— Matushka, how compatible are the existence of a summer camp and a convent in the same place? Don’t noisy children and the particular rhythm of kids’ lives disrupt monastic prayer?
— Naturally not every monastery hosts a children’s camp on its premises. Monastic life marches to a different beat during those periods. All the sisters of the convent, as they spend time with the children, become almost like children themselves. This does not hinder prayer, though. Marfo-Mariinsky camp, which is on the premises of the Convent of Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth, has existed for seven years now. We get over 50 girls from all over Germany and other countries, ages 8-13.
— What is the goal of these camps?
— It is very important for Orthodox emigres to socialize. The point of the camp is to give Orthodox girls who live outside of Russia, in countries with different languages and different faiths, the opportunity to get together, get to know each other, learn the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church, live in a monastery, learn pious habits, which as future mothers they can pass down through their families. In any family, the mother naturally has closer bonds with her children—she exudes a special spirit which her offspring and entire family thrive on. That is why we must enhance within them love for the Church, everything pure and pleasing to God. This is very important not only for future families but for society as a whole.
Many children living in Germany do not know what monastics are, how they live, what a monastery is. So we acquaint them with the monastic life. Special attention is paid to church life and the Russian language, the kids learn about Russian culture. We were amazed during our first camp that although most of the 18 girls were not from church-going families, even without prompting they emulated each other in learning the proper behavior during church services. If at first some declined to participate in confession and communion, by the end, everyone without exception made confession and partook of the Holy Gifts of Christ. It was a joy to hear the children express the wish to meet again at camp. By the second year, the number of girls almost doubled: there were over 40 girls from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate. This year we took in 60 girls.
— Mother Maria, do remember how it all began?
— I remember our very first camp, which started with a moleben. We tried to set up the camp according to a plan, but also tried to listen to the children’s desires, take their interests into account, get to know their inner world. Sometimes instead of the Law of God, we simply held discussion on topics important to them, talk about their troubles with friends and parents. Children lack understanding when talking to adults, and we don’t take into account their world, their age. We grownups can easily guide them and teach them, but the simplest thing—listening to them—we either don’t want to or can’t. That is why girls should be given the opportunity to develop their relationship with God and their neighbor, and that is also why we don’t take the girls’ mothers as helpers during camp.
— Does the camp’s program ever change?
— The children who attend are involved in different activities. Every year we change the program. The daily schedule remains about the same. Children rise at 6:20, in time for Divine Liturgy. The first half of the day is devoted to catechism, one hour of Gospel and Epistle readings with explanations, lessons in piety, drawing, liturgical singing. Lunch and a nap is scheduled from 12:15 to 2:00 pm. After an evening meal, the children watch videos about monasteries and Orthodoxy holy sites. After common prayer, the girls begin preparing for bed at 8:30 pm.
The second half of the day is usually devoted to recreational activities and time in the workshops. We take the children to the Monastery of St Job, or we organize hikes and swimming in the lake during good weather, we tend to horses at the stables, we embroider, we rebind books, bake prosphoras. Sometimes the girls help in the kitchen: they cook food, others set and clear tables. At one time we taught icon painting, but soon realized that this could form an incorrect attitude towards icons, since it was impossible in one week to teach the art of icon painting, the structure of the icon, and have time to paint one. That is why we no longer do that.
The girls as future mothers must know how to sew. So we teach them to use a sewing machine, we make kerchiefs and aprons. They enjoy sewing, and they keep asking “When will we finish our kerchiefs?” They participate fully in our lives, they are in all our workshops, they learn bookbinding, and they bake prosphoras. As they bake them, we explain to them what prosphoras are, why it consists of two parts, what the stamps mean, how they are used in services. Of course, we make sure they do something constructive, for instance, set the tables in the kitchen. Of course, the girls also make confession and take Holy Communion, they sing at kliros with the monastic choir.
— What do the sisters gain from being with the children?
— Working with the girls forces us to become flexible, ready to react quickly and notice where their character, their habits and behavior might need some “polishing.” For instance, some girls who are only children naturally expect more attention, and aren’t taught to tend to the needs of others. They would finish their meals and get up, and don’t even think of thanking anyone. They simply aren’t taught that, and we don’t blame them. We pay special attention to this. We ask the girls to help set the tables, tend to each other’s needs, show them kindness and attention. The Lord sends us chances to do spiritual work. During one of the camps, the Lord visited upon us scarlet fever and norovirus, so we got some nursing practice. The camp was divided into two sections for each of the sicknesses and a third group comprised the healthy girls who acted as nurses to their sick friends.
— Are there disciplinary problems like in other children’s camps?
— Of course there are. But their very presence within the walls of a convent, the daily services, direct contact with the monastics don’t encourage the girls to run rampant. If there are such instances, they quickly see their error and ask for forgiveness, and they do so very honestly, I must add.
— Your camp is broken up into two sessions?
— Yes, the first session is scheduled so that girls could come from various regions of Germany, because vacations run on different calendars. The second session is usually on the first week of the Bavarian vacation, early August. This year we had 30 girls in each session.
— How do they find you? You don’t advertise, do you?
— I think the children themselves do the advertising for us. They receive rewards at the end of camp, including a CD with photographs. Many of those who call for the first time to find out about camp say “My daughter’s friend showed her photos. When will camp be this year?”
— Did anything noteworthy happen this year?
— Something different happened this year. Two small groups of girls from Russia came with chaperones: five from the Usovo-Spassky Orthodox Educational Center located in Podmoskovie on the premises of the Church of the Icon of Christ “Not-Made-By-Hands” in Usovo, where Mother Elizabeth is greatly revered. Also, three girls from the DD Shostakovich School in St Petersburg came. This was an interesting experience. We were faced with a small challenge: we had to try to integrate these girls from other countries over the course of a week. The group of 30 included girls from Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Luxembourg and London. They all represented differing cultures, though they are all Russian by descent. Thanks to our daily services, in which all the girls participated, with God’s help we were able to meet this challenge and get them to be friends. This year the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign" also visited us for the first time ever, which we ceremoniously greeted. The girls prepared for this event, they learned the troparion and magnification to the Mother of God, and had a chance to calmly pray and venerate this miracle-working icon. I was amazed at the concentration with which the girls stood before the icon. They prayed for their sick relatives, for their parents who were so far away, and for their friends.
— Who brought the icon?
— The icon was traveling throughout Germany, so I asked that it be brought for the sake of the girls; our convent was not on the itinerary. Protopriest Georgy Kharlov of Salzburg “stole it away” for a day and brought the icon from his parish.
During the first session of 2011, 14 girls helped us prepare to greet a group of 50 pilgrims led by Berlin’s Priest Andre Sikojev and Abbess Nonna (Bagaeva) of Epiphany Convent in Alana and her nuns. There were children in the group who had survived the terrorist act in Beslan, and children from the ROCOR and MP parishes of Berlin. They were visiting the holy sites of Germany and arrived at our convent early in the morning. Liturgy was being celebrated by our dear “abbot,” Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany. Many partook of the Holy Mysteries, after which we hosted an outdoor reception for our guests. Our girls performed a little concert, and wore wonderful costumes as they performed the Ossetian dance called Molitva [“The Prayer”]. It was unforgettable. This was one of the cooperative efforts by the two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church.
I have what might be a crazy idea, but it is a dream; to have our camp in the Alps. I think this would be great. Maybe not for only a week, but for two weeks.
— Why specifically in the Alps?
— Our nuns love the mountains. Our convent is conveniently located in a small Bavarian town which preserves its traditions. There you can see Bavarians wearing their traditional garb. And it is beautiful: fields, forests, heavenly quiet. But we don’t have mountains… The soul feels different in the mountains, it imparts inner strength. Gazing at the mountaintops, your soul rejoices at the grandeur of God. The Austrian air is known for its “flavor,” different from Bavarian air. The nuns and I make annual one-day trips to the Alps on Bright Week.
— Is there a place for the girls to stay?
— Not yet, of course. But I believe that my dream will be realized someday, because the parents like having nuns care for their children, and maybe they can help find a place in the mountains. We would need to buy some farmer’s cottage, build a wooden complex for residences and a small chapel. I believe that we can do it, because my dream of establishing a convent in Bavaria, near Munich, was made to come true by the Lord.
— Matushka, next summer, could you take in orphans or sick children, for instance, who live at Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow, or the more active members of the Smolensk Oblast Youth St Elizabeth Readings, or the young people of the charity called “The Good Road” which is hosted by Moscow’s School No. 717, where there is also a charity named after St Elizabeth?
— That is a wonderful idea! I always supported the idea of giving such children some joy, and I welcome this thought. I think we could take 15-20 girls, but of course, with support from the Russian side. We could arrange trips to holy places, visit our holy sites of Germany which existed before 1054. For instance, an hour and a half away there is a Catholic monastery, Benediktbeuern Abbey, which operates as an educational center, you can venerate the hand of St Benedict and the honorable head of Great Martyr Anastasia the Patrician (she is a patron saint of prisoners). In the Austrian city of Salzburg, an hour and a half away by car, there are also relics of saints whose names escape me now. I hope that Protopriest Georgy, the rector of our Salzburg parish, can organize a trip there.
— What other cities could you take the children to?
— Germany has very good roads, so we could drive to Stuttgart, and of course, Darmstadt, the homeland of our heavenly Protectress Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna (about 4-5 hours from the convent). There is a very interesting estate called Wolfsgarten. This was a hunting lodge belonging to a Hesse family. We visited there, and served a moleben at the library of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas, and an akathist to the Royal Martyrs. We literally touched history, for the little feet of princesses pattered upon those floors, princesses who later became saints of our Church. The owner of this estate, Landgraf Moritz, welcomed us warmly, and surprised us by standing nobly for the duration of the services. And at the end, he kissed the icon of his distant relatives and received anointment with blessed oil.
There is a children’s playground on the site which the brother of St Elizabeth had built for his children.
Darmstadt’s Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene, Equal-to-the-Apostles, is the only one in Germany built on Russian soil. Tsar-Martyr Nicholas had the soil brought by train from Russia. Darmstadt to this day has a railroad station built by Nicholas II, where the shipments of earth were delivered. The station is no longer functional, but there are discussions of handing it over to the Russian Orthodox Church.
— Have the children from your camp been able to visit the hometown of Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna?
— We have not succeeded in doing this yet for financial reasons. I hope that in 2013, the 400th anniversary of the House of Romanovs, and in 2014, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Grand Duchess Elizabeth, we will find benefactors who could help organize such trips. I would like to meet Rimma Koshurnikova, the author of the song “White Angel of Moscow,” that you mentioned, to see the play, or maybe include some children from Germany—where Princess Ella was born—in the performance. I would so like for our beloved saint was known not only by the Russian people but by German children, and those of other countries, for this remarkable holy woman is revered far beyond the borders of Russia.
— Elizaveta Feodorovna was the patron of talents, including the talents of children. The 10th All-Russian Festival of School Theaters “Russian Drama” in Moscow was dedicated to her, which, with the support of the Fund of St Andrew the First-Called took place on November 14-20, 2008, under the direction of Mikhail Shepenko. Matushka, I ask your prayers that those who revere Elizaveta Feodorovna could organize an international arts festival devoted to her life.
— I will also pray for that with our sisters. If God wills it, it will happen.