that was larger and had much more space. In this new space, she and the others serving with her began to prepare dinner for those who needed food. They served up to 120 every night! Sometimes they would turn the dining room into a hall where Orthodox leaders would come to teach about the Faith. At this house, the stables out back became a chapel, and again Mother Maria contributed many of the icons, some of them were icons that she embroidered. Mother Maria rented other buildings around Paris that she then shared with the poor so that needy families would have a place to live. She started a hospital for people sick with tuberculosis. She began schools for children. She visited mental hospitals just so she could look for Russian refugees. Because these people were so poor and didn’t speak French well, they had been labeled as mentally ill and put in mental hospitals - even if they were in their right minds! Mother Maria would rescue them from the mental hospital and help them.
She also helped to start an organization called “Orthodox Action,” which provided safe places for travelers or for the elderly to stay. The people in the Orthodox Action group also helped people who did not have a job, worked in hospitals, aided elderly people, and published books and pamphlets. Mother Maria was living up to her youthful dream of DOING something for change, not just talking about it!
When the Holocaust began and edged closer to Paris, of course Mother Maria did all that she could to help save the Jewish people who reached out for help. Her priest, Fr. Dimitri Klepinin, would make baptismal certificates for any Jewish person who asked for one. (Any Jew that had a certificate saying they had converted to Christianity and were no longer Jewish was in less danger.) Mother Maria, her son Yura, and Fr. Dimitri would then plan escape routes for the Jewish people who asked them for help. In 1942, Mother Maria somehow got into the Velodrome d’Hiver. This winter stadium was where many of the Jews in Paris were being kept before they were taken to Nazi death camps. While Mother Maria was in the Velodrome, she did whatever she could to help the Jewish people that she met in there. One way that she helped was by sneaking Jewish children out of the Velodrome to safety! She made arrangements with some of Paris’ trash haulers, who helped her take the children out of the Velodrome inside trash cans, and then drove them in trash trucks to Mother Maria’s house, where she would help to arrange for their escape from Paris.
Mother Maria was finally caught by the Nazis in 1943. They arrested her for helping the Jewish people and took her to Ravensbruck, one of the concentration camps. Even while she was a prisoner in that Nazi camp, Mother Maria was helping people. One survivor talked about her later and said she was adored by everyone, but especially the young prisoners. They had been separated from their families, but Mother Maria became their family and cared for them. She was known to give her “meal” (piece of bread) to anyone that she thought needed it more than she did. She lived this way until she died. On April 30, 1945, Mother Maria was killed in a gas chamber. We are not sure if she was selected to die that day or if she volunteered to take the place of someone else who was. Either way, she died because of the way she lived her faith.
Mother Maria once said, “At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.” And she lived exactly that way. But she went beyond just feeding, clothing, visiting, and helping the others in her care: she actually saw everyone she met as “the very icon of God incarnate in the world,” and she treated them as such. She may even have died in the place of one of those “icons of God,” walking out the Faith to the very last moment of her earthly life.
You became a bride of Christ, O venerable Mother,
And offered your body and soul to Him as a living sacrifice.
You exposed the evil side of humanity’s ways
By allowing the light of the Resurrection to shine forth from you.
We celebrate your memory in love.
O Martyr and Confessor Maria
Pray to Christ our God that He may save our souls.
Here are a few ideas of ways to help your students learn more about St. Maria of Paris:
- Find a few pictures of St. Maria of Paris in this article about her life.
- Find several icons of St. Maria of Paris here.
- Younger children will enjoy learning about St. Maria of Paris through the picture book, "Silent As a Stone," by Jim Forest. It tells the story of when she snuck Jewish kids out of captivity in trash cans. Before Sunday Church School begins, roll a big (clean, wheeled) outdoor trash can into the middle of your classroom and have it sitting there at the beginning of class. The students will be curious about it, and you can tell them it makes you think of faith and how to live as a true Christian. Entertain their ideas and suggestions of why that is. Then, share the book about St. Maria with them, and then talk together again about the trash can. Can they now tell you why a trash can reminds you of faith and how to live as a true follower of Christ? Give each of student a turn to "be" one of the children being saved from the velodrome while you act the part of St. Maria or one of the Parisian trash workers. Help them into the trash can, close the lid, and push it around a little, then help them out. After whoever wants one has a turn, talk about how it must have felt for the Jewish children in Paris to be in the trash. Their people were being treated as (less than) trash, but St. Maria knew that because they are people made in the image of God, they are not trash but treasures, and she therefore rescued as many as she was able before being caught. Talk together as a class: how can WE see the people around US as treasures, not trash, and rescue them when they need help? Invite the students to draw, tell, or write a plan of how they can do that. Encourage them to look out for those around them who may feel like trash, and be ready to help however they can. (In future weeks, remember to offer the opportunity for students to share any times that they were able by God's grace to help someone who needed it.)
- Because St. Maria loved to read and write, we have many of her quotes. Discuss this one with your Sunday Church School students: "Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world." If that is true, how should we treat each person? Describe different types of people to your students (some wonderful, some terrible) and invite them to tell how they should treat each person described as an icon of Christ. Give each student their own copy of the quote (PDF) and invite them to draw or write their responses to the quote around the edge of the quote itself.
- With older Sunday Church School students, listen to this podcast about St. Maria. Talk together about the saint's life and the challenge that the podcaster, Mariam Youssef, extends to the listeners as a result of St. Maria's life..
- With teens, discuss this section of Bev Cooke's article about St. Maria of Paris.
"It wasn't enough to just feed the hungry. 'I should say that we should not give away a single piece of bread unless the recipient means something as a person for us,' she wrote. And she meant it. Late at night, she would travel to the Parisian market, Les Halles, to a restaurant that stayed open all night. For the price of a single glass of wine, anyone could sit (and sleep) there. It wasn't unusual for St. Maria to bring several people home from the place, or to tell them, while collecting the food that the merchants in the market donated to her, to come to her house for dinner that night. She would often skip liturgy, or leave it early in order to begin preparing a meal for up to 120 guests.
"Her legacy to us is clear: we need to help each other, and look upon everyone – every single human being with whom we interact, whether our family, our friends, or a stranger on the street – not only as a brother or a sister in Christ, but as the very icon of God in the world. For, as she pointed out, 'About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person, the Savior says 'I': 'I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.' To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . It fills me with awe.'"
How did St. Maria live that demonstrated that? How can WE live like that? What can we do as a parish, a Sunday Church School class, as individuals to show that we know that Christ is every hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned person?