Orthodox America

   Child Confessors

A story from the Panyataev Convent at the beginning of the Russian Revolution as told by Nun. E.

During the First World War, the sisters in Lesna had to abandon their convent because of the approach of the enemy. First we were taken to Petrograd. After two weeks, twenty sisters and two hundred children of the convent's orphanage were sent to the Panyataev Convent in the Nizhegorodsky province. This convent was founded by Saint Seraphim himself and there was already a small orphanage there. Subsequently some of our Lesna children were sent to the Shapkin convent in Bessarabia, where our convent relocated. Some of the children were sent to their parents. Only those orphans having neither mother nor father remained in Panyataevka, where the Revolution found us.

Some of our sisters succeeded with God's help in getting out of the Panyataev Convent, and joined the rest of the Lesna community in Bessarabia. However, ten sisters, myself included, were left in Panyataevka. It was too late to leave and we had to live under Bolshevik rule.

The orphanage was taken over by a Soviet supervisor named Sophia Feodorovna Sher. Some Soviet orphans were put with our convent's orphans. The supervisor had five children of her own - Vera, fifteen; Nadezhda, twelve; Lyuba, seven; Tamara, six; and Volodya, eighteen. This one mother had children who were quite different from each other. Only two believed in God - Nadia and Lyubochka. Sophia Feodorovna allowed Nadia to attend church, since, as she put it, she was already "of age." Seven year-old Lyubochka was forbidden to go to church because she was still young and foolish, but when she grew up, Mother said she could do as she pleased. "Oh, if only I could grow up faster so that I, too, like Nadia, could pray in church," poor Lyubochka sighed sadly.

How painful it was to hear Volodya, Vera, and even little Tamara saying proudly, "There is no God. We don't believe in Him. Everything is nature." These silly children had heard so much of the deranged Bolshevik talk and took to repeating their words.

The Bolsheviks made me the nanny for the Lesna orphans. Nadenka and Lyubochka often came to confide in me. Their parents were communists, but the little girls had tender and believing souls. Father, mother, and siblings were even foreign to them. Once I was pitying Lyubochka with all my heart and gave her this advice: "You miss church so badly? Then, look, when you are playing with the other children near the church, just slip in. Your mother won't know. Pray there for your father, mother, brother, and sisters."

That's exactly what Lyubochka did. She was playing with the other children. After playing, the children ran off. Lyubochka stayed next to the church, alone. She quietly entered the house of God, prayed, and left. She came to me all happy, saying, "Sister, I was in church!"

Another time the little girl said to me, "Oh, how I would like to receive Holy Communion!" I said to her, "Lyubochka, you play with the children and when they go away, slip into the church again and go up to the nun at the candle stand and tell her that you would like to receive Holy Communion. Since you are little, the priest will confess you quickly." She asked, "Do I need to put on a clean dress?" I replied, "No, you don't have to - whatever you're wearing while playing is all right, so long as your soul is clean. Go on now."

God helped Lyubochka fulfill her good desire, and, unbeknownst to her mother, the little girl received Holy Communion. She came running to me, beaming with happiness, saying, "Look, sister, I received Holy Communion!" I sent her off to our Lesna girl, Nastenka, who had saved her some tea. Sofia Feodorovna's husband lived in the city of Arzamas. On September 17 his children went to visit him, since it was the nameday of Vera, Nadia, Lyubov, and Sofia Feodorovna. When the girls returned to the orphanage, Lyubochka was childishly boasting, "Sister, what fun we had on our nameday! We had everything. All sorts of treats!"

"Did you go to church?" I asked.

"No-o-o-," Lyubochka drawled, somewhat embarrassed.

"Only Nadenka got to go to church and receive Holy Communion. I didn't."

"When you grow up, make sure that on this day you go to church and receive Holy Communion. This is what Nadenka did, and the Lord and her guardian angel were with her. The rest of you just ate and drank a lot, and you say it was fun. That is not true joy."

"What can I do, when mama says I am silly and young, while Nadenka is grown up and knows what she's doing?" said the poor little girl, whose senseless mother was depriving her of joyful union with the Lord.

At that time the Bolsheviks did not yet dare to openly wage war with God. Our Lesna girls attended church, and the communist teachers would ask them, "Do the nuns force you to go to church?"

"No, we just love to go to church!" our children would answer.

The church at the Panyataev Convent was old and constructed of wood. As soon as you entered you saw Saint Seraphim sitting on a stump, really life-like, in a white caftan, short mantia, and skoufia. The Saint was holding a bag filled with rusks in one hand and extending the other offering food to a shaggy bear. How the children loved to go to church if only to look at the dear Saint. They looked reverently at his meek countenance, at his clothes. They were so delighted by the bear; he looked so real.

Life was not pleasant for the children under the Bolsheviks. They were not fed well at all. In winter they walked about with holes in their shoes and no socks.

Once the authorities hung portraits of their leaders - Lenin, Trotsky, and others - in the dining room where the children ate. One little girl looked at the portraits and frankly, with all her childish innocence, exclaimed, "Oh, how ugly they are!"

Then a little boy pointed to the icons and asked, "Are these beautiful?"

"And how! Very, very beautiful!" cried the little girl.

Once I gave the children potatoes boiled in their jackets for lunch and left the room. When I returned I was horrified to see that they had stuck potato skins on the mouths on the portraits. I hastily peeled these "decorations" off the pictures so the authorities would not see it. God forbid the Bolsheviks see this mockery of their leaders! We sisters would have gotten it for the children's pranks.

The next morning I was even more horrified when I came into the dining room and saw holes instead of eyes on all the portraits. The eyes of the "great people" had been cut out by our mischievous children. Right behind me came the supervisor, who saw the ominous looking holes and angrily asked, "Who did this?" It took me a while to convince her that it was none of the sisters' doing, for they knew very well that they would be punished severely for mocking the leaders. The supervisor realized it was the children who had been naughty. At that time it was forbidden by the Bolsheviks to punish children; they were free to do what they wanted. Complete freedom. This incident, however, made the supervisor well aware what kind of "respect" our children had for their "great people."

After Sofia Feodorovna Sher, Maria Feodorovna became the supervisor. (I don't remember her last name.) Soon after her arrival, she gathered the Lesna children and started preaching atheism to them.

"Everything is nature. Nobody created it. The world has always been and will be forever. It runs by itself."

"But even a cart doesn't go by itself without a driver. Someone has to guide the horses. And you want the whole world to run by itself!" the children piped up.

"Yes, and a train can't run without an engineer," another little girl pointed out.

Maria Feodorovna was at a loss as to how to respond to the intelligent remarks the Lesna children made.

"God did not create man. He evolved from the monkey," the new supervisor went on to assert.

"Then who created the monkey? Did it just come into being by itself?" a little voice asked sarcastically.

I cannot recall all the intelligent statements the children came up with, and all the foolish propaganda Maria Feodorovna put forth. I only remember how amazed I was at the Divine wisdom permeating the children's speech, as if they were not the ones speaking, but the Holy Spirit Itself was speaking through their pure lips. The children pinned the godless one to the wall, as they say. She threw up her hands and left, and decided not to argue any more with the children of the Lesna orphanage.

However, the Bolsheviks would lock up the children of the Panyataev orphanage in a room and preach atheism to them.

Once the Bolsheviks thought to come to our children. Our elder sister quietly said to us, "You are considered to be the children's nannies. See to it that you never leave them alone with the Bolsheviks."

So the communists never dared to drive the sisters away from the children. They requested only that the children show them their games. The Bolsheviks were absolutely delighted by the way the Lesna children played and sang, and asked, "Who taught you such interesting games with songs?" They pointed to me. "Yes, we have to send this sister to our school in Arzamas. The children there don't know how to play so nicely!"

How frightened I was to hear these words! You can only imagine how difficult it would have been to part with the monastery and my beloved Lesna children. Glory to God, the Bolsheviks did not carry out their intention, and left me where I was.

The bright feast of Pascha approached. Before Paschal matins, Maria Feodorovna told the children, "I am going to lock the house, put the key under my pillow, and go to sleep."

The children smiled and said quietly amongst themselves, "Go ahead and lock the door and put the key under your pillow. All the same we will be in church."

Indeed, the children did what they said they would do. The whole group of them appeared in church for matins. At that time there were fifty of them left. The sisters could only look with amazement at the children and inquire, how had they managed to get out of the locked house? It turned out that our brave children, with God's help, without being afraid of falling from the third floor, actually climbed out of the small windows of the bedroom, followed the cornice, and came down by way of the downspout. This is how they appeared in church to join us in glorifying the bright and joyous Pascha of our Lord.

Meanwhile, the atheist Maria Feodorovna was sound asleep and did not notice how the children had secretly been in church, and, under God's protection via the drainspouts and cornices, returned home safely and fell asleep peacefully in their beds.

By God's mercy I got out of Soviet Russia and came to Yugoslavia where our Lesna convent relocated from Bessarabia. I do not know what happened to the Panyataev convent.

Translated by Vera Loginov from Pravoslavnaya Zhizn, Jordanville, May 1959.