The young Georgian princess resolved to become a nun at nineteen years of age. Neither her parents, nor she herself could explain the unexpected change she had undergone as she visited the convent of Saint Nino. Later Venerable John of Kronstadt would reaffirm she had chosen the right path and predict three crosses she would have to bear in life. Today we know this princess as a saint, Venerable Confessor Schema-Abbess Fomar (Mardzhanova).
The name of the young princess was Tamara. Born on April 1, 1869, in the village of Kvareli, Georgia, to a large Mardzhanov family (a Russianized form of the Georgian family name Mardzhanashvili), Tamara inherited her princely descent from her mother, Elisabeth, who belonged to an ancient Chavchavadze family. Her father Alexander Mardzhanov was a hereditary nobleman. Tamara chanced to be born to a religious family; an athonite hieromonk, Fr. Jesse, was her parents’ spiritual father (and apparently that of the entire family).
While of relatively young age, Tamara lost her parents. Her father was severely injured in a battle with the Turks, and his death followed in 1881. As the princess turned 19, her mother and two sisters passed away in the year 1888. Then Tamara lived in her family estate in Kvareli that she inherited with her younger brother and sister. By that time she had already finished her studies at the Transcaucasia Institute for Maidens.
The children in the Mardzhanov family naturally possessed many wonderful gifts. Tamara’s brother, Konstantin (Kote Marzhanishvili), would later become a renowned actor, director and one of the key contributors to the Georgian theatre. Tamara also possessed artistic talents. Schema-Abbess Fomar left her poems as a legacy. Moreover, she had a beautiful voice and a gift for music, which explains why she wanted to go to the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
Worldly wealth awaited the God-pleaser in secular society. Soon one of Georgia’s most eligible bachelors proposed marriage to her. But princess’s life unexpectedly took a completely different turn, when everything seemed settled.
I will too join the convent
A trip to the city of Signagi was decisive. There lived Tamara’s aunt, the sister of her late mother. Moaning that her nieces had forgotten about her, she invited them to her place. Tamara and her sister Sophia arrived in Signagi in May 1889. The following day, it was proposed that they should visit the recently renovated and opened, on May 7, Bodbe Convent, where the relics of St. Nino, Enlighter of Georgia, were enshrined.
The girls arrived at the convent by the All-Night Vigil service. Tamara would later recollect that a thought flashed her mind as she entered the convent: “I too will join the convent…” The service was taking place in a small house church; Abbess Juvenalia (Lovenetskaya) was reading the canon. After the service the Abbess held a brief conversation with the two sisters whom she could not have failed to notice. However, Tamara by that time had undergone an immediate and complete change and had no doubts that she would stay at that place to be a nun. Bishop Arseny (Zhadanovsky) would later describe this change, saying that the young girl “went to the convent as a secular person but came back home disposed to be a nun”.
In the summer of 1889, Princess Tamara Alexandrovna paid her second visit to Bodbe Convent. This time she saw Abbess Juvenalia again and resolved to tell her about her determination to become a nun. The Abbess was all in favor of the young princess’s intention and noted she would not even have to make any contribution. So, being firm in her wish to join the convent, the 23-year old Tamara Mardzhanova came back home to arrange all the matters.
Cell attendant of the Abbess
The princess’s relatives were adamant; they did not agree with her resolve to go to a convent. They chided her for her weird, in their view, decision. Seeing, however, how determined the young princess was, they strove to distract her from these thoughts in all possible ways, to attract her by the comfort and beauty of the worldly life. But Tamara, watching a play in the theater, was praying with a prayer rope, and nothing could deflect her from the chosen course.
Tamara joined the Bodbe monastic community as a novice in December 1889. Her relatives made their final mischievous attempt to force the princess leave the convent by telling her to come home in order to settle matters related to the estate division, and then they attempted to lock her in the house. However their attempt failed. The girl managed to escape from this captivity and return to the convent.
Tamara was the first Georgian girl to join the newly opened Bodbe Convent; the other novices living there were Russian. Abbess Juvenalia treated Tamara with especial kindness, and she soon became her cell attendant. Tamara was charged with various duties: she was the Abbess’s clerk, and she sang in and later directed the monastery choir. When a school opened in the convent, the young novice taught singing there.
Tamara strove for an ascetic podvig so desperately that she, following an example of ancient hermits, resolved to make a cave in the mountains nearby to dwell with some likeminded sisters. The abbess learned about their ambition, but she forbade them to take up this too difficult podvig.
Tamara, Tamara, thou hath chosen that good part
Tamara’s encounter with Father John of Kronstadt was, undoubtedly, one of the crucial and unforgettable moments of this period of her life—although he had taken his part in rebuilding Bodbe Convent before they were personally acquainted. The following fact of the convent’s history is worth of our attention. The restoration of the convent was enormously expensive; the sisters lived in utter need often not having enough money for basic food. Once they went in the church to pray for help from Heaven. Surprisingly enough, a sister came back from the post office with a check for 200 roubles shorty after their prayer. Their benefactor turned out to be none other than Fr. John of Kronstadt, who had also written a letter to the Abbess, “Accept this; I send 200 roubles for your critical needs, my dear.” All this was still more astonishing as the Abbess did not know Fr. John personally.
During her next trip to St. Petersburg, the abbess wished to personally meet with Fr. John to thank him for his timely benefaction. She took her cell attendant Tamara with her. Their meeting took place in the Resurrection Convent and deeply impressed Tamara, as she would later describe in her memoirs. For instance, as Fr. John came to bless the novice, he told her, “Tamara, Tamara, thou hath chosen that good part”. Then, during their meeting, he jokingly took three pectoral crosses off of the Abbess and put them on Tamara saying in jovially, “You are real abbess! Just look at her!”
Many sisters would later say that the fact that Father John put three crosses on Tamara was not a coincidence—he was foretelling the three crosses she would have to bear in her life. Then, the young novice could not even imagine that she would have to be the abbess of three different convents, which would be the three heavy crosses Father John had foretold to her. Tamara was novice at Bodbe Convent for about nice years. Eventually, she was tonsured on October 24, 1899. Notably, she was tonsured by Archbishop Flavian (Gorodetsky), Exarch of Georgia, and Abbess Juvenalia became her spiritual mother. The newly tonsured nun received the same name as her spiritual mother, Juvenalia. Archimandrite Germogen (Dolganov), head of the Tiflis Seminary, was her father confessor at the beginning of her monastic path.
The long-standing desire of the Georgian princess for monasticism was overshadowed by a tragic occurrence. While she was a novice, her former rich fiancé, with whom she exchanged letters and considered a good friend—though the Abbess did not know about it—was waiting for her return to the worldly life. When he learned that his bride had been tonsured, he fell sick with tuberculosis and soon died. For a long time, Nun Juvenalia suffered remorse as she thought her tonsure could bring on the disease or make it worse, resulting in young man’s death.
In 1902, Abbess Juvenalia (Lovenetskaya) of Bodbe Convent was appointed abbess of the Nativity Convent in Moscow. The young nun was preparing to move to Moscow with her beloved Matushka, when an appointment came unexpectedly: Nun Juvenalia (Mardzhanova) was assigned as abbess of Bodbe Convent. Despite her numerous pleas, she failed to persuade the Church authorities to cancel the appointment. Nun Juvenalia was solemnly raised to the rank of abbess on October 12, 1902. On the same day, she became the Abbess of Bodbe Convent, a role for which she considered herself unprepared. She also felt uneasy about Matushka’s being transferred to Moscow, about parting with her. Fr. John of Kronstadt encouraged her by his own example and with his blessing, and she found the same support from many other priests. Abbess Juvenalia was head of Bodbe Convent for five years in total.
For Matushka, the last years of her service were especially burdensome. In those years, the cruel, hawkish highlanders started attacking the local peasants, and the generous Abbess gave them a shelter, often hiding them in her ancient convent. The highlanders did not like Matushka for her mercy, and she received explicit threats. Soon the marauders went from words to action.
On November 27, 1907, the Abbess and some of her sisters were coming back to their convent from Tiflis when suddenly the highlanders launched an attack on their coach. The bandits started shooting. It was only Matushka’s prayer to her most beloved saint—St. Seraphim of Sarov, whose icon she pressed to her chest in fervent prayer—that saved them from sure death. The coachman and the horses were shot to death, the coach was riddled with bullets, but no one inside was injured.
Following that incident, the Church authorities were gravely concerned about the life of the Abbess, and they began to make arrangements to transfer her to Moscow. Soon, on December 11, 1907, Abbess Juvenalia was appointed head of the Protection Community of Sisters of Mercy in Moscow.
The sisters of mercy at Protection Community were not nuns; they voluntarily helped those in need, especially in the tough time of war. The community had an orphanage, some schools, a pharmacy and even a silk farm. At that time, Abbess Juvenalia had very good relations with Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, head of the Convent of Martha and Mary.
For Matushka, ruling the community seemed something onerous, something too difficult, and the whirlwind of activity distracted her from prayer. Striving to be closer to her most beloved saint, Seraphim of Sarov in 1908 the Abbess set out for Seraphim-Ponetaev Convent in the outskirts of Sarov to abide nearby, in the Convent’s Royal Skete.
In fervent, sincere prayer before the miraculous Znamenie (“Of the Sign) icon Mother Juvenalia implored the Theotokos to arrange her life in that convent; the response, however, was completely different: “No, you will not stay here, go and arrange your own skete, not just for yourself, but also for others.” Later, she would get the same response several more times.
Not trusting herself but longing for a life in solitude, the Abbess resolved to ask an elder for advice. To this end, she went to Zosimova Pustin to see elder Alexey (Soloviev). The elder dashed all her dreams about a life in solitude, reaffirming that she should start arranging a new skete at a new place. To all her objections that this would be too heavy a burden to bear, Father Alexey said the Holy Theotokos would do everything and help her find the necessary resources. “And you will simply be her servant, her instrument,” the elder said.
Later the Abbess sought counsel of two other elders—Father Anatoly of Optina and Father Tobias of the Holy Trinity- St. Sergius Lavra—but they both reaffirmed that it was the Theotokos who wanted her to found a new skete.
Her small skete
Remaining head of Protection Community, the Abbess was little by little looking for a proper place for the future skete. She soon found it. It was a small piece of land belonging to the Protection Community, near the village of Bityagovo, Moscow Region. The Ryazan-Ural Railway Company sought to get the piece of the land by taking legal action, but later, for some reason, withdrew its claim.
The Seraphimo-Znamensky Skete was founded on July 27, 1910. It took two years to build life there. Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) of Moscow and Kolomna visited the convent on September 23, 1912. Everything in the convent had symbolic meaning: the fence thirty three sazhens long (an obsolete Russian unit of measure, approximately 38.5 ft), twelve houses for the sisters, each named after each of the twelve disciples. There lived thirty-three sisters in the convent. The rules of monastic life were strict, with each day dedicated to a specific virtue.
Bishop Arseny (Zhadanovsky), a man of similar mind with the Abbess, became the spiritual father of her and the sisters. At Matushka’s request, a house was built for Bishop Arseny and his friend, Archimandrite Seraphim (Zvezdinsky) near the convent. The latter described Abbess Juvenalia as being “small in worldly matters and great in spiritual ones”.
Bishop Arseny tonsured Abbess Juvenilia into great schema on September 21, 1916. She was given the name, Fomar.
Closing the skete
The Seraphimo-Znamensky Skete was closed in 1924; some of the sisters moved to the town of Serpukhov in Moscow Region. The schema-abbess stayed for some time in the residence of Grand Duchess Elizabeth in the Martha and Maria Convent. In the summer of 1926, she moved to the village of Trubachevka, near the railway station called Perkhushkovo in Moscow region. The Abbess and ten sisters from the skete succeeded in transforming their small country house into a small monastic community. Together with the abbess and Hieromonk Philaret (Postnikov), they numbered twelve, like the disciples. From time to time, the sisters would go to the Seraphimo-Ponetaevsky Monastery, where Bishop Arseny (Zhadanovsky) then abode, for spiritual counsel and support.
Seven sisters of the monastic community, including Hieromonk Philaret, were detained and sent into exile in December 1930. Matushka and the rest of the sisters were arrested in June 1931. Schema-Abbess Fomar was sentenced to five years in exile in Siberia. She lived in Ust-Uda, a small locality in Irkutsk Region, for some years; one of her novices followed her there voluntarily. They had to lead an austere life; Matushka got a small corner behind the stove, something she thanked the Lord for. The spiritual integrity of Schema-Abbess Fomar was so great that she was respected both by the felons serving their sentence with her, and the commissioners who interrogated her.
Mother Fomar moved to Irkutsk in February 1934, but soon her sentence was reviewed and she was released earlier, in September 1934. However, she came back from the exile suffering from laryngeal tuberculosis.
He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life
As Schema-Abbess Fomar was returning from the exile, she and some of her sisters settled near the railway station called Pionerskaya, in the house of the Orlov family. Bishop Arseny (Zhadanovsky) often came to see her as well as many of her spiritual children and people who needed advice. Matushka reposed on June 23 from her throat disease. The funeral service was held by Bishop Arseny (Zhadanovsky), and she was buried at Moscow’s Vvedenskoye Cemetery. At his blessing, the following words were engraved on the grave cross, “He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life”.
The Orthodox Church of Georgia canonized Schema-Abbess Fomar as a saint on December 22, 2016. A year later the Russian Orthodox Church included her name as a Venerable Confessor into the Church liturgical calendar. The relics of the Saint were ceremoniously uncovered on June 13, 2018, and are now enshrined in Seraphimo-Znamensky Skete.
Some instructions to spiritual children
“My commandment to all in a few short words: do not judge, do not offend anyone and do not take offense. Implore the Lord to grant you only meekness and humility, and the Lord will give them to you according to His promise: Ask, and it shall be given to you (Mt. 7:7), this is the fulfillment of all commandments of Christ. Rejoice in the Lord and never be despondent.
Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). This is the encouraging commandment of Christ. First of all, we should seek peace in our own souls. Entreat the Creator, “Lord, calm the tempest troubling me.” What great mercy the Lord has for those hoping for Him and His Most Pure Mother!
“Complete obedience means complete freedom. To lose one’s life for Christ is to save it. By totally giving ourselves to the will of God we gain peace and clear composure. As you reach this obedience, you find spiritual paradise.