The Official Act of Canonization of Mother Maria (Skobtsova), Yuri Skobtsov, Fr Dimitri Klepinine, Elie Fondaminskii and Fr Alexis Medvedkov
The Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is based in Istanbul (Turkey) resolved, during its session of 16 January  on the Canonization of Fr Alexis Medvedkov (1867 – 1934), also of Fr Dimitri Klepinine (1904-1944) of Mother Maria (Skobtsova) (1891-1945) and of their companions George (Yuri) Skobtsov (1921-1944) and Elie Fondaminskii (1880-1942), outstanding personalities of the spiritual history of the Russian emigration in France. This Canonization followed the request presented to the Patriarchate, in September 2003, by Archbishop Gabriel, who heads the [Patriarchal] archdiocese of parishes of the Russian tradition in Western Europe.
This is the first time that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has canonized people who lived a part of their lives in Western Europe. Addressing the Synodal Act of Canonization to Archbishop Gabriel, The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has asked all the metropolitans of other Patriarchal dioceses in Western Europe to commemorate these new saints in their respective dioceses. Their liturgical commemoration has been fixed by the Patriarchate on 20 July, the feast of the Holy Prophet Elijah. For his part, Archbishop Gabriel has decided also to inscribe their names in the liturgical calendar of the archdiocese on the date of the death of each of them. “By our present patriarchal and fraternal letter [—] we have the opportunity to let [you] know the outcome of the request that you made of us concerning the Archpriest Alexi Medvedkov, the priest Dimitri Klepinine, the nun Maria (Skobtsova) and her son Yuri Skobtsov and also of Elie Fondaminskii, who are distinguished by the purity and the sanctity of their lives. In conformity with the practice and the usage of our Holy Orthodox Church, we have inscribed their names in the list of her saints. Their memory is to be celebrated on 20 July each year” writes Patriarch Bartholomew I in his letter.
The Synodal Act makes it clear that “the Holy Church of Christ knows to honor and celebrate for ever in all piety and in hymns and praises those who in the present life conduct themselves in a holy and pious manner, and who exert themselves in word and deed in the service and in the love of God and of the neighbor, and who, after their departure for the beyond, through signs and miracles have been confirmed by God, and to invoke their intercession, which is acceptable to the very good God, for the remission of sins and the healing of the sick”.
“It is just as it appeared to be during their lives: the Archpriest Alexei Medvedkov, the Priest Dimitri Klepinine, the nun Maria Skobtsova and her son George Skobtsov and Elie Fondaminskii, born in Russia, and who served in the bosom of our Patriarchal Exarchate of Orthodox parishes of the Russian tradition in Western Europe, during the first part of the 20th Century – they were distinguished by the asceticism and holiness of their lives, and, by the dignity of their life and their good example, they have contributed to the edification of the souls of many of the faithful; several of them, during the Second World War, suffered greatly from evils and were subjected to torments, which they bore with fortitude” continues the Synodal Act.
“In consequence, we have decided, following the usual practice of the Church to accord to these very holy people the honor which is due to them. This is why we have decreed and ordered in Synod, and recommended in the Holy Spirit, that the Archpriest Alexei Medvedkov, the Priest Dimitri Klepinine, the nun Maria Skobtsova and her son George Skobtsov and Elie Fondaminskii, who ended their life in sanctity and, certainly, in martyrdom, be counted among the blessed martyrs and saints of the Church, honored by the faithful and celebrated in hymns of praises”, the document continued.
In a message to the clergy and members of the parishes of the archdiocese, dated 11 February, Archbishop Gabriel underlined the importance for Orthodox witness in France and, more generally, in Western Europe of the “glorification” of these saints, the first saints of the Orthodox Church in the modern age to have lived in the West.
“All five, each in accordance with the gifts which they received from the Holy Spirit and following the moments and the times willed by our Creator and Master, have been servants devoted to the Church of Christ. Led by Divine Providence, following the tragic events which drenched their native land in blood, they came here, to the land of France, and here zealously carried out their pastoral ministry and their Christian engagement in society, in the context of our archdiocese,” he writes, before expounding the spiritual lesson of their life and their commitment: “Faced with the trials of our times, they bring us a message of comfort and hope of absolute faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ: humility, gentleness, self-denial, concern for the weak and the oppressed, service to one’s neighbor, a spirit of sacrifice and love, because ‘There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s Friend (Jn 15,13)’.
The witness of these saints is situated in a critical moment when Russian Orthodoxy is trying to organize itself in Western Europe, and in a general sense in the ‘diaspora’ outside the canonical boundaries of the Church of Russia. Holiness always possesses a timeless and universal dimension of participation in the Divine Holiness. But, at the same time, it takes root in time and space, that is to say in the blessed and sad history of the Russian diaspora in the West. In short, it takes root, there where the Lord calls us in our turn to bear witness to our faith in Him, in communion with the saints of all times, in particular – for us – those of the land of France” continues Archbishop Gabriel, who announces that the celebrations on the occasion of the Canonization of the new saints will take place 1 and 2 May, in Paris, at the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky, seat of the archdiocese, and that representatives of the dioceses of the different canonical jurisdictions present in France and its neighboring countries will be invited to participate.
“The Church is built on the blood of the martyrs and by the prayer of the righteous. These saints will be for us a comfort in our earthly trials; tireless intercessors before the Lord our God, having our salvation in view, and guides on the way of the Heavenly Kingdom”, declares Archbishop Gabriel in conclusion.
Fr Alexei Medvedkov was, before the Russian Revolution, the priest of a small village in the region of St Petersburg. Arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1918, he escaped from the firing squad thanks to his close relatives and managed to escape to Estonia, where he was forced to live in great poverty, working for several months as a miner, then giving catechetical lessons. In 1930, he left for France, where he was received in the jurisdiction of Metropolitan Evlogy (Gueorguievskii) (1868 – 1946), who was responsible at that time for the Russian parishes in Western Europe.
Appointed rector of the little community of Ugine (Savoie), Fr Alexei Medvedkov carried out his pastoral ministry there with self-denial, in great hardship and in the face of the indifference of a good number of members of the parish, before dying of cancer. All the witnesses agree in portraying a man of prayer and of great humility. In 1956, during an exhumation on the occasion of a rearrangement of the cemetery of Ugine, his body was discovered to be incorrupt, as were the liturgical vestments in which it was wrapped, which in the Russian ecclesiastical tradition is considered to be a sign of especial grace. The following year, his remains were laid to rest in the crypt of the Church of the Dormition, in the cemetery of Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois (Essonne).
Fr Dimitri Klepinine and Mother Maria (Skobtsova), together with their companions George Skobtsov, son of Maria, and Elie Fondaminskii, bore witness to their faith in Christ and their total commitment to living his Gospel by saving, at the cost of their own lives, numerous Jews during the Nazi occupation.
In 1935, Mother Maria, a poet and artist who became a nun, founded a House of Hospitality and a hostel for the homeless at 77 rue de Lourmel, in the 15th Arrondisement of Paris, thereby giving a spiritual dimension to social action and advocating the development of a “monasticism in the city, in the desert of human hearts”. Assisted by a group of laity, members of the Orthodox Action association that she founded, she was at the service of the unemployed and of illegal immigrants, organizing a canteen, workshops and a social aid office. Fr Dimitri Klepinine, a young Parisian priest, graduate of St Sergius, married and father of two children, was put in charge, from 1939, of the parish dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, which had been opened close to the Hostel.
During the occupation, numerous persecuted Jews were taken in and hidden there. In 1942, at the time of the round up of Jews in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium, Mother Maria succeeded in gaining entrance to the stadium and saving the lives of several children. On 8 February 1943, a search took place of the premises in rue de Lourmel. In the absence of the directors of the association, Mother Maria’s son George, then aged 20, was taken hostage by the Gestapo. On 9 February, a year to the day before his death, Fr DK celebrated a final Eucharistic liturgy in the Chapel of the Hostel, before answering the summons of the Gestapo.
The following day, Mother Maria, having come to obtain the release of her son, was herself also arrested. All three were interned, first in Romainville Fort, then in the Compiègne Camp, before being deported to Germany.
Fr Dimitri Klepinine died of pneumonia in Dora Camp, on 9 February 1944, as did George Skobtsov who had also been deported to Dora. A close collaborator of Mother Maria’s in Orthodox Action, Elie Fondaminskii, a Russian intellectual of Jewish origin, came little by little to the Christian faith, having been arrested by the Nazis in 1941. He was baptized whilst he was interned in the Compiègne camp (Oise), before being deported to Auschwitz, where he would die on 19 November 1942. Mother Maria was gassed at Ravensbruck on 31 March 1945: according to certain witnesses she had taken the place of one of her fellow prisoners.
An appeal for her Canonization, which gathered numerous signatures of Orthodox – and also of Catholic and Protestant – personalities, was addressed to Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow in August 1993. Mother Maria Skobtsova and Fr Dimitri Klepinine received the title of “Righteous among the Nations” from the state of Israel, and their names are inscribed on the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. A spiritual biography of Mother Maria as well as a selection of her poems and essays translated into France has been collected in a work by Helene Arjakovsky-Klepinine under the title Le Sacremant du Frere [The Sacrament of the Brother], Le Sel de la Terre, 1995, 2nd edition 2001*. Another biography, by Laurence Varant and called “Mother Maria Skobtsova” was published by Perrin in 2000.
* This has been published in an English-language edition by Orbis Books as Mother Maria Skobtsova – Essential Writings.
translation by Alasdair Cross