Orthodox America

  Abbess Catherine of Lesna – Builder of Women’s Monsaticism

    Away from the tumult and noise of the world, in quiet monastic refuges, in deserted landscapes which evoke thoughts of eternity, women of Holy Russia worked out their salvation for a thousand years, striving to acquire first of ail humility of wisdom .... (The Northern Thebaid)


As one of pre-Revolutionary Russia's largest and most influential women s monasteries, Lesna was not an isolated haven for desert dwellers. Nevertheless, under the guidance of its first abbess, Mother Catherine Efimovski, it fostered the same virtue of humility of wisdom which adorned the female ascetics of Russia's Thebaid. It is for her uncommon humility and modesty that Abbess Catherine Is most remembered. Always, everywhere, she tried to pass unnoticed: 'A Christian should always settle for second place," she liked to say. And many people, even those that worked with her or knew her well personally, remained unaware of how much this small, quiet woman had accomplished. To a great extent her wish to remain unknown has come true. Besides the remnants of Lesna that have survived, the only other tangible trace of her achievements and writings was almost completely erased by Lesna's frequent and often sudden moves. A truly struggling Christian and an exemplary monastic, her attempt to revive Russian female monasticism and to give it new purpose inspired the establishment and development of a unique community of great educational and missionary significance.


      Mother Catherine, in the world Countess Evgenia Borisovna Efimovski, was born on August 28, 1850, in Moscow. Her father, Count Boris Andreovich Efimovsky, a deeply pious Orthodox Christian, was widely known for his love and profound knowledge of the Church, its history and liturgical life. Most of the clergy of Moscow were his personal friends. Growing up in such an atmosphere, Evgenia became very pious as a child. She fell away from the Church for a time in her youth, caught up in fashionable socialist and materialistic ideas, but this phase lasted for less than a year. Her studies, and especially her serious research into the art of the early Church, led her back to the traditional Orthodoxy of her childhood. She became a conscientious Orthodox Christian, frequently attending services and keeping all the church fasts.

      At nineteen Evgenia received a degree in Russian language and literature from Moscow University. She began to write poetry and short stories, many of which were published in the popular literary journals of the period. Her rediscovered religiosity attracted her to the slavophile movement. She identified most closely with the views of Aksakov, Khomiakov and the Kireyevskys, and kept in touch with representatives of the movement throughout her life. In their memory and in gratitude for their support of the convent, one of the walls in the sanctuary of Lesna's main church was hung with icons of their patron saints.

       The writings of the philosopher Soloviev and of Khomiakov, so much discussed at that time, awoke in her an enthusiasm for theology. Evgenia's spiritual father was Archimandrite Michael Gribanovsky, inspector of the St. Petersburg Theological Adademy, and a close friend of Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky. Under his guidance she began to study patristic literature seriously, and to write on theological and church-related issues. Among the subjects she chose were the image of God in man, the meaning of icons, the divine and human natures of Christ, and the significance of Christ being resurrected, transfigured, ascended and glorified as both man and God.

      She wanted to see and to experience Christianity in real life, to apply the ideals, and she gave much thought to the role of women in the church. The possibility of reinstituting the order of deaconness in the Church was being discussed at the time. Evgenia fervently supported the idea and wrote several articles, both historical and theological, explaining the role of deaconness in the early Church.

      Her best known article was an expression of her understanding of the monastic ideal: 'The Monastery and Christian Asceticism" a brief overview of the history and significance of monasticism: "...during the first centuries of Christianity monastic communities were formed by individuals fleeing either persecution or a society overwhelmed by excesses, corruption, perversity and crime; a society that they felt was impossible to influence by either word or example. Leaving the sinful world beyond the monastery walls or the borders of the desert, the true monk continued to suffer for it and, not having the strength to serve it, he prayed for it, weeping at the same time for his own sinful weaknesses .... Through his prayers the recluse-monk was tied to the world he had left behind. He prayed for the salvation of the persecuted and tormented, and for the conversion of the persecuting and tormenting...The heartbreak that he felt in his soul called for podvig; and praying for the hungry, the shivering and the toiling, he voluntarily shared their lot. Taking up his cross, the monk voluntarily followed Christ, sharing as much as he could in his Teacher's suffering. He took as his motto the Apostle's words—“I bear the wounds of my Lord Jesus upon my body" and remembered that Christ suffered not for Himself, but for the entire world. Constant communion with God, the Source of Love, couldn't, didn't pass unseen. Divine Love penetrated his heart and awoke unheard of strength in him. And we know that the prayers of the first Christian ascetics were not fruitless. Never, had they remained in the world, could they have influenced it as they did, and called it to spiritual life. Only the example of their awesome renunciation of everything that people had come to think of as good could have brought about the realization that there is another, more exalted way of life; that the worldly pleasures for which people were willing to commit any crime were not the only and final blessings that mankind had been granted on earth. Can we forget the monasticism that built up the great spirit and religious might of Russia? Let us recall the great luminaries of our Church; did they not come from the deserts and monasteries to shake up the world with their fearless words of truth?"

      Evgenia Borisovna was not blind, however, to the conditions in monasteries at the time, nor to the general decline, not only of monastic life but of spiritual life in Russia in general. And she spoke frankly of the problems: "Doesn't the world need to hear this truth today? Yes, it does, and painfully thirsts for it. But it doesn't expect to hear them from the monasteries. Why? The monastery is one of the institutions of Russian life that was most grievously and unsparingly hurt by the harsh reforms of Peter the Great....This severed the spiritual unity of the Russian people....There were still monasteries in the Church, but they lost their educational and missionary significance....If the monasteries suffered a loss. Russian society suffered a far greater one. It decided to quench its thirst for truth with western thought, with science, with various philosophical systems....and at the end of the 19th century it is at the same point as society was in antiquity when Christ stood before Pilate and Pilate asked Him, "What is truth?"

       "...God-given philosophy, which is the teaching of the Orthodox Church and which was developed and set forth by the Seven Ecumenical Councils, continues to flourish and to be clarified by contemporary theological thought and, for many reasons, the best and perhaps the only environment in which it can truly flourish is the monastery. In ancient times those that desired to love Christ went to monasteries in profound humility, sobriety and prayer, searching for the higher wisdom of theology: knowledge of God....Today we have no collective, educated monasticism....We are so impoverished that multitudes of monasteries, both male and female, are run by almost totally illiterate people...And why don't educated people enter monasteries? Because there is nothing for them to do there. Such is society's opinion, and unfortunately, such is often the case. Lifeless rituals, depressing and disheartening in their meaninglessness--this is the impression that most educated people have of monastic life. The dead letter of the law has replaced the living spirit of Christianity..."

       And she set forth her own ideas for reviving the monastic spirit: "...A correct understanding of monasticism will create the best possible environment for the development of theological thought and is undoubtedly the way of life that best prepares a person for any aspect of social work....At the moment of his tonsure the monk makes three vows: chastity, un-acquisitiveness and obedience. The means suggested for acquiring these virtues are fasting, prayer and work.. Monastic asceticism is not, as many think, a permissible slow suicide. Quite the contrary. It is a school in which the spirit develops and grows stronger, and a strong, properly directed will is formed. He who has conquered himself has nothing more to fear....In asking that a monk vows chastity, un-acquisitiveness and obedience, the Church asks that he renounce not only physical pleasure, but even the joys of family life that the Church has blessed; second, that he renounce all worldly goods and pleasures; and third, that he be prepared at all times to humbly and joyfully renounce his own sinful will. The renunciation of married life comes from a realization that the world lies in sin....An indifference to worldly pleasures arises not out of struggle but out of a spiritual development and a higher understanding of things. The principle of obedience or renunciation of one's sinful will is diametrically opposed to egoism and has deep meaning for anyone that has tried sincerely, even if just a little, to watch himself and to see what goes on in his soul....For a true monk, dedicating one's life to God does not at all mean renouncing one's own self. Can one say that a bride renounces herself when she promises herself to her ridegroom?...

For her, this is the beginning of real life....Study carefully our beautiful prayers, and you will understand why the Church calls herself a bride, and Christ, the Bridegroom .....

        "Monasticism is an undoubtedly significant aspect of Russian church life, and it hopes to once again serve the Russian people as they awaken to  real life and search for spiritual enlightenment; that true enlightenment which only the Church can give....Monastic life, blessed by the Church, not only does not hinder this work, but trains the faithful for it, nurturing and guiding them....We must remember that the Church is a divine institution, and if one of her institutions seem unnecessary or meaningless, let us be assured that the fault lies in our own nearsightedness and self-importance. In Divine Providence nothing happens by chance. Every' law, every commandment is a sign along the straight and narrow path to our final goal..."

       Evgenia’s first opportunity to put her theories into practice came when she was appointed head of a girls' school at the Velikobudischsk Convent. The young countess found that the school had been virtually abandoned. Braving many obstacles, she set about to clean the filth, improve the unhygienic conditions and institute needed reforms. The abbess, a simple, uneducated woman, was suspicious of the noble lady that carried water herself from a distant but clean well, tried to teach the girls to be neat, and sewed new dresses for each of them--108 in all! Nor were the teachers sympathetic. After a long, stubborn effort, Evgenia saw that she wouldn't be able to change the deeply entrenched customs of the convent, and she returned to Moscow.

       Family circumstances made it necessary for Evgenia to work, and she took a position in the Tataev school of S.A. Rachinsky. She found in him a kindred spirit. In many ways his ideas about education were her own, and to a great extent Lesna's schools were modeled after his. Rachinsky left his postion as a university professor to follow through on his theories that religious instruction should be the core of education, that schools should reveal to children the beauty of the Church. His program emphasized the lives of the saints, and he included instruction in Church Slavonic and in church music. Evgenia Borisovna worked as his ·assistant for several years. As she matured, however, her desire for monastic life continued to grow, and she began to search for a monastery that would answer her spiritual needs. Someone suggested that she speak to Archbishop Leonty of Warsaw, who was looking for someone to head his newly founded sisterhood of the Lesna Icon of the Mother of God.

      Lesna was a small village of the Sedletsk Province in what is today eastern Poland. There, between the Bug and Belka rivers, stood a pear tree, which had been blessed in 1683 by the miraculous appearance in its branches of the Lesna Icon of the Most Holy Mother of God. Not only had there never been a convent or monastery in this area, but this region was the center of religious strife between Roman Catholics and Orthodox, and for many years the Icon had been in Catholic hands. Archbishop Leonty hoped to found a missionary monastery which would serve the needs of the local populace and provide them an example of Orthodoxy in practice. To many this seemed a revolutionary idea, for most convents of that time had become purely ecclesiastical institutions.


       In spite of her seemingly innovative ideas, Matushka Catherine was a very "traditional" nun. She was a strict faster and a woman of prayer. Rising at three AM, she worked unremittingly, stopping only for church services which she attended without fail. Until she suffered a leg amputation she always assisted the priest in the altar. During Great Lent she increased her ascetic labors; the last three days of Passion Week she ate nothing but a prosphora and some tea. Notwithstanding such strictness with herself, she always appeared joyous and radiant, and was patient and condescending towards others. Once, she went to visit one of the convent priests' matushkas on her namesday. There were a lot of young people present, and so as not to make them self-conscious she sat down at the piano and began to play a popular song, while the young people danced. She knew well and greatly valued the writings of the Church Fathers, and devoted what little free time she had to theological studies. Her extensive collection of the patristic literature published at that time is one of the few things Lesna salvaged and took along wherever it went; to this day it forms the core of the convent's library

       Mother Catherine believed in Lesna's mission, but when she saw that her ideas were being severely criticized she made a pilgrimage to Optina to ask Elder Ambrose's advice. He blessed her intentions and gave her a prayer rule for the sisterhood. "You're starting a new kind of monastery," he said. "Do as you think best."

      Lesna's foundation was also blessed by St. John of Kronstadt who, until the very end of his life, was one of the monastery's most generous benefactors. He took an interest in the community's spiritual development, helping out where and when he could by his advice or through his vast connections, and he supported Lesna financially, both through his own donations and by urging his spiritual children to help the convent. "Don't waste time by dragging things out, and do quickly leave all your land to the Lesna convent in your will. Lesna always was and is my dependent, and I have always helped it," reads one of his letters, which the convent treasures to this day. St. John corresponded with Matushka Catherine, and with many of the sisters, and he was present at the consecration of the church at the convent, mctochion in St. Petersburg. His visit to Lesna in 1899 drew thousands of pilgrims, and his blessing and encouragement inspired the sisters to still greater missionary and charitable labors. Many sick people were healed. St. John patted Abbess Catherine on the shoulder and predicted, "Ekaterinushka! In time your lavra will flourish!" He compared Lesna to a beehive, from which swarms of bees would flie to establish new hives. His words came true. The Krasnostok, Virov, Teolin, Radechnitsa, Zodulentzi and Korets communities, and from Hopova (Lesna's home in Serbia) several Serbian women's communities-all grew out of Lesna.


      The rapid growth of Lesna itself was truly a miracle. Evgenia Borisovna arrived there on October 19th, 1885, with five novices and two orphans. At the time there was one small stone church housing the miracle-working Icon, and a small house The first years were extremely trying; the sisterhood was very needy and the work was hard. Evgenia Borisovna was soon tonsured to the small schema with the name of Catherine, and she increased her labors, taking the most demanding work on herself She cleaned the church, assisted the priest and directed the cliros. The community's priest, Fr. Matthew, was an ascetic and very strict. Services began at four a.m., and all the sisters were expected to be present. If everything and everyone wasn't ready upon his arrival, he left in silence and there was no service that day. Matushka Catherine personally oversaw the growing orphanage, and in summer she shared in the work on the farm and in the fields. The convent had no funds nor regular income, and she and her closest assistant at the time, Mother Anatolia traveled to Moscow and spent weeks making the rounds of merchants’ kitchens, hoping to be received, heard out and granted some sort of assistance. Gradually, the monastery became better known, and instead of ten ruble donation, they would receive a hundred, or, when people learned of Matushka Catherine’s plans for a hospital, for schools – two hundred or even a thousand. Eventully the Synod and the Russian government subsidized some of Lesna's schools and charitable institutions. By 1889 the Lesna sisterhood had almost forty sisters, and it was formally recognized as a cenobitic monastery. Matushka Catherine was elevated to the rank of abbess. 

    The local populace, of which at least half were Catholic, were at first unfriendly and suspicious, but gradually the nuns came to be admired for their selfless labors, and loved for their kindness. The orphanage grew almost as quickly as the sisterhood; new children were taken in a few days after Matushka Catherine's arrival. The farm began to expand as the surrounding swamps were drained, orchards were planted, cattle, pig, chicken and rabbit farms were established, and a windmill was built. The school which started out as classes for the orphans, grew into an entire educational system, encompassing everything from a nursery school through a teacher s college and various vocational training programs. Medical care was provided both for the constantly expanding community and for the local populace by Lesna’s own sixty-bed hospital, complete with operating room, out-patient clinic and pharmacy. The sisters themselves grew many of the herbs that went into the medicines, and ran a visiting nurse service.  Every imaginable workshop was set up, which helped support the convent and in which the children were trained. The sisters sewed, embroidered, wove cloth, painted icons, engraved. The monastery's candle factory provided candles for the entire diocese. At various times the convent operated a soap factory, pasta factory, made bricks for the new buildings that were constantly going up, made candy, ran a pastry shop, and even bred silk worms. The sisters ran several shops that sold the goods that they produced, and even operated their own railway station. 

    In spite of all the work that went into these charitable institutions and into the business concerns, the center of Lesna's life was the church. Each day began and ended before the miracle-working Icon of the Mother of God. The small stone church, which housed the Icon when Mother Catherine and her sisters first arrived, was replaced by an immense Cathedral, dedicated to the Exaltation of the Cross. This feast was also the day of the appearance of the Icon, and the second day of the feast was celebrated as the Icon's feast. Another large church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was built over the healing spring which flowed at the roots of the pear tree in which the Icon had appeared. These two feasts drew some 25-30,000 pilgrims annually, and even these churches were inadequate and services were held outdoors. There were also two smaller churches--one dedicated to Sts. Cyril and Methodius and the other to the Martyrs Anthony, John and Eustathios; a winter church dedicated to Sis. Sophia, Vera, Nadezhda and Lubov; a church in the main school building dedicated to the feast of the Entrance into the Temple, and a cemetery chapel of the Resurrection. The services at the school's church were sung by a choir of the older children; the monastery had two choirs of sixty sisters each. By 1915 the Lesna community comprised 500 sisters and 700 children.

      In 1908, hoping to take the Great Schema, Abbess Catherine petitioned the Synod that her assistant, Mother Nina, be appointed abbess and she be allowed to retire. Mother Nina was consecrated, but the difficult years of revolution and civil war didn't allow Matushka Catherine to retire peacefully, and the two abbesses worked together.


       In 1915 news of approaching German troops forced Lesna to evacuate deeper into Russia. The Lesna Icon was sent to the metochion in St. Petersburg; it was too small, however, to house all the sisters. Some went with the children to the Poniataev Monastery in the Tver province; about a hundred found shelter at the Novodevichi Convent of the Resurrection, and the rest were received by St. John of Kronstadt's convent in St. Petersburg, where he is buried. The older sisters of this community realized that another of his prophecies had come to pass: when the monastery was first being built, St. John kept saying, "Add on, add on a few more wings. You're going to have to take in the Lesnochki...' At that time they had not even heard of Lesna and had no idea as to who the "Lesnochki" could be.

      After Mother Catherine recovered from a serious illness, which necessitated her having a leg amputated, the sisterhood moved to the Kishinev diocese where they were allowed to settle in the abandoned Zhabka monastery. Here they learned of the 1917 Revolution, and waited out the civil wars and World War I. When this area became part of Rumania, the authorities began to pressure the convent to accept the new calendar and to switch to Rumanian rather than Church Slavonic in the services. Rather than give in, the two abbesses gladly accepted the Serbian Patriarch's invitation to come to Yugoslavia. In 1920 the sixty-two remaining Lesna sisters arrived in Belgrade. They stayed briefly at the Kuvedzhin Convent before settling in the ancient Hopovo Monastery.

      At Hopovo they gradually resumed their monastic routine and were soon able to reopen their orphanage. It was not long before Hopovo became a place of pilgrimage for the thousands of Russian emigrants that were looking for a piece of “back home” in Serbia, as well as for the Serbs themselves who were interested in the phenomenon of women’s monasticism, which had virtually disappeared in Serbia during the years of the Turkish yoke. New postulants, both Russian and Serbian, entered the community, increasing its number to over eighty. Many Lesna sisters were appointed superiors of Russian communities and of several newly-founded Serbian convents.

      Mother Nina, formerly the convent's treasurer, was the community's administrator, but Mother Catherine remained the spiritual force that held the sisterhood together. She continued to write articles on theology, on monasticism, on women's role in the Church, and spoke at the conference organized for young people and by various Orthodox brotherhoods at Hopovo. Though visibly aged and weakened, her health was strong until 1925. In October she became gravely ill, and although she did not speak of death, when asked by the doctors how she felt, she replied, "It's time to throw this old coat off; it's all worn out..." By the end of the month it became clear that Matushka was dying She received Holy Communion on the eve of her repose, and was granted a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. On the evening of October 28th, Matushka gathered all the sisters at her bedside and in the adjoining rooms. She asked the priest to read the Canon for the Departure of the Soul. When he had finished and blessed her, the sisters approached in turn to make a prostration and ask her forgiveness. The dying abbess blessed them all and said, quite audibly, "May God forgive you." She grew weaker and asked that everyone "pray that it'll go quickly." Mother Anatolia reassured her: "All the sisters are praying, Matushka." Too weak to make the sign of the cross, she asked Mother Anatolia to make it over her, and very, quietly and peacefully fell asleep in the Lord.

      Abbess Catherine always said, 'With God there is no death." Her peaceful, blessed repose, unaccompanied by any fear or worries but only with a desire to quickly be reunited with the Lord, illustrated the profound faith that lay behind it.

      Her funeral was held on October 18/31. She was buried the next day, the fortieth anniversary of her arrival at Lesna and the beginning of her monastic life. The grief that the sisters and many pilgrims and friends of the community felt was alleviated by the quiet, peaceful light of her righteous repose--a worthy end to her long, saintly life, full of many struggles for and in God.


Lesna Today

      Matushka Catherine's descendents continue Lesna's mission--to the extent that it is possible at their present location and under today's circumstances--at Provement, a town north of Paris, in Normandy. Ever since the community left Hopovo it has been impossible to re-organize an orphanage, schools, or to offer any sort of medical assistance. But Lesna's spiritual mission remains the same. and with the Lord's help, guided by the Mother of God through Her miracle-working Icon, the sisters' traditional Russian Orthodox monastic life is a witness to Orthodoxy in predominantly heterodox and indifferent surroundings.

      Previously a refuge and haven for emigre Russians, Lesna has also become the spiritual home of many converts, both Western and recently arrived from the Soviet Union. Over the last few years the convent has attracted many visitors from America, some of whom subsequently entered and, paradoxically, today many more sisters speak English than French as a first or second language. The sisters are of varied backgrounds--Russian, English, American, German, Czech. The liturgical language of the community is still Church Slavonic, and the daily cycle of services is performed in one of the convent's churches as closely as possible to the way they were performed at Lesna.

      The convent is situated in a former chateau, and the upkeep of the old buildings and extensive grounds of the estate takes a lot of work. The sisters also have a garden, orchard and bee-hives to help meet their needs. There is a guest house for the constant flow of pilgrims from all over the world. Other obediences include sewing, both for the community, and vestments, baking prosphora, making candles, painting and mounting icons, translating and editing for various Orthodox publications. A lot of office work is provided by the French bureaucracy; there is the convent's extensive correspondence, a library and archives, a small bookstore and in recent years, a "Books for behind the Iron Curtain" project to keep up. Over the past two years the convent has remodeled and installed a new iconostasis in the winter chapel, which the sisters hope to dedicate to Sts. John of Kronstadt and Elder Ambrose of Optina. The icons on and around the Royal Doors and the Deisis were completed this past Great Lent.

       It was truly a miracle that Lesna grew so quickly from five sisters to several hundred, but perhaps it is no less of a miracle that in spite of the overwhelming materialism and spiritual poverty of the contemporary world, Lesna lives on and has even begun to grow again in recent years. Three novices were tonsured rassaphores at the feast of the Lesna Icon last October, a rassaphore nun was recently tonsured to the small schema, and three new novices entered over the past year. The sisters trust that the Mother of God will continue to guide their community and to inspire new aspirants to the monastic life in the years to come.

Nun Evfrosinia