The first information about sisters of mercy, helping the afflicted, dates back to the middle ages. Sisters' community existed in the East (Constantinople, Beirut, Jerusalem, Cairo), in Germany, in Russia (Saint Petersburg, Vyborg, Riga). Starting from mid-XIX century, protestant nuns and sisters of mercy were tending wounded soldiers during wars. The public movement of sisters of mercy in the Russian Empire originated during the Crimean war of 1854-1856. At that time, two brave women from two fighting countries - Englishwoman Florence Nightingale and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna of Russia (born as Princess Friederike Charlotte Marie of Württemberg and the wife of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich of Russia), started patronizing charitable organizations, helping fighting soldiers. Elena Pavlovna founded a group of nursing sisters which would eventually become the forerunners of the Red Cross in Russia.
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia was one of the most famous followers of the movement in Russia. After her husband's assassination (Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia) by Socialist-Revolutionaries, Elizabeth Feodorovna sold off her magnificent collection of jewels and sold her other luxurious possessions; even her wedding ring was not spared. In 1909, with the proceeds she opened the Convent of Sts. Martha and Mary (Marfo-Mariinsky Convent) and became its abbess. She soon opened a hospital, a chapel, a pharmacy and an orphanage on its grounds. Elizabeth and her nuns worked tirelessly among the poor and the sick of Moscow. She often visited Moscow’s worst slums and did all she could to help alleviate the suffering of the poor.
For many years, Elizabeth's institution helped the poor and the orphans in Moscow by fostering the prayer and charity of devout women. Elizabeth was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1981 as New Martyr Elizabeth.
In 1998, the institution of sisters of mercy in honor of New Martyr Elizabeth and nun Barbara was founded in Kyiv by abbot of Michael cathedral hospital, first metropolitan of Kyiv Roman Baranovski. There are 145 sisters serving in the cathedral nowadays.
Entering the Aleksandrovksa hospital, you can see their white robes with crosses. Every sister is engaged into several obediences.
Sisters prepare food and give it to all comers. From noon to late evening there is a line of people, coming here to warm up and eat.
Sisters read Psalms day and night, which is a rare case, as usually only convents hold such intense services.
The main task of sisters of mercy is to help, comfort and just be near in the moment of difficulty.
Though modern sisters do not have to bring wounded soldiers out of the field, their labor has not become easier.
As ForUm learned from elder sister Inna, there are about 20 communities of sisters of mercy in Ukraine, affiliated with Orthodox cathedral. Sisters help to take care of sick people, feed and dress the homeless, are engaged into spiritual and educational work.
For the moment the social projects of sisters of mercy do not get financial support of the state, thus sisters must collect means using their own resources.
- The money we have comes from private donations of cathedral's parish or from people who agree to help, sister Inna says. - For this sisters go to markets and collect offerings. This is one of the most difficult obediences. Nowadays, love and mercy are not among the priorities. These moral virtues do not bring profit, thus the practical world rejects them. Sisters try to explain to people that the collected means are aimed for those in need, who have more difficult situation than the donator himself.
To have certain constant income, sisters have opened a small shop on the territory of the cathedral, and earned means are used to buy food and medicine for help seekers.
Sisters also give guidance to patients of the mental hospital in Glevakha and regularly visit the orthodox community in Chernihiv female penal colony.
Together with sisters Kateryna and Yulia we went to Aleksandrovska hospital to visit Yuri, who underwent a complicated leg operation.
- Our assistance includes not only to turn a patient from one side to another or to bring him food, sister Kateryna says. - We provide spiritual guidance. If a person felt ill, it means the God gives him a signal to revise his deeds and life. Sisters prepare patients to confession, invite a priest, bring holy water and literature. We had cases when people got baptized right in the hospital. We teach to love the illness. When a patient accepts his condition as God's will, there are cases that illness disappears without any eternal interference.
There are patients in Aleksandrovksa hospital who cannot pay for the treatment, and the sisters of mercy purchase necessary medicine for them.
In the morning sisters brought Yuri breakfast, and now it is time for conversation and reading.
'Roommates' of the boy are a little envious of such attention, and sisters are offering them holy water and books.
The life of sisters of mercy is difficult, as well as their journey to mercy.
Sister Kateryna has been serving in community for ten years.
- My younger son died when he was 27, then I lost my mom. I started to come to this cathedral and prayers of father Roman warmed up my soul. I decided to serve the God. I joined the sacred procession ten years ago and I am still here, she told ForUm.
Despite young age, Yulia has been with sisters for four years already. With blessing of the abbot, she regularly goes to serve in Aleskandr Metochion in Jerusalem.
- Our sisters go there in turns for three months, she tells. - They cook, clean and meet pilgrims. Sometimes they guide tours for out tourists and read Psalms.
Elder sister Inna has three children, and her husband serves in a monastery.
- I had an ordinary life. I was brought up in atheistic surrounding, as my parents held executive positions under soviet regime. However, I've always been seeker. I believe thousand years of orthodox history leave traces in your genes. My first child has been frail since birth, and though it was not the reason of dramatic changes, it definitely speeded up the process of inner search. A person cannot live without faith. Even an atheist believes that God does not exist, thought his faith does not have sense.
As ForUm learned from elder sister Inna, any woman can become a sister of mercy, but first she must pass a probation period.
- Women, coming to us and saying they want to become sisters of mercy, usually look at our services as at certain amount of work to do. But this is a protestant approach. In orthodoxy, the sisterhood is closely connected to spiritual development. The sisters' task is to reveal spiritual reasons of distressful situation. During the probation period, we hold talks with newcomers and teach basics of orthodoxy. New sisters have to overcome indifference and egoism inside them and learn to sacrifice. We can change someone only after having changed ourselves. Mercy is a sacrifice. And when you give your last candy to someone else, it is only the beginning of orthodoxy.
Sister Inna assures that their sisterhood is only a school of sisters of mercy, and there are no true Elizabeths Fedorovnas yet among them.
Sisters of mercy dream that the state launches joint with the Orthodox Church social projects. With state financing, they dream to create a convent, similar to Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow, and where they will live and work, opening their own shops and even hospitals.
Meanwhile, followers of New Martyr Elizabeth continue their daily routine, giving hope and kindness to those who need it.
Anastasia Pika, photos by Viktor Kovalchuk
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