On December 3/16, the Church celebrates the main feast day of St. Savva Storozhevsky, a disciple of St. Sergius of Radonezh and one of the most beloved saints of the Russian Church. The following article concerns the fate of his precious relics and his Heavenly intercessions after his repose. For a general biography of St. Savva, see here.
After the repose of St. Savva Storozhevsky, the monastery he created continued to exist and develop. However, times were changing. The most difficult days for the monastery in ancient Zvenigorod came in the so-called Time of Troubles, when the Rurik Dynasty was suppressed and Polish-Lithuanian conquerors invaded the country and put impostors on the throne. And until Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky gathered a militia and liberated Moscow and the nearby cities, the monastery brethren saw almost complete ruin and looting and merciless disaster from ferocious fires.
Unique testimony has come down to us about what respect the Monastery of St. Savva enjoyed in Rus’ at that time. It turns out that the self-styled tsar from Poland and his wife Marina Mnishek simply had to go to St. Savva Storozhevsky Monastery, otherwise the Russians wouldn’t recognize them as monarchs at all. In September 1608, False Dmitry II wrote with his own hand that it was necessary to send his wife “to venerate the saint in the monastery of Zvenigorod, so great respect could grow for us in Moscow.”
The Polish soldiers treated the Orthodox clergy with particular hostility, seeking to seize “riches” from church treasuries. However, it’s known that none of the monks of the monastery died during this period. In any case, there is no documentary information about a tragic repose of any of the monks of the monastery during the Time of Troubles.
In the Zvenigorod region, before the advent of the fierce plunderers—both False Dmitries and Prince Vladislav—several monasteries were known. But only the Storozhevsky Monastery, under the patronage of St. Savva, didn’t perish, wasn’t burned to the ground and revived during the rebirth of the monarchy and the emergence of the new Romanov royal dynasty.
St. Savva and Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich
The saint’s incorrupt relics were discovered almost two and a half centuries after his repose, during the reign of the most pious Alexei Mikhailovich, in 1652.
The finding of the holy and incorrupt relics of St. Savva was caused by numerous miraculous healings and miracles worked at his tomb and by his prayerful intercession.
The most immediate reason for the uncovering of St. Savva’s relics, according to an ancient tradition of Storozhevsky Monastery, was the saint’s appearance to Tsar Alexei himself.
During one of his visits to the monastery, Tsar Alexei went hunting in the surrounding Zvenigorod forests. When his retinue dispersed throughout the forest looking for a bear lair and he was alone, a bear suddenly ran out of the forest thicket and rushed at him. Seeing no possibility of defending himself, the tsar resigned himself to certain death. Suddenly an elder appeared near him, at which the beast fled from the tsar. Asked about his name, the elder responded that his name was Savva and that he was a monk of the Storozhevsky Monastery. At that time, several members of the tsar’s retinue were gathering to him, and the elder left for the monastery.
Returning to the monastery, Tsar Alexei asked the archimandrite about Monk Savva, thinking it was some ascetic he didn’t know who had settled at the monastery. The archimandrite told the tsar that the monastery had no monk named Savva. Then, looking at an icon of the saint, the tsar realized that it was him, and ordered a moleben to be served and for his coffin to be examined in preparation for the festive opening of his holy relics.
Many other miracles and appearances of the God-pleaser also preceded the discovery of his relics.
Then, in 1654-1655, important military campaigns of the Russian army in the war with Poland took place. There was a battle for Smolensk, once part of Rus’ and then for a long time departed to its western neighbor.
St. Savva had taken an icon of the Smolensk Mother of God with him to Zvenigorod to found his monastery. And Tsar Alexei went to Smolensk with an icon of the Holy Hierarch Savva, depicting only his face. This happened after the Zvenigorod elder appeared to the sovereign again, in the city of Nara, and invisibly blessed him for the campaign.
The war ended successfully, and Smolensk returned under Russia’s wing. The tsar ordered the removal of a unique clock with a Dutch-made bell from city hall and the raising of trophies up to the bell tower of the St. Savva Monastery. The unique bell keeps time in the monastery to this day. Its ringing can be heard in the same way as it did during the formation of the royal guard army here, which was called the “Regiment of Archers of St. Savva the Wonderworker.”
Saving Peter I in the Battle of Poltava
One of the stories of St. Savva is connected with the name of Emperor Peter I [“The Great”]. It tells about an episode from the famous Northern War, when Russia fought with Sweden for access to the Baltic Sea, for “a window to Europe.” The most important event then was the grandiose Battle of Poltava with the army of the Swedish King Charles. The victor of this battle essentially became the victor of the entire war.
Before the battle, Tsar Peter I went to pray in the Zvenigorod monastery before the relics of Elder Savva. He had been in this monastery in his childhood. The abbot blessed the tsar for the battle with a small brass image of St. Savva. This image would save Peter’s life during the battle.
The tsar personally took part in the storming of the Poltava fortress walls. When he returned to his tent in the evening, someone pointed out that he had a torn pocket on his chest. Peter pulled a crumpled brass icon with the face of Elder Savva Storozhevsky out of this pocket, unbent it, and a flattened Swedish bullet fell out on the floor.
It was reported that the tsar said: “St. Savva saved my life today.”
In honor of his miraculous escape from death and his victory, Peter I ordered one of the cannons used in the battle to be melted and cast into a bell, and then gave it to St. Savva’s Monastery.
St. Savva and Duke Eugène de Beauharnais
A contemporary of the Patriotic War of 1812 described some unusual events like this:
Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson, viceroy of Italy, approached Zvenigorod from Moscow with a detachment that was 20,000-strong. He occupied rooms in Storozhevsky Monastery, and his soldiers spread out throughout the monastery to plunder it, not sparing even the churches and holy icons…
One evening, Prince Eugène lay down and fell asleep, and then, whether awake or in a dream—he himself didn’t know—he saw some noble-looking elder entering the room. And he said: “Don’t allow your army to plunder the monastery; if you fulfill my request, then God will have mercy upon you, and you will return to your homeland safe and sound…”
General de Beauharnais awoke in complete amazement. The dream was almost a reality. Then he went to the church, where he saw the icon with the face of St. Savva Storozhevsky and recognized him as his night guest…
Prince de Beauharnais fulfilled the holy elder’s order. The French didn’t loot the monastery. Eugène de Beauharnais later became practically the only French general who survived the war, and he wasn’t even wounded in any of the subsequent battles.
This story has an unusual ending. De Beauharnais’ relatives preserve in their memory another phrase that he heard from St. Savva: “Your descendants will serve Russia.”
In 1839, de Beauharnais’ son, Maximilian, Duke of Leuchtenberg, came to Russia. Together with the imperial family, he visited Storozhevsky Monastery and venerated the relics of St. Savva, as he had promised his father. That same year, he proposed to Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, the daughter of Nicholas I. After the wedding the newlyweds moved to St. Petersburg, and lived on Nevsky Prospekt. Thus, the descendants of de Beauharnais resettled in Russia.
Due to the events of 1917, the Duke’s family had to go abroad, and their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now live in France, Germany, the U.S., Belgium, and Australia. They’re all Orthodox and have Russian names, and they venerate St. Savva as their Heavenly patron.
In the Orthodox Monastery of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos (in Bussy-en-Othe, near Paris) lives Mother Elizaveta—in the world, the Duchess of Leuchtenberg, from the de Beauharnais family. She has said that it’s possible Eugène de Beauharnais was baptized Orthodox before his repose, and therefore began to bear a slightly modified name—Evgeny.
To this we can add that after the Napoleonic campaigns, a chapel named for St. Savva, surprisingly reminiscent of the Zvenigorod monastery’s Nativity Cathedral, was built near Paris. St. Savva has been venerated in France since the nineteenth century—and not just by Russian emigrants, but also by the Orthodox French.
The prophecy of St. Savvas
The October Revolution of 1917, which so terribly changed the whole life of the Russian state, also affected the precious relics of St. Savva.
The relics were opened and desecrated for the first time in May 1918, long before the official decision of the Bolshevik authorities.
On February 1, 1919, a decree of the People’s Commissariat of Justice was published on the widespread organization of the opening of relics. On March 4, the holy relics of St. Savva were opened again. When the spiritual father of the monastery, Hieromonk Savva—an eyewitness of these events—was asked about what happened, about what it was like when the relics were opened, he replied: “A horror… Everything was like in the Garden of Gethsemane, with the abuse and the spitting…”
Parishioners of the St. Savva Storozhevsky Monastery tried to protect the holy relics from this outrage and wrote complaints to the People’s Commissariats of Internal Affairs and Justice, pointing out the offensive actions of the local authorities at St. Savva’s reliquary. But the parishioners’ efforts to protect the sacred relics went nowhere. On April 5, 1919, St. Savva’s holy relics were taken from the monastery to Lubyanka.1
Then an ancient monastery tradition came to mind: Not long before his repose, St. Savva “began to weep and told his brethren: ‘There will come a time when people on earth will forget God and will mock Him, and an antichrist force will come to power. They’ll cast me out of the monastery, but I won’t completely leave. I will move to another place where some people won’t forget God, and I will pray for them before the end of the world.’”
This prophecy of St. Savva was even written in Soviet newspapers of those years as proof of the counter-revolutionary nature of monasticism.
It was believed for a long time that the holy relics of the Zvenigorod wonderworker were lost forever. Only in the 1990s did it become known that the precious head of St. Savva had been secretly preserved for more than fifty years by the spouses Mikhail Mikhailovich and Sophia Dmitrievna Uspensky.
This is what’s known about how St. Savva’s relics wound up in the Uspensky family: In the 1920s, Mikhail, an employee of the State Historical Museum and a member of the Commission for the Protection of Architectural Monuments of the Moscow Province, was summoned to Lubyanka. The employee who summoned him showed Mikhail a silver dish covered with a piece of fabric, and said: “Take this dish and give it to the museum, and as for what’s in it—the remains of Savva Storozhevsky—put them wherever you see fit.”
Mikhail kept the relics at his house. Three years before his death, worried about the fate of the relics, he told Fr. Evlogy (Smirnov), then the steward of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, about them.
Later, when Fr. Evlogy was the abbot of the newly-opened Danilov Monastery, he called the Uspenskies and asked about the relics of St. Savva. Mikhail had already reposed by that time, but his relatives reported that they had given the relics to the priest who had bid farewell to Mikhail before his death. “Please, take them, as our father promised you,” they added.
On March 25, 1985, the relics were transferred to Danilov Monastery in Moscow, to the Patriarchal and Synodal residence, where they were placed on the altar of the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.
On August 22-25, 1998, St. Savva Monastery festively celebrated its 600th anniversary. In honor of this event, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow and All Russia, the precious relics of St. Savva were solemnly transferred to the monastery he founded.
The preparations for the anniversary and the translation of the holy relics united the labors of many, many people. A huge amount of repair and restoration work was carried out in record time: The first ten bells were cast and hung in the bell tower, the reliquary for the relics of St. Savva was recreated according to the old patterns, the “small hermitage” was restored, and the territory of the monastery and its immediate surroundings were landscaped.
The celebration of the anniversary began in the morning of August 22, 1998, in the Holy Trinity Cathedral at Danilov Monastery. His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II, with a gathering of hierarchs, served the Divine Liturgy and a moleben, after which the saint’s relics were carried in procession to the sound of the ringing of the bells and prayerful chants to the holy gates of the monastery, where the Patriarch blessed all those present with the relics.
The Zvenigorod locals took the return of their Heavenly patron and intercessor to be a miracle, God’s mercy revealed to the Zvenigorod land. The relics were greeted with a large procession.
Under the constant ringing of the bells, the procession of thousands of people approached the holy gates of the monastery, through which His Holiness came out. He received the reliquary with the holy relics and carried them into the monastery.
Thus, Storozhesky Monastery acquired another patronal feast day—with the blessing of Patriarch Alexei, August 23 entered the Church calendar as the Seconding Uncovering and the Translation of the Precious Relics of St. Savva Storozhevsky.
Five centuries have passed since St. Savva shone upon the earth. People have changed, morals have changed, the nineteenth century with its deniers of God and miracles came and went, but the St. Savva Monastery stands, preserved by the prayers of its founder; people still flock to venerate his holy relics, and those who with faith seek help still receive it and glorify God and the God-pleaser St. Savva.