“Our Wise Amma”

Arab Nuns of the Convent of the Mount of Olives Share Their Memories of Abbess Tamara

Abbess Tamara (Romanova-Bagration-Mukhransky) Abbess Tamara (Romanova-Bagration-Mukhransky)   

August 28, 2019, marked the fortieth anniversary of the blessed repose of Abbess Tamara (Bagration-Mukhransky), who served as mother-superior of the Mount of Olives Convent of the Ascension of Our Lord in Jerusalem between 1951 and 1975.

So prominent was the influence of this ascetic from the holy convent on the Mount of Olives, that her former charges now always call her “amma”—that is, “reverend mother”, or “Royal Abbess” and “our tsarina”.

Mother Tamara fell asleep in the Lord peacefully at the age of eighty-nine on one of the major Orthodox feasts—the Dormition of the Theotokos. It was very providential that the Queen of Heaven deigned to take her—one of the most outstanding representatives of the Imperial House of Romanov, a Grand Duchess who was the daughter of Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich, a great-granddaughter of Emperor Nicholas I and a great-great-granddaughter of Emperor Paul I—to Her Heavenly abodes.

Listening to the stories of several of her disciples, we see a classical image of a humble and holy servant of God, whose main qualities (in addition to her other great virtues) were spiritual motherhood and wisdom. Below we offer our readers these nuns’ reminiscences.

Mother Veronica (Raheb), nun on the Mount of Olives since 1957:

Mother Veronica (Raheb) as a nun Mother Veronica (Raheb) as a nun     

The All-Merciful Lord gave us, the Russian Arabs still living in the holy Russian convent on the Mount of Olives, the great joy of seeing and feeling the holy life of our dear beloved Mother Tamara for almost twenty-five years. We, her eight former charges who are still alive, live by the fond memory we hold of her, and I am convinced that we are still here through her intercessory heavenly prayers to the Lord for us and for all the Russian Orthodox on the Mount of Olives.

Her podvigs (spiritual labors in Russian.—Trans.] on the Mount of Olives are epoch-making. In truth Mother Tamara preserved and firmly established Russian Orthodox female monasticism on the Mount of Olives and gave a strong impetus to its steady further development.

Nun Veronica (Raheb) in her youth Nun Veronica (Raheb) in her youth   

When she came here to serve as abbess in 1951, Russian Orthodox convents on the Mount of Olives were languishing in poverty: There was postwar misery everywhere, the idiorhythmic system was the only one around, the sisters earned their crust on the side outside the convents, were humiliated and mocked by local Muslims (Arabs and Turks), wore rags and tattered habits.

I recall that there were many very old nuns who had lived at our convent from before the Russian Revolution. They were dying out so rapidly that we buried ten sisters within one year! The convent could certainly have become deserted in the future.

Together with Fr. Demetrius (Biakay), who was appointed head of the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem at the same time and who is another great ascetic of the Mount of Olives, Mother Tamara transformed the convent’s internal life dramatically and irreversibly.

As one of the most outstanding and well-connected representatives of the Russian diaspora, Abbess Tamara received funds from her numerous sponsors in Europe and immediately used the money to provide the convent with all necessary facilities and equipment: electricity, water supply and sanitary systems.

Under Mother Tamara the sisters no longer made their living in the world and no longer wore rags. Though the sisters began to gather together for communal meals, it was not possible to completely turn away from the idiorhythmic regime, due to lack of funds.

The Mount of Olives Convent of the Ascension of Our Lord in Jerusalem The Mount of Olives Convent of the Ascension of Our Lord in Jerusalem Mother Tamara took care of the sisters just as a loving mother takes care of her daughters. A hospital was opened for sick and frail sisters, and younger nuns would take turns watching by the beds of the gravely sick or dying nuns and attending up on them.

The abbess cared about the sisters’ physical health. The Arab Augusta Victoria Hospital provided us free service; a doctor was charged with the special duty of visiting us on a regular basis and examining seriously ill aged nuns and all whose state of health caused concern.

The abbess made our convent an international one and got the local Arab Orthodox population involved in the preservation of this holy convent of universal significance.

Oddly enough, it is still rumored that we, Arab nuns, allegedly came to the convent from Muslim families. Sheer nonsense! If this had taken place, the Muslims would have destroyed us at a single blow! Things like that don’t go unpunished in the Muslim world.

All of us, the oldest residents of the Mount of Olives, are descended from ancient Orthodox Arab families, mostly Syrian ones. It was in Syria and Antioch that the followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians. So almost all of us come from there. Even my surname, Raheb, means “monk” in Arabic. My great-grandfather personally knew and communicated with St. Theophan the Recluse, who was head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem at one time.

Since the aged nuns were dying out, Mother Tamara decided to renew her community of the Ascension Convent and attract many representatives of old Orthodox Arab families to it.

On the local Orthodox Arab clergy’s advice and at Orthodox parents’ insistence and with their consent, Mother Tamara began to admit young Arab girls as her charges and novices. I joined the convent in 1957 as a girl of ten. Today, eight of us, “Russian Arab nuns” who were admitted by our “Amam” Tamara herself, are still alive.

How did the mother-superior treat us? Experienced adult nuns were appointed to train and instruct us in the monastic life. Mother Tamara hired Russian and English teachers for us. We remember and will always remember our great Russian teacher—Mother Juliana (Kleptsova). Her father and grandfather were prominent priests in Moscow—both had been killed by the Bolsheviks during the brutal persecution that followed after the Revolution. I recall that Mother Juliana was such a strict and didactic teacher, she even made us write words with “yat” [a letter of old, pre-revolutionary Russian alphabet.—Trans.] correctly, explaining that thus we should display our special respect for Imperial Russia.

In everyday life Mother Tamara was the embodiment of modesty. I recall how she would quietly walk in her mantle through the cathedral towards her abbess’s chair and avoid touching or pushing any of the sisters or worshippers inadvertently by an awkward movement. At that time the cathedral was jam-packed with the sisters and worshippers because there were over 140 nuns, and we would stand in several rows. Two large choirs sang.

Mother Tamara taught other sisters to behave properly and piously at the convent in such a soft and pleasing manner! I recall that she would give me books by Holy Fathers, St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) or St. Theophan the Recluse, with bookmarks in them, and tell me to bring them to one or another sister who had acted in an inappropriate manner the day before. The abbess would ask the nun in question to read those extracts from the patristic works for her edification and reformation so as to avoid further misconduct. This was the way she nurtured us.

Mother Tamara never dared to raise her voice, let alone shout at any of the sisters; nor did she ever publicly scathe those in her care—she would only humbly and gently reproach them in private or instruct them using the above-mentioned method.

Her royal bearing, upbringing, humility, and unfailing respect for every human being were seen in all that she did.

We will never forget our great instructors and teachers on the Mount of Olives, and above all our great, royal abbess—Venerable Mother Tamara.

Mother Tamara (Khouri), Nun of Russian convents in Holy Jerusalem since 1948:

Nun Tamara and her aunt Nun Theoktista Nun Tamara and her aunt Nun Theoktista The Lord ordained for me to be the longest living Russian monastic in the holy city of Jerusalem at the moment.

You won’t believe this: seventy-one years of the monastic life!...

In 1948, at the age of eight I first came to Gorny Convent with my aunts, Nuns Photini and Theoktista, who have since reposed. However, after the war of 1948 we had to move from Gorny Convent[1] first to the Gethsemane Convent, and then to the Holy Ascension Convent. While in the Gethsemane, I went to the famous Bethany School where I became fluent in Russian and English. From the 1950s on I lived at the Ascension Convent with my aunts (Nuns Photini and Theoktista), where I could clearly feel and see our venerable Mother Tamara’s selfless devotion to her service with my own eyes. Like Mother Veronica (Raheb), with whom we share our cell where she looks after me due to my infirmity, I come from an old Orthodox Arab family—Khouri. “Khouri” means “priest” in Arabic. My father, my uncles, my grandfathers and other eminent ancestors were Orthodox clergymen and monks. And my younger brother John now serves as a bishop of the canonical Orthodox Church of Antioch in the USA.

Our “amma”—beloved Mother Tamara—gathered all of us (Russian Orthodox Arabs) at the Holy Ascension Convent on the Mount of Olives. She pursued a very wise policy, as it were: to ensure the presence of representatives of old Orthodox Arab families at the Holy Ascension Convent by all means. She only admitted us to the convent in accordance with the references submitted by our priests and fathers-confessors. All of us were supposed to come from pious Orthodox families and to have a great, historic Orthodox past, as it were. Mother Tamara at once spotted my aunt, Mother Theoktista (Jagnam), as a very talented, ascetic and strict personality, so my aunt was appointed her deputy and first assistant at the early age of thirty. Mother Theoktista was Abbess Tamara’s right hand for twenty-five years and later served as deputy to three successive abbesses after Mother Tamara. The Lord deigned to give me the monastic name Tamara, in honor of the Holy Queen Tamar of Georgia—our Mother Tamara’s heavenly patroness. I also was Mother Tamara’s cell-attendant. I would always accompany her from her quarters to the church, taking her by her arm, especially after her honorable resignation in 1975, together with another cell-attendant, Mother Apollinaria.

We are all deeply indebted to Mother Tamara. She encouraged the monastic practices of embroidery and icon-painting at the convent. Mother Theoktista, Mother Raphaela and I mastered the great art of embroidering miters, vestments, and shrouds. The convent lived by these and many other activities. The convent practiced the royal church choir singing, and the choir was directed by the reposed Arab nun, Mother Athanasia. Mother Tamara was very fond of church services and as long as she was physically strong enough she always attended services, and often read the Six Psalms and the midnight office herself.

In daily life Mother Tamara was a of very ascetic nature and a genuine nun. We marveled at how a grand duchess of the imperial blood, a cousin of St. Nicholas II, had abandoned her life at the palace and given herself over to the ascetic life. Every day she would eat with a wooden spoon from wooden dishes, use a portable wooden wash bowl, the humblest possible clothing and linen, with no extravagance in food, and no luxuries in household use.

M. Tamara with Fr. Demetrius (Biakay) M. Tamara with Fr. Demetrius (Biakay) However, in addition to Mother Tamara, I must also mention another great ascetic and hero of the Mount of Olives—our dear father-confessor Archimandrite Demetrius (Biakay). I had the privilege of being his secretary for some time as I knew English well. He was an amazing person! If I may take the liberty of saying so, Fr. Demetrius was the second greatest Russian priest on the Mount of Olives and Palestine after the founding father, Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin). The breadth of his knowledge was unlimited. Mother Tamara held him in such deep respect that nothing important was done at the convent without his blessing. Though she was eighteen years his senior and was old enough to be his mother, the abbess always considered herself his spiritual daughter and remained faithful to him both after his resignation in 1968 and her own retirement in 1975. Their mutual respect was so great that after the abbess’s repose on the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God in 1979 he did his best to ensure that Mother Tamara was buried in the center of the convent, behind the Holy Ascension Cathedral, alongside the foundress and first builder of the Holy Ascension Convent, Mother Euphraxia (Milovidova) and the other greatest ascetics of the Holy Mount of Olives.

  

Current Deputy Abbess, Mother Raphaela (Lehl), nun of the Holy Ascension Convent since 1954:

In some sense, I have a significant date this year too. Sixty-five years ago as a girl of fourteen I stepped into this greatest convent in the world. This happened according to the will of our great “amma”—Mother Tamara, our “queen on earth”. It’s something I can boast about: I am the longest living resident on the Mount of Olives, too. I have such great love for our Holy Ascension Convent and I’ve been devoted to it so much that I, for instance, have never been to Gorny Convent in Jerusalem, though they are our closest sisters. Like all my Arab counterparts at the convent, I am descended from an Orthodox Arab family, the history of which began centuries ago.

Abbess Barbara, Bishop Nicholas, Deputy Abbess Mother Raphaela Abbess Barbara, Bishop Nicholas, Deputy Abbess Mother Raphaela     

Thanks to our great Mother Tamara, Mothers Theodosia and Tabitha; our great instructors—Fr. Demetrius, Mother Theoktista, Mother Juliana (Kleptsova); our spiritual fathers—Fr. Methodius, Fr. Modestus, and Fr. Nektary, I was trained in monastic life and became so thoroughly absorbed in it that in 1996, following the honorable resignation of Mother Theoktista for health reasons, the Lord deigned to entrust me, a sinner, with carrying out the duties of her deputy—that is, the assistant to the mother-superior for the period of interregnum, with the privilege of wearing a pectoral cross on Sundays and major festivals, becoming “a second in command” at the convent. What’s more, after Abbess Juliana had left the convent in 1997, I served as acting abbess for two years in the most difficult circumstances before the appointment of Mother Moisea as the next mother-superior. Over that period my name was even mentioned at the litanies during services. Thus I am a natural “Russian Arab nun” of the Mount of Olives and I know all its history since 1954.

Beyond all doubt, after the convent’s founder Fr. Antonin (Kapustin), the first and most important figure for us old Arab nuns, is our Mother Abbess Tamara. For us she is a role model and a good example to be followed in all things. I believe that we, senior Arab nuns of venerable age on the Mount of Olives, are still alive because we truly had a vivid and living mother—Abbess Tamara (Bagration-Mukhransky, nee Romanova), a grand duchess of royal blood.

Mother Tamara was such a simple and decent person that the abbess’s quarters at the convent were open for everyone almost any time through her abbacy. She didn’t even have a doorbell! Truly it was a common, maternal home where everyone met, shared meals, received blessings, advice and instruction, and so on. Mother Tamara was wholly attached to her beloved convent, and over her tenure on the Mount of Olives she only left it twice, when she had to go on long journeys. If she ever walked beyond the convent boundaries, she only did it to visit the Holy Sepulcher or the Gethsemane (the tomb of the Mother of God). Mother Tamara never tried to hold on to power. And when she was over eighty and began to feel weary due to her old age and ailments and had memory problems, she firmly decided to give up the abbacy and retire. In this her royalty manifested itself once again: you must always maintain a good, strict and stable form in all things, even when you govern a convent. For her it couldn’t be otherwise. You need to maintain a good, imperial posture even if you are a simple nun. So in 1975, with the blessing of her permanent spiritual father, Fr. Demetrius (Biakay), Mother Tamara filed a petition to the ROCOR Synod of Bishops with the request to relieve her from her post of the abbess of the Holy Ascension Convent on the Mount of Olives on grounds of age and state of health. Despite all the efforts of her assistant Mother Theoktista to persuade her to remain the abbess nominally till her death and free herself from all the cares and chores (while her assistants and deputy mother-superior would have shouldered these burdens), Mother Tamara refused point-blank, explaining her decision by a lack of sufficient strength to carry out the duties of abbess. It didn’t befit her as someone who was descended from royalty to give a false impression of being the abbess when she was very weak. In Abbess Tamara we had such a worthy, noble and exemplary venerable mother.

Mother Tamara with her sister Vera Constantinovna Romanova Mother Tamara with her sister Vera Constantinovna Romanova     

Mother Magdalena, nun of the Holy Ascension Convent since 1961:

When Mother Tamara came to the convent, there were only five denarii—that is, five coins, in its safe.

Can you imagine what it was like?! It was utter poverty and starvation. The nuns had to work outside monastery in the world with all the ensuing consequences, and wore ragged clothes.

The life was dramatically transformed under Mother Tamara. Together with Fr. Demetrius (Biakay) she saved the convent from ruin.

Thanks to these two great heroes the Russian Convent on the Mount of Olives survived, became firmly established and developed further.

What was most important about this convent? It lived by its inner love; though there were over 140 nuns, there were no amenities, no technical equipment (the things we enjoy today), no running water, no electricity, no sewer system, and no necessary medicine! Love was the most important thing! There were no valuables, hardly any facilities, but there was love. And our Mother Tamara was the embodiment of this genuine love.

Abbess Tamara (Romanova-Bagration-Mukhransky) Abbess Tamara (Romanova-Bagration-Mukhransky)   

She was such a virtuous person that, despite the convent’s poverty, through her prayers and efforts we always found sponsors who gave us funds for renovation and restoration work, water and electricity; and our Orthodox Arab relatives always supported us by supplying food and flour to the convent. We gardened, and toiled in the fields and olive groves ourselves. We made a living by selling our exquisite pieces of embroidery.

With the blessing of the Holy Hierarch John of Shanghai and San Francisco and on his personal recommendation Mother Tamara would admit old sisters to our convent—Russian emigrants who had ended up abroad after the Russian Revolution, becoming lonely and weak. It might seem: why should we admit old nuns who are unable to work to the convent?! But disrespectful arguments of this kind were foreign to the nature of Mother Tamara, who possessed a deep, human, personal generosity. She received these old Russian foreign nuns and assigned them light obediences—they were responsible for the church shop, received donations, and took turns reading the perpetual Psalter! That is, absolutely necessary monastic activities for any monastery or convent! And elderly frail sisters who could work neither in the kitchen garden nor in the olive groves and were unable to participate in construction work literally saved the convent by their unceasing, round-the-clock prayers! Near Mother Tamara there was a place for everybody. Infirm nuns, who suffered from their grave illnesses and literally lay on their deathbeds, received permanent care at a small separate hospital on the convent’s territory. Younger sisters took turns nursing them all the time. No aged bedridden sister was driven away from the convent. The hospital building still exists, though it is no longer used as a hospital.

A special photo: Mother Tamara and Fr. Demetrius with Russian Arab sisters of the Russian convent on the Mount of Olives A special photo: Mother Tamara and Fr. Demetrius with Russian Arab sisters of the Russian convent on the Mount of Olives   

We are all convinced that the time of Mother Tamara and Fr. Demetrius (Biakay) was the golden age both for us and history. We are very unlikely to see this again, though now the convent has plenty of everything: we are all well-fed, the convent is well-equipped and renovated, and each one of us has a computer and internet access.

Abbess Tamara’s grave in the center of the Holy Ascension Convent on the Mount of Olives Abbess Tamara’s grave in the center of the Holy Ascension Convent on the Mount of Olives Although, today we have forty nuns, including novices, in contrast to Mother Tamara’s 140-strong community.

May the genuine, true love, that we had under Mother Tamara, reign here again with the help of God!

As for our presence on the Mount of Olives—the Russian Arab nuns who were nurtured and trained by Mother Tamara, Archbishop Mark (Arnt) of Berlin and Germany, who currently monitors the state of ROCOR holy monasteries and convents in the Holy Land, publicly said: “We are indebted to the Russian Arab nuns of the Mount of Olives for preserving the Russian presence on the Mount of Olives for the Russian diaspora and indeed the entire world. It would have been impossible without their herculean efforts. May the Lord save them for their labors!”

Eternal memory to the Venerable Mother Abbess Tamara for her historic, exceptional ascetic labors on the Mount of Olives!

[1] The convent built by the Russian Mission on the place where Righteous Elizabeth met with the Mother of God, who then said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” It is now a convent of the Moscow Patriarchate.
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