The Grand Duchess was born Princess Elisabeth of Hesse in 1864. She was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, the elder sister of the last Czarina Alexandra and a great-aunt of our own Prince Philip. Like her sister she too had married into the Russian Imperial Family when she wed Grand Duke Sergei on the 15th June 1884 in the Winter Palace at St Petersburg. In 1891 she formally adopted the Russian Orthodox faith, having become increasingly absorbed in it since her marriage. Elisabeth also very quickly impressed the Russian people with her charitable works and her concern for the poor.
Sadly, in 1905 Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated when a revolutionary hurled a bomb into his carriage at the Kremlin. Somehow Elisabeth, and this is a measure of the sort of woman she was, was able to publicly forgive his assassin. Now a widow and with the marriage having been childless she was able to dedicate herself more fully to her charitable endeavours. To this end Elisabeth decided to leave the Imperial Court to become a Nun. She spoke of this as leaving one world for a “greater world”. She founded the Martha and Mary Home for the downtrodden in Moscow and having gathered around her a number of like-minded women, they were in due course consecrated as Sisters of Love and Mercy with Elisabeth as their Abbess. Their work of nursing and the relief of the poor continued.
The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 led to Elisabeth’s arrest and transportation to Alapaievsk in the Urals where on the 18th July 1918, with another from the Convent and a number of the Romanovs, she was put to death by being thrown down a mineshaft. There they died slowly. A local heard them singing psalms for some time. When after the fall of Communism the mineshaft was reopened, Elisabeth was found to have fallen onto a ledge some 50 feet down. It was clear from her remains that she had died clutching an icon of Jesus to her breast.