The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA was founded in 1967 by Mother Alexandra (the former Princess Ileana of Romania) whose dream it was to provide a place where American Orthodox women from all ethnic backgrounds could come to live the monastic life and benefit from a liturgical cycle in English. The desire of her heart was to provide a fountain of spiritual refreshment to the people of the country that gave her a home after her exile.
Princess Ileana, the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1909. During her childhood, she lived through the harsh realities of World War I: with her mother and sisters, she would visit the soldiers in the hospitals and on troop trains, praying with them, She also helped the Red Cross as an interpreter for one of the American colonels distributing supplies.
In 1931, Ileana was married to Archduke Anton Hapsburg of Austria. She gave birth to 6 children over the course of 10 years living in Austria. During World War II, their castle in Austria was first used as housing for German troops; later she turned it into a Red Cross Hospital. In 1944, she returned to Romania, to Bran Castle, which she inherited from her mother. She established a new hospital (The Hospital of the Queen’s Heart) across from the castle in memory of her mother to serve soldiers, villagers, and anyone in need of medical attention.
In 1947, she with her whole family was exiled from Romania by the Communists, being told they could leave the country with whatever they could carry or be confined in a monastery until they were executed. They lived in Switzerland for a short time before moving to Argentina. In 1950, Ileana was given a medical visa to come to the United States. In 1951, separated from Anton, she came with her 4 youngest children (the oldest 2 were already in the US for their studies) and settled in a suburb of Boston. The then senator John F. Kennedy introduced a bill in congress to give her permanent residency. To provide for her family, she accepted many speaking engagements around the United States, talking about her life and about the evils of Communism.
In 1961, with the blessing of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, she began testing her calling to the monastic life and entered the Monastery of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God in Bussy, France. She remained in this monastery for 6 years, visiting the United States each summer to maintain her permanent residency status. While here she would teach at the Romanian Vatra about Orthodoxy and monasticism, and it was becoming clear to her that America needed an English speaking monastery for women.
In 1964, the property here in Ellwood City, PA, was purchased, and in 1967, after Sister Ileana was tonsured into the monastic life as Mother Alexandra, she returned to Ellwood City to remain and establish the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration. She lived to see Communism fall in Romania in 1989, and was able to make a return visit to her homeland in 1990. Mother Alexandra reposed in the Lord on January 21, 1991 and is buried in the monastery cemetery. She requested the following verse to be on her gravestone: “None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die we die to the Lord, so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7).