Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945)
The way to God lies through the love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall
not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, not 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.
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. …I always knew it, but now it has
somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.
—MOTHER MARIA SKOBTSOVA
The nun, radical social activist, and martyr we know as Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945) had many names, roles, and identities in her life.1 The diverse sides of her personality, the many gifts with which she was endowed, and the various ways in which she exerted her spiritual, artistic, and philanthropic energies are at first overwhelming. It is as if she could not live just one life. She was an artist but also a political activist. She distanced herself from the faith into which she had been baptized, yet later, Christ, the gospel, and the direct care of suffering people defined her existence.
Born Elisaveta Iurevna Pilenko in Riga, Latvia, she grew up in her family's homes in St. Petersburg and in Anapa, by the Black Sea in the south of Russia. Her birth was difficult, requiring a Caesarian section. All her biographers cite her mother Sophie Pilenko's observation that during her life, Liza, as her family called her, became well acquainted with death. At her baptism, she almost suffocated during the triple immersion. Her father Iouri died suddenly in 1906, propelling her already weakened faith into a crisis. How could a good God permit such a good man to die when his family so needed him? She would bury two of her three children before her