Foundress of Holy Trinity-Tvorozhkov Convent
Blessed is the man that considereth the poor man and the pauper; in an evil day the Lord shall deliver him. May the Lord keep him, and make him to live, and make him blessed upon the earth. - Psalm 40:1-2
Abbess Angelina came from a family of wealthy and pious nobility. Her father, Philip Semyonovich Shlakov, paid frequent visits to nearby holy places and made several pilgrimages to Kiev. In church, he chose to stand among the poor, saying, "I, too, am poor, and in need of God's charity." In 1809, an only daughter, Alexandra, was born. Her parents adored her, but her mother, Anna Stepanovna, saw to it that she was not spoiled; she was judiciously strict with the child, accustoming her to prayer and to the conscientious fulfillment of her responsibilities. In order to develop in her daughter a charitable nature, Anna Stepanovna herself tried to set an example, frequently undertaking deeds of Christian love.
When Alexandra was seven, her parents, desiring to give her the best possible education, enrolled her in the Smolniy Institute in St Petersburg, an exclusive school founded by Empress Catherine for girls of the nobility. On finishing the course of study, fifteen-year-old Alexandra was betrothed, with her consent, to a Baltic nobleman of good character, Karl Andreyevich Von Roze, a Lutheran.
Theirs was a felicitous marriage, and the couple lived happily in their own house outside the imperial city. Increasingly, however, the young bride became weighed down by an inexplicable sense of ennui. She found the worldy life of their social milieu to be trivial and tiresome. "I'll build a house chapel," she thought to herself, "then I'll be content."
The couple was grief-stricken when their only child after twenty-three years of marriage, a daughter, died just days after her first birthday. At first Alexandra grumbled at God: Why had He granted them such a gift only to take it away? But it soon became clear to her that God was concerned above all with her salvation. As she later told a friend:
From that time I awakened as from a dream. All the luxury, vanity, and glitter of this temporal life became a great burden to me. I began to understand that the only comfort is in God. To love the poor and to go to church became an urgent need for me. How happy I felt on that day, when God helped me share with the poor all the blessings which I had received from Him.*
Another sorrow for Alexandra was her husband's disinclination to become Orthodox. Her attempts to persuade him only met with irritation. She increased her prayers, began to fast more strictly, and finally determined to leave her husband. However, all those to whom she turned for spiritual counsel unanimously opposed her decision. "Commit yourself and each other and all your life unto Christ our God, and trust that He will arrange everything for the benefit of your souls," she was told. Without abandoning her regimen of prayer and fasting, Alexandra devoted herself to works of charity. Finally, her prayers and exemplary Christian life bore fruit: without any further prompting on her part, her husband conceived the desire to be received into the Orthodox Church. He was given the name Nicholas, in honor of the holy wonderworker, whom he had revered while still a Lutheran. Alexandra was overjoyed. It was evident that her husband's decision sprang from a genuine conversion. They began to pray together, and together undertook works of charity. Looking toward the future, Nicholas suggested to his wife, "If you should die before I do, I shall build a men's monastery; if I die before you, then you build a convent. In that way, we will always help each other through our prayers, and we will never suffer separation!"
They bought an estate in the western province of Gdov. When they moved there, Alexandra was initially appalled by the condition of their new dwelling: it was not even a house but a ramshackle cabin, divided into two halves by a passageway. Nicholas consoled her. "What a suitable location for a monastery: lots of woods, a nearby lake, and, best of all, it's far from any big towns!" He began to fell trees for a proper house, but he caught cold, and, in 1858, he died, requesting that his wife free the serfs, build a house church and, without fail, establish a convent. Alexandra Filipovna remained alone with her devoted housekeeper and a few of her former serfs. Her acquaintances were all bewildered as to why she would continue living in such a backwater rather than moving back to her elegant house nearer the capital. There in Tvorzhkov she was occasionally visited by a revered fool-for-Christ, Terenty Ivanovich, who, in veiled remarks, foretold her monastic tonsure and the establishment of the convent. When Alexandra had chosen a location for a church, he indicated another spot and there drove a stake into the ground. And indeed, at the very spot where the architect determined that the digging should begin, the workers unearthed Terentius' stake.
Alexandra had a number of close spiritual friends and advisors: Archimandrite Ignaty from St Sergius Hermitage (a disciple of Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov); the superior of the nearby Cheremenetsk Hermitage, Fr. Anthony Bochkov, who from his youth had close ties with the Optina elders; and, in particular, Hieromonk Avraamy, whose obedience it was to collect funds for the Cheremenetsk Hermitage. He was especially adamant in advising Alexandra not to abandon her intention and to submit a request for the opening of a monastic community. Permission, however, was not forthcoming, and Alexandra became discouraged. She was ready to give up the undertaking, but Fr. Avraamy was insistent: "How can you turn your back on a work entrusted to you at the inspiration of God Himself!" he exclaimed. He escorted Alexandra Filipovna to the vicar bishop Agafangel, who blessed her with an icon of the Mother of God, "Axion Estin" (Meet it is), and assured her of his assistance.
First to be built was a wooden house with a house chapel dedicated to the Mother of God, "Joy of All Who Sorrow," an icon especially revered by Alexandra's late mother. Soon there were many candidates desiring to join the community. Among them, however, there were no singers. But God provided.
At that time, during the first week of Great Lent, a peasant girl by the name of Martha felt a compelling desire to go pray at the Cheremenetsk monastery, located some forty miles from her village. Reaching the monastery, she found there four other girls, all good singers, who were on their way to the Korotsk-Dormition Convent near Valdai, with the intention of becoming novices there. It occurred to Martha to persuade them to join instead the new Tvorzhkov community. She told them that Alexandra Fyodorovna had not only given her entire estate to this worthy cause, but that she labored unsparingly alongside the sisters. This sufficiently impressed the three older girls and they agreed at once to Martha's recommendation. The youngest, however, who had just turned sixteen, began arguing stubbornly against their decision. That same day she fell seriously ill. Seeing in this the hand of God, the girl vowed to go to Tvorzhkov if only she regained her health. And in fact, to everyone's amazement, she rapidly recovered. They all confessed and communed, and, on the second week of the fast, they arrived with Martha to Tvorzhkov, where she announced triumphantly, "The singers have come!"
The church was consecrated and Alexandra was tonsured as a rassophore nun and given the name Angelina. The other sisters were clothed in black as novices. Fr. Anthony was appointed dean of the new community. All the work, even the most strenuous, the sisters did themselves, led by the superior herself, who wore old, patched garments and did her own laundry. It was hard to believe that from childhood she had lived in luxury.
All too soon, Fr. Anthony retired, leaving the community without a priest. Fortunately, this trial did not last long. To everyone's joy Fr. Avraamy was appointed in Fr. Anthony's stead. In spite of the fact that he was also superior of the Cheremenetsk monastery, he took an earnest and active interest in the life of the Tvorzhkov community. At first he sent his hieromonks to serve the sisters. Later, Fr. Peter Nedrensky was assigned on a more permanent basis, and at his own request. From that time on the community had a regular and complete cycle of services. On Saturdays, following the typicon, Divine Liturgy was served with a special commemoration of the dead. Mother Angelina herself read the lists of commemorations at the Table of Oblation.
As the community grew, a work house was built adjacent to the convent, and an orphanage. The complex was enclosed with a stone wall. The community's most revered sacred object was a Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God. In the evenings, the sisters would gather in the refectory and occupy themselves with handiwork, while Mother Angelina read aloud from patristic texts. She would then question the sisters on what she had been reading. If a sister had been day-dreaming or otherwise distracted, she would say to her, "It grieves me that you were not paying attention. I read to you with my last ounce of strength, desiring with my whole heart that these grace-filled words would touch your heart and adhere to it. I am straining myself to the utmost that you might understand what is the true path, how to seek the Kingdom of Heaven and save your souls." Mother Angelina was always kind and forbearing towards the sisters. "They are, after all, still children," she would say, "and they need to be fed with milk if they do something wrong. If you punish them, in their ignorance they might misunderstand, and it would only harm them. Tenderness and kindness will more readily bring them to amendment." In those days, there were as yet no doctors in such rural areas as Tvorzhkov. Mother Angelina herself treated the sick peasants and poor folk who came to the convent; she herself dressed and bandaged their wounds. She gave to the indigent her entire pension, which she received after her husband's death, and still she yearned to do more. She knit socks, in order to sell them and give the proceeds to the needy. To the poorest peasants she sent monthly a supply of grain and flour, and on Pascha she distributed to everyone paschal breads and red eggs.
Her charity extended even to the animals. Hungry dogs who wandered in to the convent were sure of finding food, and in wintertime Mother Angelina ensured that seed was put out for the birds. She was particularly attentive to the community's livestock, making sure they were properly fed and anointing with oil from the icon of the Mother of God any that were sick. At night she would send her cell-attendant to check on the horses, and when, after the evening prayers, she had made the sign of the Cross over each sister (those whose obediences prevented them from being present she crossed "in absentia"), she proceeded to do the same for all the animals: in the winter this meant going to the stable and the cow barn, while in summer, she would make the sign of the Cross in the direction of the field where the horses were pastured.
A new year came, 1880. For some reason, Mother Angelina awaited with some impatience the feast of Saint Alexis the Man of God, March 17, while, regarding the Feast of Annunciation, she aid, "That will be a great and joyous day for me, a sinner." On Forgiveness Sunday, she was overcome by fatigue; a few days later she was diagnosed with pneumonia. Twice she partook of the Holy Mysteries and was given Holy Unction. She blessed each sister in turn, thanking some for their labors and urging others to amendment. He last words to the sisters were, "Forgive me, the hour of my departure has come." Then she began in a whisper to recite the Trisagion Prayer: "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us," repeatedly making the sign of the Cross until she no longer had strength to raise her hand.
And so, on 17 March 1880, the feast of Saint Alexis the Man of God, Abbess Angelina quietly and peacefully gave her soul into the hands of the Lord. At her funeral, the entire courtyard of the convent was filled with people. Everyone wept: children, nuns, peasants, paupers. The crippled crawled to her coffin on their knees. The crowd did not disperse until each person had thrown a handful of earth into her grave. The ninth day of Abbess Angelina's repose - when, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the soul stands before God - fell on the Feast of Annunciation.
Translated from Russkoye Pravoslavnoye Zhenskoye Monashestvo 18-20 v., compiled by Nun Taisia, Jordanville, 1985.
Translated from Russkoye Pravoslavnoye Zhenskoye Monashestvo 18-20 v., compiled by Nun Taisia, Jordanville, 1985.