Mother Catherine Abrikosova, OPL
If the heart of a man strives for truth the Lord will mysteriously act upon him by grace and by the events of his own life, and step by step he will set him on the path to the heights of sanctity. It is the part of the man to cooperate with this grace of God transforming him, responding to it and always keeping his heart open to encounter Christ.
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Anna Ivanovna Abrikosov, who by her life and her martyrdom for Christ was later to bear such clear witness to the truth of our faith, was born in 1880, into a rich Moscow merchant family. She received her higher education at Girton College of Cambridge University. When she graduated, she returned to Moscow, where she married Vladimir Vladimirovich Abrikosov, a relative of hers of the same age.
The couple was not religious, rather to the contrary, they were free-thinkers. As Deacon Vassily puts it in his book about Blessed Leonid Feodorov, they did not directly deny God, but they did not believe in him either. They went on about their lives without him in them. Vladimir Abrikosov was a “freethinker,” even sympathizing with the revolutionaries, those same revolutionaries who were later the source of his sufferings for Christ. How it was that the grace of God led Anna Ivanovna to belief and to the Church, how it was that he entered her soul, will no doubt remain a mystery. One can only imagine that in traveling around Europe and in familiarizing herself with European culture and literature, she and her husband might well have encountered various manifestations of spiritual life, and these could have sown in their souls the seeds of grace which were to sprout and bear such abundant fruit. Anna Ivanovna entered the Catholic Church in Paris in 1908. A year later her husband, the future Father Vladimir Abrikosov, followed her example. In their theological studies they became ever more imbued with a spirit of faith, service to God and to the Church, and with the desire to preach Christ, first of all in their homeland, in Russia.
In 1910 they returned to Moscow and began to witness to their faith among the intelligentsia. They encountered many difficulties. Their former acquaintances shunned them because they had become Catholics. Of course, they would have accepted in society had they remained unbelievers, but as Catholics they were not accepted. However, thanks to their sincerity, knowledge, and dedication to God, other Russian Catholics began to gather about them. As someone has recalled: “The Abrikosov house of those days reminded one of those ancient patrician houses in Rome, where in the name of Christ the masters of the house, Christians, would receive everyone, from slave to prince. In the house of the Abrikosovs too everyone was met in the name of Christ.” Fr. Leonid Feodorov, recently beatified, wrote of them: “One can apply to this family the words of the Apostle Paul ‘ I greet their house, as a church.’ Rarely does one meet young people, in the flower of youth, so devoted to the cause of the Church and so religious,”
It should be noted that in Russia at that time, separated as it was by half a century from the Vatican Council II with its emphasis on the significance of the laity in the Church’s mission, there existed quite a rich tradition of apostolic work among lay Catholics. We would be well-advised to remember this tradition and to learn from our forbearers. There existed many philanthropic and spiritually beneficial groups and organizations – and this in spite of the fact that the conditions for the Catholic Church of the time in Russia were none too easy. But even against such a background the Abrikosovs stood out. Thus, gatherings of a religious nature were conducted in their home. “At these meeting there were different kinds of callers: one could encounter a young student, a professor from the university, a humble young woman, or a lady from high society. Both Catholic and Orthodox priests came to visit. The meetings began with the reading of a paper and ended with serious spiritual discussions over a cup of tea.
At this time the Abrikosovs attended church at the Catholic parish of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and they took active part in parish life. Because of the absence at that time of prayer books and Catholic literature in Russian, they used French books, which, of course, still further deepened their familiarity with Western Catholic spirituality.
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During the time of their visit to Rome in the summer of 1913, the Abrikosovs were received into the Third Order of St. Dominic. The Holy Father, Pius X, received them in a private audience; he took an interest in their service to their homeland and blessed its continuation. Soon after, when they had returned to Russia, young women wishing to consecrate their lives to God’s service began to gather around Anna Ivanovna. In the future they were to become the nucleus of the monastic community to the foundation of which Anna Ivanovna dedicated herself.
The Abrikosovs had been received into the Eastern Rite, in accordance with the Pope’s wish. Vladimir Abrikosov was ordained a priest in 1917. Already before that time they had made a vow of chastity, living together as brother and sister. Fr. Vladimir dedicated himself to the creation of a parish, and the chapel was set up in their apartment. Anna Ivanovna, who had taken as her religious name Catherine of Siena devoted herself to the foundation of a Third Order Dominican monastic community located in this same apartment. The Sisters led a strict ascetic life, in conformity with the monastic tradition of that time, although they were not cloistered. In addition to the regular monastic vows many of the Sisters, including Mother Catherine, took a special vow, offering their sufferings and their life for the salvation and conversion of Russia.
One of the Sisters of the community recalls about these days: “In spite of the harsh years of revolution and civil war with all their consequences, hunger and disease, the spiritual life of the Sisters became ever deeper. Their ascetic way of life greatly facilitated this. And their faith and their ardent zeal and spiritual oneness became ever stronger. Mother Catherine together with the other Sisters willingly bore all the inconvenience. The Sisters earned a little money for their living expenses, working in various offices, schools – many of the Sisters had completed higher education- and the like.”
But not much time remained for Mother Catherine and the Dominican Sisters to live in freedom. The wave of religious persecutions was already beginning throughout the country. There lay before Mother Catherine herself and before many of the Sisters of her community prisons, exile, and the camps – the way of the cross of martyrdom. In 1922 Fr. Vladimir was arrested. He was condemned to be shot, but at the last minute the death sentence was commuted to forced exile abroad. Mother Catherine could have gone abroad with him. But she refused – she remained with her Sisters. She had no illusions about the future, and she understood perfectly that harsh times lay ahead for them. In a letter of that time she wrote: “Her we feel ourselves to be little chips in the hands of God, and where we will be borne to we do not know, we have no plans, no expectations, nothing… We must live by pure acts of faith, hope, and charity.”
In the brief time that remained before her arrest Mother Catherine worked very hard, as did the rest of the Sisters. In the parish they organized a school for the parishioners’ children. In her memoirs one of the Sisters (Sr. Philomena) says: “ Mother Catherine loved children, they always had permission to come into her room and they literally adored her. Mother Catherine, in addition to her daily prayers and all the tasks she had to do still found time to translate spiritual works into Russian, the outstanding spiritual classics of the ascetic life, for the Sisters. She herself wrote several meditations connected to the liturgical year and the Dominican feasts. The Sisters in the community so deeply revered and respected Mother Catherine that they had no secrets from her. Their hearts, souls, and thoughts were open before her… For the Sisters she was like their conscience. Mother Catherine was truly the guide of their spiritual and intellectual lives, which developed in positive ways under her influence… It was as if all of them had a presentiment that soon there would come a time of testing, when they would be deprived of this blessed communal life and of the sacraments. The Sisters prayed much, day and night, talking turns bowing in adoration before Jesus in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. The time of their long way of the cross was drawing near…”
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In November of 1923 Mother Catherine and nearly all the Sisters and parishioners were arrested. The chapel was sealed by the Cheka, the secret police of the time. Mother Catherine, like all those arrested, was confined to prison. Sr. Philomena recalls: “ At first Mother Catherine was put into a solitary cell in the Butyrka (the Butyrka Prison - P. P.), but subsequently she was transferred to a cell with ordinary prisoners, who were doing time for theft, prostitution, looting, and other more serious crimes. This was done in order to make Mother’s time there more difficult to endure… Mother was simple, friendly, and tender toward all the women in the cell, loving them as one who was undergoing the same experience. And these were women who were completely lost, amoral, sunk in lives of crime, and they behaved with contempt and even hatred toward all the those prisoners who were there for non-civil crimes, particularly those arrested under article fifty-eight, the political crimes. But they loved Mother Catherine, and became very attached to her. Their cell was gradually transformed, the shouting, fights, and cursing ceased. And after Mother Catherine was transferred away from them, to another cell, after they had begun to go to work and the cell was no longer locked, when the women knew that Mother Catherine was being conducted past their cells to go for her walk would jump out into the corridor under threat of punishment so that they could kiss her shoulder, or merely look upon her.”
This same Sister describes another incident which reminds us of an episode from the lives of the saints: “One time during the cold season another woman was brought into the cell. She was half-dressed and in dirty rags, and she no longer had any things at all with her. No one would allow her to lie down beside her. She lay next to Mother Catherine, who covered her with her blanket. The women warned her, ‘Don’t do that. She is contagious, she has syphilis.’ Mother Catherine to this replied: ‘And what of it? If I catch something I will get it treated’.”
Soon Mother Catherine and the Sisters were moved into a single cell, which was, of course, a wonderful gift and a great consolation for them in this harsh situation of theirs. It is striking that under these prison conditions, when many people lose part of their humanity and sink into a moral decline, the Sisters under Mother Catherine’s guidance were able to establish a communal spiritual life. They taught catechism, and they prayed together in community. At Easter they were even able to conduct an Easter service and to give a festal meal - of course an extremely humble one, but a celebration all the same. In the spring, under Mother Catherine’s direction, they did the spiritual exercises and renewed their vows. Several Sisters made their vows here in the prison, having finished their novitiate. All of this was possible, of course, because of the self-sacrificing and valorous service of Mother Catherine to God and to her Sisters. When, as soon happened, the Sisters’ sentences were announced they were extremely severe. Mother Catherine spoke with them all, giving them counsel and direction concerning their future life in captivity and exile, encouraging them. The Sisters were sent to different places to serve their sentences. They were forced to separate from Mother Catherine.
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Mother Catherine was sent by prison convoy to the jail in Tobolsk. The conditions there were very harsh - there were not even any mattresses. Mother became seriously ill from physical exhaustion. But even under conditions like these, for the two years while she was not yet forbidden the carry on personal correspondence, Mother Catherine consoled and cheered the Sisters of her community with numerous letters.
Sr. Philomena recounts: “Finding herself among ordinary criminals Mother Catherine… related to them very simply and warmly, always dividing with them everything that she received. She was able to establish such good relations with them that they respected her, loved her, and even watched out for her, seeing to it that she was not allowed to do hard labor. They would wash her floors themselves, cleaning and doing her laundry. If some outbreak would occur among these criminal women, and the prison authorities were unable to shout them down, those in charge would say: “We have to call Abrikosov and it will all stop.” If the women started to quarrel and use bad language, seeing Mother Catherine walking by the cell they would say, “Quiet! Here comes Anna Ivanovna.” Mother Catherine was for them a very dear and close person, and they were prepared to do anything for her. One time they were prepared, because of her, to give the guard a beating, but Anna Ivanovna persuaded them not to do this.”
Five years later she was transferred to the “Political Isolator” in Yaroslavl. This was a prison noted for its strictness and for the special isolation of the prisoners. It was possible to encounter other prisoners only during the time of the walks.
Here too she frequently gave moral support to the people around her. “The was an instance,” recalls Sr. Philomena, when Mother Catherine was talking with a young man who was in a very low state spiritually, and who was thinking of committing suicide. She influenced him so positively, inspiring him with hope and courage, that his spiritual state was completely transformed. When he subsequently was released from the prison he was to recall, with deep gratitude, the unforgettable radiant presence of Mother Catherine.” So even under these conditions of the most harsh periods of Soviet imprisonment, where many captives lost their way morally and lost their full humanity, this heroic witness bore the light of Christ, the light of faith and love, of the support and comfort of which people were needful.
During the time of her stay at Yaroslavl the Lord granted her the possibility of going to confession, when during her walks she would meet priests confined at the same prison. Fr. Theofil Skalsky, with whom she would go at the same time for the walks, became her spiritual advisor. Later, already outside Russia, he wrote about her in his letters to Fr. Vladimir Abrikosov: “Anna Ivanovna bore her harsh lot as a captive under the Soviets with the indescribable peace and meekness of her profoundly religious soul. She was subjected to enormous deprivation… however no one heard from her any complaint or bemoaning her fate… She asked that you be informed that she considers herself fortunate that she was able for Christ, for the good of the Church, to endure so much. And if the Lord God were to deign once again to place this cross upon her she is always ready to bear it upon her shoulders. She never regrets anything, and she is always happy that she is a Catholic, and she finds joy in recalling what has been her lot in the Catholic faith.” “In her cell she prayed much, and she had the Sacred Scriptures… She admitted to me that she had a tumor on her breast. I insisted that she go to the doctor, who realized that it was cancer and sent her to Moscow, to the prison infirmary.”
Mother Catherine was sent for surgery to Moscow, to the hospital of the Butyrka prison. They amputated her left breast and part of the muscle of her back and side, after which she lost use of her left arm, and she became an invalid. They soon told her, to her amazement, that she could leave the prison, only being deprived of the right to live in the twelve major cities. She was permitted to spend a short time in Moscow. For the first time in a long time she was able to receive Holy Communion and to meet with several of the Sisters.
Bishop Pie Neveu, Apostolic Administrator of Moscow, who spoke with her, testified: “This true confessor of the faith is a person of genuine valor. Before a soul with such character one feels oneself to be quite insignificant.”
Mother Catherine settled in the town of Kostroma, with Sister Margaret, one of the Sisters of the community. She was able to see other Sisters, to talk with them, and she also wrote the Sisters many letters. The heroic patience of this holy woman can be seen from a story like this one from Sr. Philomena: “Once during one of the visits of Theresa (one of the Sisters - P.P.), Mother Catherine, as always sunny and welcoming, was joking in a sweet way. As she was seeing Theresa out Sister Margaret whispered in her ear: “Mother has a temperature of 103.1 degrees. Her cancer has recurred. She didn’t sleep all night in tossing and turning from the pain. She asked me not to tell anyone.” Theresa was struck by the extraordinary restraint and self control which Mother Catherine had. Nothing was visible externally, not the least shadow over her expression. She bore this strong pain in such a way that it would never occur to the bystander that she was suffering a great deal.”
This period of freedom, about one year long, was just a breather, rest which the Lord granted to Mother Catherine before the last stage of her lengthy and terrible way of the cross - a way in which she followed after the Lord whom she so loved. Soon she was arrested in Kostroma and sentenced to eight years in prison. The Sisters never saw her again. Much later it became known that she had died in the Butyrka prison hospital, of cancer, on the twenty-third of July, 1936, at the age of fifty-four. Her body was cremated. Thus Mother Catherine became, in the literal sense of the words, a “burnt offering” - for Christ, for the Church, and - in the fulfillment of her vow - for Russia, which she so loved.
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The Holy Apostle Paul instructs us: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7). People like Mother Catherine are worthy of being considered such leaders in God, after the example of their measureless love for Christ and they are an example of faith from which we must all learn.
The early Christians gathered at the tombs of the martyrs for Christ, to render him praise. The martyrs, having given their testimony to the truth of the Gospel, did not die. They remain in God and intercede before him for the needs of the Church and for the needs of those who remain on this earth. Those martyrs who suffered for Christ in the twentieth century on the soil of Russia also pray for us. We too in our prayers are able to turn to these holy people who have suffered, like Mother Catherine, so that they can offer to God petitions for us. There is no doubt that through their intercessory prayer on our behalf God will hear our petitions.
Pavel Parfentiev (Trans. Joseph Lake, OPL)
The article uses material from the book devoted to the Mother Catherine’s monastic community: Osipova, I. Vozljubiv Boga I sleduja za nim.., Moscow: Serebrjannye niti, 1999