A glorious Abbess from Kaluga heads St Mary Magdalene Convent in Jerusalem
On the 70th birthday of Abbess Elizabeth (Smelic) of St Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem.
One of the most eminent members of the Russian Diaspora, Abbess Elizabeth (Smelic) of St Mary Magdalene Convent in Gethsemane, Jerusalem, is celebrating her 70th birthday on 18 July, 2022.
For 23 years, Mother Elizabeth has headed the Convent of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, only the second to do so after the great founder of the monastic community, Mother Maria (Robinson), who headed the convent for 33 years, longer than any other Russian abbess in the Holy Land.
Mother Elizabeth was born in Australia to a Russian family in 1952. The day of her birth, fittingly for a monastic, fell on the feast day of Holy Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna (Romanova), July 18.
Mother Elizabeth’s ancestry is a classic one in the emigration. Both of her grandfathers were captains. One, Viktor Frantsevich Smelic, captain of a merchant fleet, was from the city of Simferopol. Her grandmother Lidia Pavlovna Kolosova was from Odessa. Her lineage disappeared from Odessa after the Revolution. Her grandparents wed and sailed away, like in the story “Scarlet Sails.”
Mother Elizabeth’s father was born aboard a ship on the way to Malta in 1921. From there they made their way to Serbia because they wished to live in an Orthodox Christian nation. Settling in Belgrade, her father became an artist and decorated theaters. During World War II, he and his brother fought in Serbia.
His brother Nikolai disappeared without a trace in 1943. Mother Elizabeth’s father went to Australia in 1951 and was able to sponsor his parents to move there as well. When the Communist leader of Yugoslavia Tito came to power, he expelled everyone who refused to “work with him.” One had to choose--either cooperate or sell everything and flee within two weeks. Russian emigres chose to flee. They were taken in by Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, America, Canada and Australia.
Mother Elizabeth’s parents ended up in Australia. Their other relatives moved to America, Brazil and Chile.
Mother Abbess remembers: “I was born in Australia, went to school, worked and traveled all over the world. I love the Holy Land, and stayed. I’ve been here for 34 years now.”
Melbourne, Australia, capital city of Victoria, is a port city. Many immigrants from Europe—Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Germans—came through the city and stayed, as did Mother Elizabeth’s parents. They sailed for many months from Yugoslavia, but first sojourned in Trieste, Italy, then went to Bremen, from there through the Suez Canal to Australia. They needed to find a way to pay for their tickets. They were settled in a special camp in Bonegilla (now this camp is open to tourists). The men dug enormous canals to irrigate the desert, worked at a power plant and on sugar plantations. Women were sent to work in factories. Abbess Elizabeth’s mother worked in a canning plant. Soon her parents had children, one girl and three boys, Matushka’s brothers. Life was hard: “We had to start anew. First, we needed to learn the language. Even the educated had to study again in order to pass a language test. Some could, others couldn’t because they were busy rearing children. My father got a good job in a tramway factory,” said Mother Elizabeth.
Like me, Mother Elizabeth is of a lineage hailing from the city of Kaluga. Her maternal ancestor, Ivan Sidorovich Tolmachev, fought Napoleon in 1812, and was granted a colonnaded house in Kaluga, our famous Tolmachev House, which was preserved as an architectural landmark.
Abbess Elizabeth visited her ancestral nest in the early 2010’s, touring her family’s house. She went to the Kaluga chapter of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, where she shared her family’s fascinating story from Kaluga to Australia and her ascetic life in Holy Russian Gethsemane. She shared stories of the remarkable people she had the good fortune to meet over the years.
Russian Gethsemane is a world-renowned monastery where the healing relics of Holy Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna are preserved, along with those of her faithful aide, Nun Barbara, both of whom were murdered by the Bolsheviks in an Alapaevsk mine shaft in the Ural Mountains in July, 1918.
Gethsemane is also home to the grave of Princess Alice Battenberg, the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of Prince Philipp Mountbatten, who died in 2021 at the age of 100, and the potential kings of Great Britain, heirs Prince Charles and Prince William of Windsor.
The future monarchs of England are frequent visitors to Holy Russian Gethsemane, headed now by Mother Elizabeth. She always personally welcomes them with great warmth, the traditional bread and salt as moleben services are performed over their great ancestor, who was an Orthodox Christian herself.
Mother Elizabeth is an eminent figure not only within the Russian Diaspora but in the Russian Church as a whole. Kings, princes and presidents, patriarchs and heads of Orthodox Churches all know her personally, as do important figures in the Church and in the cultural world, and a great many Orthodox Christians throughout the world.
I have had the great good fortune to meet with Mother Elizabeth, who shares my native ancestral land of Kaluga, and to participate in the Paschal celebrations in her convent, walking with her during processions of the cross, and to behold here genuine devotion to Russian Orthodox Christianity, and witness her love for the nuns she leads, to visiting pilgrims at the great holy site of Russian Gethsemane.
Let us wish a happy 70th birthday to our dear Abbess Elizabeth, and good health and success towards the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, her patron saint Mary Magdalene and the entire Russian Orthodox Church.
Kaluga, July 2022.