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Monday, 10 August 2009

Royal Monastic - Princess Ileana of Romania, the Story of Mother Alexandra

Royal Monastic - Princess Ileana of Romania, the Story of Mother Alexandra
by Bev.Cooke. Conciliar Press Ministries, Ben Lomond, California, U.S.A. $15-95

Book Review by Fr John Salter

Princess Ileana was in every way a remarkable woman. She was the sister of King Carol of Romania and the daughter of the romantic Queen Marie, the colourful granddaughter of Queen Victoria, with her lily-filled rococo byzantine palaces. Ileana was a member of some of the most powerful families in the world at her birth. Not only was her mother a member of the British Royal Family, she was also the granddaughter of Tzar Alexander II of Russia, so she was born into a life of luxury and privilege, which was to begin to disintegrate at the end of World War I and to receive its coup-de-grace by the end of World War II, as far as the Balkan monarchies were concerned. The visits of her Romanov cousins had come to an end after 1917, all of them slaughtered at Ekaterinburg, and the Karageorgevitch dynasty was to be forced out of Yugoslavia and Ileana’s sister, Queen Marie of Yugoslavia, fled into exile in London in World War II.

The dynasty of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the German imported Royal House, was not without its dynastic problems, the most disturbing being the marriage of the Crown Prince, Carol, to a Romanian subject, Zizi Lambrino, in an Orthodox church in Odessa. This marriage, although in church and sacramentally valid, was not in conformity with the House rules of the ruling dynasty and it was annulled on the couples’ return to Bucharest. Carol then eloped with Mlle. Elena Lupescu to Portugal, leaving his son, Michael, as King, only to return and re-claim the throne from King Michael, Ileana’s nephew.

King Michael came to London for the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Phillip of Greece and Denmark, where he met his future bride, Princess Anne of Bourbon-Parma. Michael had only just emerged from a very difficult war. He had courageously arrested the fascist leader of his government, Antonescu, a government allied to Nazis Germany, and had thrown in his lot with the Western allies. Unfortunately the neighbouring “Western” Ally was Joseph Stalin, and it was not long before Romania had a Communist government foisted upon her. Nevertheless, King Michael managed to continue as king, but on his return from the Royal wedding in London it was made clear that he should leave the country. Ileana had tried to work, as far as was possible, with the Communist regime and she knew Anna Pauker, one of its leaders, well. This caused a certain estrangement from her nephew, the king, but her work was mostly relief work and she tried to get the best for the people from her contacts with the regime. By her charitable work and her nursing and care for those whose lives had been devastated by war, she proved even to the Communist regime, that she was no parasite living off the backs of the people. But eventually she too had to flee her beloved homeland.

After King Michael had arrested Antonescu in 1944 the Royal Family were virtually trapped in Romania since Hungary, still allied under Admiral Horthy with the Axis powers, had closed its border at Brasov.

In 1931 Ileana had married the Archduke Anton of Austria, a Hapsburg. She had become an Archduchess in a dynasty which had been at war with Romania only a few years earlier. Her brother, King Carol, exiled them both. They had six children: Stefan 1932-1998; Maria Ileana (Minola) 1933-1959; Alexandra (Sandi) 1935- ; Dominic (Niki) 1937- ; Maria Magdalena (Magi) 1939 - ; Elizabeth (Herzi) 1942 - .

In 1954 Ileana divorced Anton and married Stefan Issarescu. That marriage lasted until 1965 and they, too, were divorced. Ileana now sought the cloister. She had been a devoted member of the Romanian Orthodox Church and had written works of devotion and theology. In the late 1950s she came to the Serbian Cathedral of St. Sava in London with her sister Queen Marie of Yugoslavia to launch her book on the Nicene Creed, Symbol of Faith. This work was followed by her autobiography I Live Again.

It was Bishop Anthony (Bloom) of Sergievo, later to become Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh – Primate of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Church in London, who suggested that Ileana try her vocation at the Russian Orthodox Convent of The Protecting Veil of The Mother of God, in Bussy-en-Othe in France. She had, however, received permanent residency status in the United States, which necessitated her living for certain periods of each year in America. Thus it came about that she shuttled between France and the U.S.A. The Convent at Bussy was not French-speaking in its liturgy, but used Old Slavonic, a language which Ileana did not understand. Another difficulty was the lack of privacy; as one nun put it, “It is like living with (several) of your not-so-closest friends”. But Ileana felt called to America and to share the riches of the Orthodox tradition with that continent. She returned to America and began plans for establishing a Pan-Orthodox English-speaking monastic community.

She approached the Primates of the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the States: Metropolitan Ireney, head of what was then the Metropolia and would later become the Orthodox Church in America, granted autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate; Archbishop Jakovos of the Greek Archdiocese under the Ecumenical Throne and Metropolitan Phillip of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Metropolitan Ireney accepted the potential monastery into his jurisdiction, with the Romanian Archbishop Valerian as its spiritual director.

The English translations of the services of the Orthodox Church, on which Ileana’s fellow nun, Mother Mary, had worked, and which would provide the basis for the monastery’s work in the United States. Father Timothy (Ware), now Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, encouraged their efforts and their translations of the Octoechos, the Lenten Tridion and the Festal Menaion are still used today in English language Orthodox churches in the United States and Canada.

A decision had to be made as to where the monastery was to be located. Ileana felt drawn to the Nevada desert, but if it were to be a centre where the laity could be educated in the monastic way of life it had to be more accessible. Pennsylvania was chosen as it had a considerable number of Orthodox Christians settled there, and it was of easier access not only for residents in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., but also Canada.

The monastery was dedicated to the mystery of the Holy Transfiguration of Christ, where those who lived there and those who visited it could be transformed, and where “the peace that passeth all understanding” might be nurtured. She became its first igumena, or abbess, taking the name Alexandra. She, thus, became the third female descendant of Queen Victoria to become a Mother Superior in a convent of her own foundation. The first was the Grand Princess Sergei, the Tzarina Alexandra Feodrovna’s sister (both Princesses of Hesse-and-by-Rhine), now venerated as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church and whose image adorns the west front of Westminster Abbey among other modern martyrs; the second was Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, who founded her Order in Athens on the rule of her aunt’s Order of SS. Mary and Martha in Moscow. Whether “Gan-Gan” would have been “amused” by her descendants choices we shall never know this side of the grave! Mother Alexandra reposed in the Lord in 1991. A twenty-one gun salute had signalled her Royal birth, the Thrice Holy Hymn and the tolling of the monastery bells accompanied her burial and a pot of the soil of her beloved Romania was buried with her. She left behind a large number of descendants.

Bev Cooke has written an attractive portrait of Princess Ileana of Romania, Archduchess of Austria, Mother Alexandra, without being mawkish or hagiographical. The book has interesting family photographs, some of which may not have been seen outside the Royal Family before.

This is what Ileana’s successor as igumena has written:

“Bev. Cooke’s extensive research, coupled with her storytelling ability, makes Royal monastic a comprehensive and enjoyable read for any age. We are sure the readers will learn to appreciate this remarkable woman who in some ways could identify with everyone she met, yet in other ways with no one on earth.”
Mother Christophora, Abbess.
And an Orthodox priest wrote:

“Here is a book that makes sanctity believable as well as attractive. At the end of the book, we feel that we truly know the saintly protagonist, and wish that we could get to know her even better.”
Archpriest Lawrence.
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