Pilgrimage to Germany 12–16 May 2011

The Russian Orthodox Sisterhood near Bodiam, East Sussex, and the community which worships there, is under the protection of the Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth and all the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. This year Archbishop Elisey gave us a blessing to organise a pilgrimage to Germany, the country of our Saint's birth, to venerate the places connected with her early life and her family.

Our group comprised sixteen pilgrims, one of them was Elizabeth, named after our Holy Martyr, a German recently converted to Orthodoxy. Half of the group, headed by nun Martha, represented the Sisterhood and its community, the rest the communities of London and Cambridge. We flew from London to Munich and stayed for two nights at the recently established Russian Church Abroad convent of Saint Elizabeth at Buchendorf, near Munich. This is a very quiet and peaceful place and Mother Maria and the Sisters were very generous in offering hospitality to such a large group as they had never accommodated a pilgrimage group before. There are ten nuns at the convent which is housed in spacious buildings formerly belonging to a Roman Catholic religious order. We were invited to attend all convent services, which started at 4 am in the morning. The liturgy was served by Father Avraamy, an Optina monk. One of our pilgrims noted that the iconostas in the nuns’ chapel was the same one which had for many years adorned the old ROCOR cathedral in London near Gloucester Road. He was received to Orthodoxy in front of this iconostasis in 1963. Another striking and significant discovery was that the relics of Saint Elizabeth and her co-martyr and Nun Barbara, exposed for the veneration, are the same that had been brought to our Sisterhood in August 2010 by Vladika Elisey. The reliquary was made from the coffins of the saints.

In Munich we visited the former Royal Residence, a magnificent palace, containing at its heart, a chapel and huge collection of relics of early saints; for example the hands of Saints John the Baptist, Dionysius, Barbara and John Chrysostom as well as many other precious objects. The old Wittelsbach dynasty of Bavaria always regarded this collection as more valuable than all their wonderful paintings and furniture. Some of the relics were saved by the Bavarian rulers (after the Reformation they were the only Catholic dynasty left in Germany) from cities in north Germany which had become Protestant.

Also in Munich we venerated the heads of the Holy Unmercenary Martyrs Cosmas and Damian, which are kept in the church of Saint Michael and are often visited by the local Orthodox faithful.

Finally we were shown the new and magnificent ROCOR Cathedral, dedicated to the New Martyrs of Russia, and where Archbishop of Berlin and Germany and Great Britain Mark normally resides. Father Nikolai Artemoff told us the fascinating history of a new martyr, a former parishioner Alexander Schmorell, a young Russian medical student, who was executed by Nazis in 1943. Preparations are underway for his glorification. In the evening we attended the Vigil at the Monastery of Saint Job of Pochaev in a peaceful suburb of Munich. This monastery is also under the omophorion of Archbishop Mark

On the morning of the 14th, we travelled to Damstadt, birthplace of our Saint Elizabeth, where we were warmly received, guided and fed for two days by the community of Saint Mary Magdalene (ROCOR) and its priest Father Ioann Grinchuk. We all were deeply touched by their generosity and brotherly attitude towards us. The church is famous in Germany and was built by the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas in the 1890s as a special gift for his wife, who also of course belonged to the Hesse-Damstadt ruling Dynasty. It is richly decorated and rests on soil brought from Russia. Though built as a small family chapel, it now has to serve a large and growing Orthodox community mostly of recently arrived from Russsia and other countries.

In Darmstadt we visted the Schlossmuseum, housed in the former Royal palace, where we discovered many paintings portraying the saint’s family members and some private belongings of the Royal Saints. After that we travelled, in transport organised by the Damstadt parish, to the Kranichstein Hunting Lodge where Saint Elizabeth often stayed as a child and teenager. In the evening we attended the Saturday evening Vigil Service at the Damstadt church, and during the supper prepared by the parishioners we were watching very interesting and rare video material about the houses and monuments connected to the late members of Hesse family which survived heavy Allied bombing during the War.

Early on Sunday morning we were able to see various relevant city sights: the house in which Saint Elizabeth was born, the beautiful monument to her charitable and still revered mother, Princess Alice of Great Britain, and the Mausoleum in the Rosegarden where many of the Hessian Grand Ducal family are buried. We then attended the Divine Liturgy, which was crowded with local Orthodox people, and for the third time were invited to eat a meal prepared by parishioners. After the meal we spoke about our Sisterhood, its aims and problems. We shared with our hosts, recently acquired information about Saint Elizabeth's family visits to Eastbourne, a seaside resort which is located near our Sisterhood at Bodiam.

In the afternoon we visited the grounds of Wolfsgarten, a residence of present Landgrave of Hesse, Moritz, which is only accessible to the public on two weekends in the year. This also has many associations with our Saints and we were specially permitted to enter the “Russian Chapel,” a wooden building in the park which was built by Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig, brother of Saint Elizabeth and Saint Alexandra.

On saying farewell to Damstadt and our kind and generous hosts, we travelled to nearby Wiesbaden where there is a magnificent Russian Orthodox church, built on a hill overlooking the town in 1855, in memory of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna, who married the local ruler and died giving birth to her first child. We were given an interesting account of the church’s history by the local priest’s matushka.

Monday 16th May was the final day of our pilgrimage. This was spent in the beautiful Baroque city of Fulda, to the northeast of Damstadt. In the Catholic cathedral, where we were guided by Vladimir, a member of the local Orthodox community, to the tomb and relics of the great Apostle of Germany, Saint Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon missionary from Devon, who founded a monastery at Fulda and was martyred in Frisia in the year 754. After singing the saint’s tropar and kontakion we visited the nearby St Michael’s chapel, the lower part of which is said to be the oldest church building in Germany and which long predates the Schism. Outside Fulda we visited Petersburg where there is a small convent of Catholic nuns and an ancient church with the tomb of Saint Lioba. This saint, a kinswoman of Saint Boniface and founder of women’s monasticism in the Hesse region, is still remembered in Germany though sadly almost forgotten in her English homeland. She had originally been a nun at Wimbourne in Dorset.

Thus our short but crowded pilgrimage was concluded, leaving us with many unforgettable spiritual impressions and memories. The Pascal joy which we were experienced there every day was connected, as we believe, with the presence of our Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth who helped us to organise this pilgrimage and who protected us throughout our journeys.

John and Maria Harwood
May 2011

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