Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

When Nuns Are Persecuted: Lessons from the Russian Underground

Those who have been paying attention to the mounting attack on the contemplative religious life and on traditional religious communities (an attack extremely well documented by Hilary White: see this recent article, which also gives links to her past articles) may be wondering: What can be done about this evil? How can nuns or sisters defend themselves? What can they do? Are they helplessly at the mercy of Church authorities who would obliterate them from off the face of the earth?

The answer to the first question is grim: there is very little that can be done about the attack, which is under way right now, and, short of a dramatic divine intervention, the Vatican boom will be lowered. Attempts will be made to discredit, dissolve, and disperse traditional communities, especially the contemplative Carmelite nuns who are the “heart” of the Church. To the second question, the nuns may defend themselves by appealing to various dicasteries in defense of their centuries-old and consistently approved charism, by asking for the intervention of friendly cardinals and other influencers, even by directly calling on the pope to make exceptions for them.

But let us say these routes fail to deliver the goods, and a decree comes down saying: “Your monastery is closed.” Or: “We are sending so-and-so as your interim superior until the problems we discovered have been resolved.” What then?

There is a strategy that has worked before during times of persecution in Church history. And let us be clear about it: there is a persecution taking place—this time not from the State, as in Henry VIII’s suppression of monasteries or the savagery of the French Revolution, but from churchmen who dare, with diabolic pride, to lay violent hands on the apple of God’s eye. This strategy aims at preserving the reality of the charism and traditional way of life by temporarily sacrificing some of its external manifestations. The step is taken under compulsion and therefore does not count in the sight of God as a blameworthy abandonment of these external manifestations; indeed, they are left aside precisely to continue adhering to what they signify.

The most basic presupposition is that the community’s material possessions, including their land and buildings, must be owned by a lay organization, so that no religious entity, diocesan or otherwise, can lay hands on it as their “spoils of war.”

Assuming this to be in place, the nuns do not have to bend to unjust demands for their modernization, coerced federating, etc. Instead, they voluntarily “dissolve” the community by taking off their religious habits. The place will no longer be called a convent or monastery; signs, placards, and letterhead to this effect will have disappeared. The nuns adopt a form of simple lay clothing that suggests a religious habit, and remain in their buildings, living exactly the same life of personal and liturgical prayer and penance that they were living before.

The monastery has thus become, in the sight of the world, a center in which like-minded women voluntarily pursue a common interest. It’s nothing other than a group of devout laity who have formed what might be called a “household of prayer,” against which there are no prohibitions in either civil or canon law. They do not even have to ask to be “an association of the faithful” (consociationes christifidelium). They don’t need to have any status whatsoever. They just do what they have always done, but without the labels. They know in their hearts that they are still nuns.

The most important “piece” in this scenario is the availability of a traditionally-minded priest who can serve as their chaplain. If the nuns are located in a diocese with a favorable bishop, that bishop could no doubt find or appoint a suitable priest to serve in this capacity, or welcome a priest from elsewhere who has the requisite background. If the nuns are located in a diocese with a hostile bishop or a bishop who, buckling under Vatican pressure, refuses to give these women a chaplain, then it will be time for a more radical step: the nuns would need to find their own chaplain—probably a “canceled priest”—who, though he may officially lack faculties, knows with a clean conscience and a spotless record that he has been canceled illicitly and invalidly, and is therefore free to give himself to this important work. That is a worst-case scenario, but in our times it may be necessary, until the pope and the Roman curia reverse their self-destructive course, and/or until the local ordinary grasps the necessity to act fearlessly for the benefit of his flock, regardless of bullying from above.[1]

If worse comes to worst, the religious life can move entirely underground. I read an incredibly inspiring book a few years ago called Everyday Saints about Russian Orthodox monks and nuns—with a lot of attention give to their sufferings and survival under the Communists.[2] They were clever about how to manipulate or mislead or confound the authorities; and when they ran out of luck, they knew how to move into disguise, going underground and continuing their life under the very noses of their persecutors. When Communism fell, it was discovered that certain monks and nuns had kept their life intact and had passed it on to new members over the course of decades of official suppression.

The best chapter in this regard is “The True Story of Mother Frosya,” of which I will now share some excerpts.

In that little house on Lesnaya Street in Diveyevo where the relics of St. Seraphim were kept, there lived a schema-nun named Margarita. Except that for many, many years nobody knew that she was secretly a nun. Everybody just called her Mother Frosya or just simply Frosya. She was as old as the century itself. When I met her in February 1983 on my first trip to Diveyevo, she had just turned eighty-three years old.

“Secret monasticism” is something that began to happen during the persecutions of the Church of the twentieth century. Having been secretly given monastic vows, monks and nuns would remain living in the world, would wear normal secular clothes, and would work in normal secular institutions, while strictly fulfilling all their monastic vows in secret. Only a father confessor or spiritual father would know about their vows and about their new names….

Everyone thought that Mother Frosya had simply once been just a novice in the former monastery. And if curious persons would ask her questions about her past, Mother Frosya would answer completely honestly that there once had been a time when she was a novice in the Monastery of Diveyevo.

She was only forced to reveal her true monastic name in the beginning of the 1990s, with the blessing of Abbess Sergia, the first appointed abbess of the resurrected Diveyevo Monastery, to which Mother Frosya moved back for her last three years before her death. But until this time everyone just called her Frosya.[3]

Mother Frosya herself describes what it was like when the Soviet soldiers came to expel them from the monastery in September of 1927 and then destroy its buildings:

One week later, before the final Evening Vespers we rang all the bells, sounding all their chimes, all of them—letting them ring for the last time. We rang and rang them, and then we said our Divine Service. Then we were scattered like little birds, scattered to the wind! Just like that—in the pouring rain. The cops came and kicked us out into the street! Lord! We were getting it from everywhere: from the people on one side, and God on the other. Oh, Queen of Heaven!

What could we do? It was impossible for us to wear our nuns’ habits anymore. The authorities had forbidden it. So we had to wear secular clothes. And all icons were forbidden. They made us put up pictures of Lenin instead. None of us would agree to that!…

On the second day, they took our Mother Superior off to jail. And we got scattered all over. There was a bishop there secretly, and he said to us all, “They drove you out of the monastery. But we have not released you from your monastic vows.”…

It was the year 1937. I and several of the other nuns were still living near the monastery. I was right here on Kalganovka Street. And on the other side of the street there were also little houses in which nuns were living…[4]

She talks about how the nuns were eventually rounded up and sent to a work camp, accused of being “vagabonds”:

We were searched! They took everything from us! They took away our crosses! Lord forgive them! Oh, Mother of God… One policeman ripped off my neck cross, then threw it on the ground and trampled on it, barking at me: “Why are you wearing that?” You know, when they were taking away our crosses, the feeling I had—it was as if our Lord and Savior himself were standing their crucified, suffering and enduring it all himself! They took away our crosses! How could they? It was so awful!

And then what? How could we live without our crosses? Well, in those days we all were set to work as seamstresses, using locally picked Uzbek cotton. They had these little forklike twigs, those cotton balls, and if you cut them a little bit they were like little crosses. So we all made ourselves little crosses. But then we went with our makeshift crosses into the prison bathhouse. Some of the women there ratted us out to the bosses: “Those nuns are wearing crosses again!” But they didn’t bother taking away our little homemade crosses. There was no point. Take them away and we’d make new ones….

Some of our group had been in the choir. And so sometimes we would gather together on the top prison planks and we would just quietly sing the Annunciation hymn—“The Voice of the Archangel.” Several of them in there knew everything by heart, the church services, the Akathists, so it didn’t matter that they didn’t let us have any books. Yes, they took all our holy books away.[5]

The nightmare scenario of the total destruction of monasteries by an atheistic political regime is not yet upon us. If Mother Frosya and forty other nuns in prison could continue their religious life, all the more can it be continued in any place in the world where people are still free to associate, to pursue a common interest, and to live under the same roof.

The author of Everyday Saints, Archimandrite Tikhon, writes about his experience of visiting the secret nuns in the 1980s, at the tail end of Communism, and when the monastery of Diveyevo was still in ruins (it was subsequently gloriously rebuilt):

Father Boniface was on his way to Diveyevo in order to give Communion to a few old nuns still living in the area around the monastery—some of the last few still living in our time of the thousand who once inhabited the pre-Revolutionary convent.… Father Boniface tried to dress in a way so that no one would ever suspect him to be a priest: carefully tucking away the pleats and folds of his cassock beneath his coat, and hiding away his very long beard into his thick scarf and upturned collar….

In a ramshackle little hut on the outskirts of Diveyevo I saw something that I could have never imagined even in my most radiant dreams. I saw alive the Church Radiant, invincible and indefatigable, youthful and joyful in the consciousness of its God, our Shepherd and Savior…. And what’s more, the most beautiful and unforgettable church service in my life took place then—not in some magnificent grand cathedral, not in some glorious ancient church hallowed with age, but in a nondescript building in the community center of Diveyevo, on Number 16, Lesnaya Street. It was not even a church at all, but an old bathhouse somehow vaguely converted into communal housing.

When I first arrived with Father Boniface, I saw a dingy little room crowded by about a dozen elderly women, the youngest of whom could not have been younger than eighty, while the oldest were definitely more than 100 years old. All of them were dressed in simple old country maids’ clothes and wearing peasant kerchiefs. None of them was wearing a habit or any kind of monastic or ecclesiastical clothing. Of course, these weren’t nuns—just simple old ladies; that’s what anyone would have thought, including me, if I had not known that these old women were in fact some of the most courageous modern-day confessors of our faith, true heroines who had suffered tortures and decades in prisons and concentration camps for their beliefs. And yet despite all their ordeals, their spiritual loyalty and unshakable faith in God had only grown….

As Father Boniface and the old women were exchanging greetings, I looked around. Icons in ancient ceremonial frames, dimly lit by flickering lamps, were hung on the walls… Meanwhile I started to prepare myself for the Vigil service. It took my breath away as the nuns started to take out of their secret hiding places and set down on the crudely put-together wooden table genuine artifacts belonging to St. Seraphim himself. Here was the stole of his ecclesiastical vestment; there was his heavy iron cross on thick chains, worn for the mortification of the flesh, a leather glove, and the old-fashioned cast iron pot in which the saint had cooked his food. After the Revolution when the monastery was pillaged and destroyed, these holy relics had been passed down from sister to sister by the nuns of the Monastery of Diveyevo.

Having put on his vestments, Father Boniface gave the priest’s pronouncement that begins the Vigil service. The nuns immediately perked up and began to sing. What a divine and utterly amazing choir they were!… These incredible nuns sang the entire service virtually by heart. Only very rarely did one of them glance at the thick old books, for which they needed to use not just eyeglasses but gigantic magnifying glasses with wooden handles. They had risked death or punishment saying this service in concentration camps and prisons and places of exile. They said it even now after all their sufferings, here in Diveyevo, settling into their wretched hovels on the outskirts of the town. For them it was nothing unusual, and yet for me I could scarcely understand whether I was in Heaven or on Earth.

These aged nuns were possessed of such incredible spiritual strength, such prayer, such courage, such modesty, goodness, and love, and they were full of such faith, that it was then at that wonderful service that I understood that they with their faith would triumph over everything—over our godless government despite all its power, over the faithlessness of this world, and over death itself, of which they had absolutely no fear.[6]

Plenty of similar stories could be told from the Western tradition, of course. I quote at length from Mother Frosya’s story because it is so near to our times, it concerns women who continued to live out their monastic life under the most atrocious circumstances and in spite of the most numerous hindrances, and because, finally, the mentality and the actions of the ‘c’atholic persecutors of traditional religious life are strangely and sickly akin to those of the Communists. The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we will develop a healthy realism and a gritty determination about how to proceed.


Photo: Silhouette of Diveyevo Convent, rebuilt after its partial destruction by the Soviets. This was where Mother Frosya began her monastic life at the start of the 20th century and ended it at the end of the century, with decades of hidden monasticism in between. Via Wiki commons.

[1] This winter, I have a booklet coming out from Sophia Institute Press—“True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times”—that will take up in greater detail some of the canonical issues involved. A more compact form of the argument may be heard in the lecture I gave at the Catholic Identity Conference in October 2021 (posted at YouTube).

[2] Yes, I’m aware that some of the Russian Orthodox were in collusion with the Communists and that they did horrible things (or allowed them to be done) to Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics, etc. But let us have the fairness to acknowledge the greatness of the witness and resistance given by so many of the Orthodox, too. Anyone who reads this book will be able to see that and will be inspired by it.

[3] Everyday Saints, 223–24.

[4] Everyday Saints, 239–40.

[5] Everyday Saints, 241–42. The whole section on Mother Frosya (pp. 217–51) is one of the most moving and delightful accounts of a contemporary hero of Christianity that I have ever read.

[6] Everyday Saints, 218–21.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...