Giving Their Lives in Service

THRIVING WORSHIPPING COMMUNITIES OFTEN “give birth” to small groups who devote themselves to one type of service or another: choirs, altar guilds, transport providers, food pantry coordinators and the like. Usually these groups are task-oriented: they remain lay parishioners and come together only to perform the service their group has embraced.

Sometimes the needs are so great in a given place or time that the people commit themselves to a consecrated life of service in order to address an emerging need which existing Church structures are not equipped to handle. The Russian Orthodox Sisterhood of St. Elizabeth in Minsk, Belarus is such a community.

At the end of Soviet rule, some Orthodox Christians in Minsk decided to pool their efforts to help rebuild the city’s Cathedral, destroyed under Communism. They began performing menial tasks, such as carting away construction debris. They soon realized the scope of the reconstruction needed: the entire nation, not just one church building, would have to be rebuilt.

A group of these volunteers formed the Sisterhood of St Elizabeth, now numbering over 300 members, who devote themselves to caring for people with special needs in a number of residential centers in the Minsk area. They help the residents develop a lifestyle based on the cycles and the values of the Church’s traditions, rather than on the eclectic ideas of modern throw-away culture. The members of the sisterhood concentrate on supporting the residents by establishing relationships, discussing problems and challenges, and providing spiritual counsel as well. Some members support this work by maintaining church shops throughout the capital, and conducting a world-wide religious goods service which distributes items all over the world.

Not monastics in the traditional Eastern sense, these “sisters of mercy” embrace a way of life based chiefly on service, rather than on prayer and fasting. In this they resemble many religious orders in the Western Church devoted to teaching, nursing and similar pursuits.

Members of the sisterhood offer a holistic lifestyle to people at risk from the brokenness of a post-Communist civilization. “The world teaches us to be egoists: live for your own sake and it doesn’t matter how other people live!” the sisters reason. “That is why the ministry of a sister of mercy who sacrifices her time, her energy, and her heart to serve her neighbors is rewarded a hundredfold. The Lord gives one an experience of love and mercy they will need when they pass from this temporary life to the eternal one.”

Sisterhood members serve in a 180-bed men’s rehabilitation center, and two similar centers for women and children, where people develop agricultural and construction skills and experience basic human inter-action, which many lack. As the sisterhood grew, it began first a kindergarten and then a primary school. More recently, it has organized a visiting nurse service to care for the homebound.

“Every individual is like a damaged icon that reveals her bright face to the extent that she is purified from sin through repentance,” the sisterhood teaches. “We need to do our best to help people to become pure, to start seeing God’s image within them, and to put effort into fighting their sins and passions. This is not an easy task, so no one can do it on her own, without God’s help and the support of her neighbors. However, if one has hope, faith, and trust in God, coupled with mutual pursuit of Love, everything is possible!”

Offshoots of the Sisterhood

Often monasteries attract volunteers who visit the monastery regularly and offer their services in whatever capacity is needed. In Minsk the opposite occurred. Five years after the sisterhood was organized, several helpers who had been drawn by the dedicated lives of the sisters sought to embrace the full monastic life. There are now over 130 monastic sisters in the community.

Other offshoots of the sisterhood include a youth movement, which was particularly important in reviving the Church after the Communist period. Some of the young people helped organize the several choirs which sing in the chapels of the convent and rehabilitation centers. The Festival Choir, composed of professional musicians, has issued several recordings in support of the works of the sisterhood.

“Deaconing” in Central Africa

In February, 2016, it was reported that the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria had ordained several women as deacons. In fact he had blessed (not ordained) five women to enter ecclesiastical ministry for service in the Church’s 20 central African dioceses. One other woman, a senior catechist, was blessed as “deaconess of the mission” but not ordained sacramentally.

In Byzantine and Western Churches, the term deacon refers exclusively to a man ordained to the first rank in the mystery of the priesthood. In other Eastern Churches the terminology is different. The “full deacon” or “altar deacon” has the sacramental rank; all other ministries, such as catechists or chanters and even altar servers, may be called deacons.

The word deacon comes from a Greek word for servant, and in these Eastern Churches women in the service of the Church, usually as chanters or catechists, are often called deacons. In several Eastern Churches women serving as catechists or chanters are called “deacons;” some wear the orarion.

In the Coptic Orthodox Church, there are deaconesses who live in celibate communities, much like nuns, but their primary focus is service. They are active in conducting religious education and child care, caring for the sick and the needy.

Deaconesses in the Armenian Church are usually found in women’s monasteries – particularly those in “the wilderness.” They are considered true deacons, primarily ordained to provide the Eucharist to the solitaries. Their ministry is not limited to monasteries, however.

St Elizabeth the New-Martyr

The convent and sisterhood in Minsk is named after St Elizabeth Feodorovna. She was the daughter of a German duke who had married the brother of Russian Tsar Alexander III in 1884. In 1905, her husband was assassinated and Elizabeth began re-evaluating her life. On the day of his funeral, she arranged free meals for the poor and homeless of Moscow. She sold her jewelry, furs and other luxuries and used the money to establish a new convent in Moscow, the Monastery of Ss Martha and Mary.

The nuns observed both the traditional ascetical life (Mary) and a ministry of service (Martha). Elisabeth and the other sisters visited the sick, did housework for struggling families and took care of abandoned children, visiting the poorest and most dangerous parts of Moscow. She also established a hospital, with free care for anyone who came to their door, founded a rent-free hostel for female workers and students, a clinic, a school for nurses, a library and a soup kitchen, serving more than 300 meals daily to the poor. 

On the day of her tonsure, Elizabeth had said to her fellow nuns: I am leaving the brilliant world where I have occupied a high position, and now, together with all of you, I am about to ascend into a much greater world, the world of the poor and afflicted. As an ascetic, Elizabeth slept on a wooden bed without a mattress, often for no more than three hours a night. She would rise at midnight for prayer, and spend the rest of the night at the bedside of a seriously ill patient. She was martyred in 1918 because she was a member of the royal family.