St. John of Kronstadt is one of Orthodoxy’s most popular, most illustrious saints. Many people, however, are unaware that he was a married priest. Among the numerous photographs taken of him, we know of only one–a group shot–which shows St. John with his wife, Elizabeth Constantinovna, and even here she is scarcely distinguishable from the others who surround him. The following account, written by her niece, shows that she herself elected to remain in the background, concealed from the world by her meek and humble spirit.
At the outset of their married life, St. John said to his bride, “Liza, there are enough happy families in the world without us. Let us together devote our lives to serving God.” To strengthen their dedication, St. John requested they forgo marital relations and live as brother and sister. Elizabeth agreed. Such an arrangement–a rare form of asceticism–could not have been easy, but for the next 53 years Elizabeth was a faithful help-mate. Her Christian charity and wholehearted, selfless devotion to her husband and her neighbor can serve as an exemplary model not only for wives of clergy presbyteras, matushkas, “popadijas” but for all Orthodox women today.
On May 22, 1909, at 9:30, after prolonged sufferings, the widow of Fr. John of Kronstadt, Elizabeth Constantinovna Sergiev quietly departed this life. According to her doctor, the cause of death was general infirmity with weakening of the heart. The Lord granted that she prepare long and fervently for her move into eternal life: in her latter years Matushka Elizabeth, following the counsels and instructions of her husband, that man of prayer, communed often either at the cathedral or at home when her legs were too weak to take her out of the house; in the last year she communed daily. On May 21, she communed as was her custom–for the last time, it turned out. At 6 o’clock in the evening her eyes closed and after 10 o’clock she gave no more signs of consciousness. Her last word was” I want,” spoken in response to an offer to drink some holy water. But she was no longer able to swallow. She died peacefully the next morning as the canon for the soul’s departure was being read. On St. Thomas Sunday she had received Unction at her request, and afterwards said several times. “How happy I am that I received unction and prepared myself.” She was buried on Sunday, May 24, in Kronstadt, on the left side of the cathedral yard.
The deceased was born May 4, 1829, in Gdov, where her father, Archpriest Konstantin Nesvitsky, served in the city cathedral and was rector of a parish in the Gdoyak district. Transferred to Kronstadt at the request of the sacristan of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, his weak health did not permit him to serve there long, and in 1855 he gave his post to the young priest, John Ilyitch Sergiev, who had married his daughter Elizabeth. As a new bride she had to care for an elderly father (who became a widower that same year), three grown brothers and two sisters. They all lived together, and Elizabeth–fulfilling the responsibilities of housekeeper and mother–shouldered a heavy yoke. Several years later her brothers were able to support themselves and moved out on their own, while Elizabeth arranged for her sisters to marry teachers at the Petersburg Seminary, who then became priests. She and Fr. John did everything to get the girls established. Lacking sufficient financial resources, Fr. John in both cases approached well-to-do parishioners, asking if they wouldn’t contribute toward doweries for his sisters-in-law. Many willingly did so, but others responded coolly to the young priest, an attitude which not infrequenty greets benevolence among us here.
After they were married, the sisters would go to Kronstadt on visits. On one such occasion, in 1870, there in Fr. John’s apartment, the younger sister gave birth to a daughter: that was I. I was eventually taken home, but it pleased the Lord God that my true home was the quiet, peaceful apartment of that ever-memorable Pastor, beneath his blessed roof.
In 1872 my father died, leaving my mother without any financial means. My uncle, seeing our helplessness, said to his wife, “We have no children of our own. let’s take her and bring her up as a daughter.” It was no sooner said than done. And so it happened that, by God’s will, I came into the care of these infinitely dear to me uncle and aunt, who tirelessly looked after my welfare as the most loving parents would care for a favorite child.
Just as Fr. John never had a life of his own, giving himself to the service of his neighbor, so also E.K. never lived for herself; the circle of her activity was circumscribed by service to her relatives and close ones: she rejoiced at their joys and grieved over their sorrows. I remember her at the age of 45. She had kind, noble features, and was very active, forever rustling about. She liked to fuss over people, warm and feed them. I can see her now, in the kitchen, a white apron tied around her waist, making a sweet pie. She enjoyed cooking, going to market, looking over everyone and making sure that everything was clean and the food tasty. How many times did Uncle, tasting his favorite apple pie, remark, “You are my master pie baker!”
Elizabeth Constantinovna was warmhearted, always ever;-tempered, affectionate. She liked having people visit her; then she would provide an abundant spread, and Uncle, seeing her hospitality and sincerity, would say about the bustling mistress of the house: “She’s a real matushka.”
With all her housekeeping tasks, Aunt did not overlook me. She spent all her free time with me, slept in the same room with me, taught me to read in Russian and in French; later, when I entered school, she prepared my breakfast, daily accompanied me to school, picked me up and quizzed me on my lessons. I remember that before Aunt began teaching me, Uncle served a molieben in St. Andrew’s cathedral, to Ss. Cosmas and Damian and Prophet Naum. Uncle himself took me to the entrance examinations, paid for my education out of his own meager salary, and followed my progress with unwaning interest, weekly looking over my notebook with my grades and signing it. Given such favorable conditions, it is hardly to be wondered that I became a top student. This brought great joy to my guardians, and Uncle hurried to inform many acquaintances of the good news: “Our niece and ward, Ruth, graduated with a gold medal.”
From my earliest memory, I recall that Aunt always treated her husband with reverent love and respect. When he came home tired from making calls on parishioners or serving she hurried to take off his boots and help him undress, insisting that he lie down to rest. Then, dead silence reigned in the apartment; Aunt jealously guarded the brief rest periods of her hard-working pastor.
Uncle had a rather weak constitution and frequently fell ill. At those times Aunt turned into a tireless nurse: she spent whole nights at the patient’s bedside. In 1879 Fr. John became dangerously ill with pneumonia. He lay for hours with closed eyes, in a state of semi-consciousness. When he came around, he would often say, “My head aches unbearably, as thought someone is hitting it with a hammer.” Once, Aunt was sitting near Uncle’s bed weeping. Opening his eyes, Batiushka looked at her and said, “Don’t cry, Liza. God willing, I shall recover, but if not, God and kind people will not abandon you.” Several days passed and one morning Aunt rushed into my room, trembling with excitement: “Uncle is better; the crises is over!” We looked at one another, hugged each other tightly and both burst out crying; they were tears of happiness…
When Batiushka undertook his frequent – and later, daily – trips to Petersburg, Aunt always waited up for him, even if this was very late, despite the fact that her health wasn’t the best; she constantly suffered from headaches and for several years was troubled by insomnia. In time her physical weakness forced her to cut back on her ministrations; for her, poor dear, this was a severe deprivation!
The following incident comes to mind: Some years ago, in winter, Uncle went outside after a bath wearing tight shoes. Aunt became very upset an, no longer able to walk fast herself, sent me to tell Batiushka that he risked catching cold, going out dressed so lightly after a bath. Coming in form the outside hallway, Uncle sent straight to Aunt in the sitting room and said, patting her shoulder, “Thank you, my dear, for your concern, but don’t worry, my feet are warm.”
Uncle deeply appreciated this attentiveness on her part, and reciprocated in the same manner. When he was too ill to go to Petersburg, and later even around Kronstadt, he never sat down to eat without going into the sitting room or into Aunt’s room, depending where she was, and calling her to the table. “When I eat alone,” he said, “I have no appetite.” Not an evening went by that Uncle didn’t go to Aunt to say good night and bless her before going to bed: “I wish you good night,” “Sleep peacefully,” “God be with you,” “God protect you” – he used to say to her before retiring to his study to sleep. Not long before Uncle died, Matushka came down with influenza, and at this time his care for her was especially evident. It was so moving to see how the dear sufferer, barely able to walk, would go in to bless her several times a day and in the evening before going to sleep, stroke her head and say, “Poor dear, poor dear, we are sufferers together.” He would stand for a long time beside her chair, shaking his head and looking compassionately at his sick wife; sometimes he would turn his gaze towards the icon corner and for a long time silently pray for her. Usually, when someone asked Uncle about his health or Aunt, he would answer, “We are both poorly,” or “We are both preparing for death.” Once, when he was told that Aunt was failing, he came to her and said, “Do not be despondent; the Lord is merciful; He will give you patience to endure this suffering and get well.” In November, dining together with Aunt and two guests, Uncle told them that his health was altogether bad. Aunt, wishing to encourage him, said, “You always feel better in the spring; when spring comes–you’ll recover.” “In spring, you say?” Uncle replied, “You’ll live to see the spring, but I–will not.” And he was right: he died in December, and she, in May. When, from the 6th of December, Batiushka no longer had powers to serve Divine Liturgy but communed daily at home, he would come into the room of his sick matushka, with the chalice and commune her, saying, “My Lord and my God!” “With fear of God and faith draw near,” “Receive the Body and Blood of Christ,” “Peace to you, my eldress, I congratulate you.” On the morning of the 17th he communed her for the last time. From the 18th he did not leave his study.
After Uncle’s repose, aunt’s health began to deteriorate even more rapidly. She became very weak; her legs and hands barely functioned, her heart gradually began to fail. She sorely missed her ever-memorable husband and couldn’t hear mention of his name without tears; she could not accept the thought that Uncle was no longer among the living and would tell people, “I keep thinking that Ivan Ilyitch has not died but has simply gone off on a trip somewhere, as he used to go to Moscow, and that he will return.” Not long before she died Matushka saw a sketch of Batiushka at the home of an acquaintance and burst into uncontrollable tears: “Ivan Ilyiteh, Ivan IIyitch,” and when they tried to console her with the thought that he was now blessedly happy, she replied, “It’s wonderful for him, but it’s so hard for me; after all, we were together for 53 years.”
Sensing her imminent death, Matushka, sitting in her chair, frequently lifted her gaze to the , icons and said, “I must get ready, I must ask God – to forgive all my sins.” She often remembered and was consoled by the words of her ever-memorable Batiushka, our mutual intercessor before the Lord God, which he spoke on December 17, when he was told that his sick matushka was sorely grieved that she could not come into his study and take care of him: “Tell my wife that she is always with me and I am always with her.” These words greatly encouraged Aunt in her prolonged sufferings, consoling her with the hope that even after his death Batiushka would not leave her and soon take her to be with him, that he would greet her in the heavenly mansion and through his intercession would lead her to the Throne of the Most High. At night, Aunt would usually put on Uncle’s under-cassock or she would cover herself with it. Every time I went to the St. John of Rila convent she would say to me, “Make a prostration for me before Uncle’s tomb,” and she would weep unconsolably. If her hands or legs began to ache badly, she would immediately ask to have the afflicted places anointed with oil from the vigil lamp burning over Batiushka’s tomb.
Deeply religious, Matushka placed all her hope in God’s mercy and devoted herself wholeheartedly towards the salvation of her soul. “Ivan Ilyitch, bless me, pray for me,” she would repeat several times a day, sorrowful that she had outlived her great husband-pastor. After his repose, she would pray sincerely with tears, but in her great humility Aunt feared that her prayers would not soon be answered, and always asked others to pray for her. When I would go home for the night, after saying goodbye she would invariably say, “Pray for me.” If I went to Vigil or Liturgy, I always heard this same request, coming from the depths of her heart: “Pray for me,” and I prayed for her, us best I knew how.
One day, before I arrived, Aunt took a bad turn and consoled herself with no other thought than the fact that “Today is Saturday; Ruth will go to the Vigil service and pray for me.” Such was her faith in the power of prayer that even through my weak prayer, she trusted to receive an alleviation of her sufferings.
In concluding this brief sketch, dedicated to the memory of this unforgettable matushka, I cannot neglect mentioning two of her most remarkable characteristics: a profound humility and meekness; in these two virtues all the greatness of her soul was expressed.. She was never angry at anyone, she never held a grudge against anyone. If someone offended her or was unpleasant, she bore this unmurmuringly and forgave the person from the bottom of her heart. In answer to the question, “Have you any ill will towards anyone?” Matushka invariably answered, “No, not towards anyone.” Being herself forgiving, she taught others to act likewise; she would say, “Don’t be angry; God Himself will show who is right, who is at fault, while we shoud forgive.”
Aunt never allowed herself to interfere in Batiushka’s affairs; she never tried to put herself forward or stand on a par with him; remaining always in the shadows, she shone with the reflection of his glory, his wondrous Christian deeds; like a tender sister and loving mother, she guarded the common treasure: sick, weak, virtually without the use of her legs, she pleaded with everyone: “Be quiet, Batiushka is sleeping,” “Don’t receive anyone for now, Batiushka is not well.” Batiushka himself knew her soul, highly esteemed her purity, meekness and humility, and said about her: “My wife is an angel.” Did many know that behind the great saint, Fr John, stood a protectress, ready to lay down her life for him? If people did not know it then, may they know it now and may they sincerely pray for this pure eldress, this meek eldress, the servant of God, Elizabeth!
May a boundless gratitude to you-wonderful, self-sacrificing mother-educator–and memory eternal—dear virgin-wife, lamp of the Russian land–live in our hearts, and in those of our children and grandchildren!
From the reminiscences of R. G. Shemyakina,
reprinted in Otets Ioana Kronshtadtsky by P.M. Chizhov, Jordanville, 1958
reprinted in Otets Ioana Kronshtadtsky by P.M. Chizhov, Jordanville, 1958