The eldress Paraskeva Ivanovna Kovrigina of blessed memory was born in October, 1816, into a peasant family in the small village of Tushevin, in the province of Kostroma. Her childhood days and youth were spent in the usual village surroundings where children would see few wonderful carefree days, but more often were acquainted with work at home and in the field while still physically underdeveloped and weak. Such was the fate that befell Kovrigina. Early in life she had to take upon herself the family chores, all the heavy work of a large peasant family.
By the age of thirteen she developed into a marvelous girl, of rare beauty, a good soft character, with an endearing bright gaze. Thus they already began to search for a suitor, for in peasant families people were married at an early age. Plus, in giving Paraskeva up in marriage it might be possible to take in another worker by marrying off one of the sons, his wife would bring in a dowry—an increase in the livestock, and in the finances. But to everyone's amazement the young Kovrigina refused to be married, claiming never to have even thought of marriage.
This was the honest truth. Her heart burned with love not for married life but with love for "the heavenly dwellings," for the Heavenly Bridegroom—for Christ.
Even as a little girl she seemed strange in the eyes of the relatives, "not of this world" she avoided games and tried to go away somewhere into the forest, the fields or to the bank of the village river, and there to give herself up to her thoughts—thoughts known to God alone!
Having grown up and learned to read she became attached to reading spiritual books, which she managed to obtain and which occupied all of her spare time. She was especially attracted to the lives of the saints which she tried to emulate in her life.
As before, she did not engage in the company of girls her age and did not like their merry gatherings but preferred talks with nuns and pilgrims to whom she offered as much as she possibly could from her poverty. The stories of a pilgrim visiting the village were dearer to her than dances and gatherings of the young people, with their unavoidable songs and laughter.
Her only enjoyment was going to church. She never missed a single feast day Liturgy. Nothing could keep her from church, neither inclement weather, nor work at home, nor the complaints of her own family.
"Whether at home or away from home you only want to occupy yourself with books and poor folks!"
Her lunch consisted of left-overs. Her dress was long overdue for repair. Her place of rest, winter and summer, was a small corner by the door of the cabin. But Kovrigina bore everything in silence, referring to all the problems as her cross. Her suffering soul could find rest only in church and when she made pilgrimages to local holy places.
Thus passed the better part of her life. Kovrigina especially loved to visit the Reshminsk Hermitage, where at that time the Elder Hieromonk Illarion struggled, who was famous for his strict pious life and a beloved disciple of St. Seraphim of Sarov.
The talks with Illarion had an enormous influence on Kovrigina. The ascetic, seeing her striving towards higher things, not earthly things, towards the salvation of her soul, explained to her much that was not accessible or understandable in the Scriptures, acquainting her with the writings of the Fathers of the Church. After a talk with the elder Kovrigina would be renewed in spirit," all the "vanity of the world" seemed even more pernicious to her. She would have gladly given up the world and dedicated her-self to monasticism, but the heavy yoke of her family life would not allow her to satisfy her desire. She tearfully explained to Fr. Illarion how difficult it was for her at home, how joyless her life was and how she so desired to leave it forever and enter a quiet convent. "Endure a little longer, my daughter," the ascetic comforted her, "bear your cross without complaining. You will not find salvation for your soul in a monastery, for your soul and for many others."
Kovrigina was confused by the words of the elder, but did not attempt to question their meaning, and besides the words were prophetical; later they were fulfilled.
Kovrigina did not enjoy the spiritual counsels of the elder long—burdened by years and illness his light flickered out. Not long before his death, while counseling her, and with the spirit of clairvoyance, he said: "The time has come for you to enter upon the path of good, to leave your home. Go to Kronstadt; there a new luminary of the Church shines, Fr. John. Go and serve him. My blessing will be with you!" Soon after, Illarion departed for eternity and Kovrigina religiously fulfilled the will of her spiritual father. Having left her home town she hurried off to a distant unknown city.
There had already begun the very fruitful, laborious pastoral activity of Fr. John in which many saw something new, something which at first glance overwhelmed, something which was never before seen among clergy of the Church. People were amazed by his unmercinariness, his concern for the sorrows of the poor, his tireless energy. He was still not fully appreciated, or rather it was that people still could not fully understand this out-standing laborer in the vineyard of the Lord. How joyfully Korvignia's heart beat when for the first time she saw this amazing pastor at the Vespers service in St. Andrew's Cathedral—when she met his strict, yet tender, encouraging glance. Kovrigina listened to the Vespers with a special religiously ecstatic feeling, it seemed that she had never prayed so intensively, so sincerely as now, forgetting about the world and its worries. The brisk, but loud and clear exclamations of Fr. John each time called out some incomprehensible fear in her soul. After Vespers, Kovrigina went up to Fr. John for a blessing and asked him to confess her and grant her some time for spiritual counsel. Never refusing someone spiritual counsel, Fr. John did not refuse her now. This talk and later ones began her acquaintance with Fr. John. However, Kovrigina did not tarry long in Kronstadt, but for only six weeks. Her relatives firmly summoned her back to her home town. And no matter how difficult this was for her, nonetheless she was still very dependent in many ways on her family and home. With sadness she left Kronstadt, deciding in her soul that she was going home for the last time, not for a long stay, and that then she would return forever to serve batushka Fr. John.
She could not now fulfill the command of Fr. Marion, she thought, "but when I return I will fulfill his will till the end of my life." However she could not return soon. It would be three years before she could be once again close to her beloved batushka. She accompanied him everywhere and attracted to herself the attention of the natives of Kronstadt. In conversation with them she acquainted them more and more with the radiant personality of the pastor. She told them of his activity among the sick, the imprisoned, the hopelessly poor. She told them how with enormous efforts he would search out some poor soul, fallen to moral depths, and who could not lift himself up if the tender-hearted batushka did not come to him him-self with a word of all-forgiving love and material aid.
Fr. John heard about these stories and was not pleased. He always fled fame and strived to do good in secret, as he acted previously and always. Before the arrival of Kovrigina, no one knew of his exalted Christian works except for those who benefited from them. More than once he tried to distance himself from Kovrigina, convincing her to go home, but she merely kept silent and like a shadow followed him. For her part, she searched out those who needed Fr. John's advice or help and were ashamed because of illness, or could not find a free day to visit the pastor. She told Fr. John all about them and he either assigned a time to receive them or went to them himself according to her directions. Kovrigina found those who hated the good pastor and convinced them to go to him themselves and thus later they became his zealous followers. Kovrigina endured much unpleasantness and ridicule from people who were only too happy to mock or ridicule, but all in vain. She would often bring even them like meek sheep to the Cathedral where they would pray and receive a blessing and counsel from Fr. John.
Gradually becoming acquainted with the inhabitants of Kronstadt, Kovrigina was accepted as a welcome visitor in many homes, especially where there was illness, sorrow, or family troubles. Having sympathy, she directed them to "the one quick to help and to pray," Fr. John. They would invite him and he appeared as an angel-comforter for the sorrowful, peacemaker for those at enmity, and a relief for those suffering.
Kovrigina did not concentrate only on this aspect of "service to batushka," but thirsting that the abundant Grace of Batushka's word be delivered not only under the vaults of the Cathedral or at the bedside of a suffering soul, she convinced him to conduct spiritual talks in private houses, and these talks began attracting masses of people. For almost ten years Kovrigina remained in Kronstadt fulfilling the testament given her by Fr. Illarion. However, this tireless woman was not satisfied with "the shining of the candle in her city alone" as she said, and decided to go to Petersburg, "so that the sorrowing and needy there would know about the loving helper." In the capital she quickly found "those in sorrow" as well as people well-disposed towards the Church with firm faith, but who also needed inspired counsel and spiritual help. Fr. John's name began to be spoken more and more by the residents of the capital. Kronstadt began to see more and more Petersburgers who arrived to pray, receive a blessing from Fr. John, hear his talks and beseech his prayerful help, inviting him to visit the sick. "While refusing glory he could not flee from it" is written in the life of one ascetic. Thus the modest pastor of Kronstadt could not hide in secret his work of mercy, he could not dedicate himself to his flock alone, but he had to hurry to others, "burdened by illness and misfortune."
Soon in Petersburg they were speaking of the many Grace-filled healings, "through the prayers of Fr. John of Kronstadt," about his generous help, material and spiritual, to those in need, crushed by fate and broken by the harshness of life. Concerning one of these healings, which was spoken about for a long time in Petersburg by someone from the same region as Kovrigina, who was in debt to Fr. John for much in her family life, we present the following: "This took place in 1883. The wife of one of my co-workers suffered in her legs for more than four years, and could find no healing from doctors. This illness turned into hopeless suffering. The unfortunate couple was in complete despair. But they heard about the power of Fr. John's prayers. They were moved by the sincere desire to invite the good pastor to their apartment and simply did not know how to carry out their good desire. However they found good people who advised them to first meet with Kovrigina, who soon after visited them, approved of their intention, agreed to herself effectuate the arrival of Fr. John, and at the same time warned that they should be attentive to all the Archpriest's advice, who arrived that very day. Having prayed for healing and counseled them in a spirit edifying for their salvation, Fr. John suggested that they visit Kronstadt, which they joyfully agreed to do. But already feeling relief they kept postponing their trip, being detained by work or some other reason. The illness, never-the-less, did not go away. Again they remembered their promise to Fr. John to come to Kronstadt, but then decided that in Petersburg there were also priests ... Kovrigina discovered this and visited T. to insist that they immediately travel to Kronstadt. If they wanted healing then they should have kept their word to Batushka. T. set out on their way. How they were amazed when they came to Fr. John for a blessing. Fr. John meekly chided them for doubt, carelessness, and inattentiveness to themselves and their promise! T. quickly repented and having received absolution and edification from Fr. John, was allowed to receive the Mysteries. After Communion, with the farewell blessing of the pastor, they returned to Petersburg already completely healed of the illness. The illness which tortured them for four years suddenly ended.
Kovrigina labored long and much fulfilling her "service," the testament of her spiritual advisor Illarion, and she indeed fulfilled it dedicating a full seventeen years, the last years of her life.
Having witnessed her labors, two people have made a precise description of Kovrigina at the end of her life. "Often visiting me for her God-pleasing works," said one, "Kovrigina immediately caught my attention, and one needed to be spiritually blind and cold-hearted not to sense some-thing extraordinary and exalted in this honorable eldress. I gladly and with great pleasure would give up several hours for her, even if I was busy, in order to extend her visit and converse with her, simply heart-to-heart, revealing my spiritual wounds and expecting guileless and spirit-filled healing advice from her. It was impossible not to be drawn to this pious eldress with all one's heart—no matter how one was to regard her. For example, in all her movements, her mannerisms, her walk, one noticed an imperturbable calm and stability. Her whole being was filled with deep, unhypocritical humility, but without the slightest airs. Her aged, noble vis-age was the visage of a virgin, with the imprint of many years of moral-spiritual and heartfelt suffering, great sorrow, and worldly hardship, which was clearly evident even to the inexperienced observer. Her gaze expressed total submission and acceptance of God's will in her life. Her speech was unaffected, simple but fluid, smooth, filled with the spirit of love, humility, and patience, and at the same time it sank into the depths of one's soul. Long after there remained in one's soul her fruitful, sweet, and in many ways, inexpressible state of soul. The life of the eldress was difficult, useful, bitter, pious, and filled with love for her neighbor. It seemed that only Kovrigina could be the guide pointing to such a great luminary in the spiritual world as the highly respected Fr. John Inch Sergiev."
Another wrote that Kovrigina's undeniable gift of clairvoyance attracted special attention, which often warned of and, thankfully, warded off misfortune. Because of her clairvoyance, various ventures were successful which initially seemed impossible. At other times her clairvoyance was puzzling and only later became clear. In general the eldress' clairvoyance was inseparable from faith which she unconditionally demanded from those who turned to her for help. The majority of the instances of her clairvoyance served to glorify Fr. John's activity.
Fr. John celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood in October, 1884. This was a day of spiritual celebration for the pastor of Kronstadt. "Thousands of his admirers," from civil leaders to homeless paupers, gathered in Kronstadt to offer their prayers for the "good pastor." Kovrigina also celebrated. She waited for the day when he, to whom she dedicated the remainder of her days, would be honored with heartfelt love and "spiritual glory" from all of the rational flock. These were the last days of her earthly rejoicing, however; the time had come for her passing into the "other, better world."
In spite of frequent weakness, Kovrigina did not leave her "service," but her declining strength and her past sorrowful and laborious family life bound the eldress to bed. She awaited death with complete calm. Her heart was pure before God and people. Having given an oath of virginity, she entered into eternity as a bride of Christ, forgiving all offenses and evil. Having taken upon herself the struggle of "serving batushka," she bore it to the end and nothing in the world could hinder her. She came in poverty to Kronstadt and she remained in poverty on her death bed. The last days of her life she spent in converse with her beloved "batushka" who visited her daily, or in reading the Scriptures, after which she quietly and prayer-fully reposed, having received Communion from Fr. John.
On September 27, 1886, the day of Kovrigina's burial, Kronstadt was full of pilgrims who arrived to give "the last kiss" to her who taught them to love the Holy Church and Her pastors, and to turn only to them in their sorrows in search of Grace-filled help. The burial service for Kovrigina took place in the church at the "House of Labor." Fr. John took leave of the eldress with a heartfelt speech. "Not only your life, but also your death, for all of us who have known you, was edifying and inspiring. By your example and your word you brought many to the Holy Church and a pious life. You taught many to confess frequently and receive Holy Communion for the strengthening of their Christian life. You reposed peacefully and edifyingly with prayer on your lips and with the firm hope in God's mercy towards you after death. You were not afraid of death, you greeted death with a festive spirit like a good messenger of God."
"Another graveside speech was given by a well-known priest of the capital who deeply honored the reposed soul. He expressed that having long ago abandoned worldly cares, Paraskeva from her youth was bound to the Lord. She recognized in the humble servant of Christ a slave of God, who had boldness before God. Among the faithful and unbelievers she began to direct all sufferers to this servant of God, by whose prayers God openly helps people of all callings who with faith join in the prayers of the reverent pastor. And behold, we witness that the ailing are healed, sinners repent, the faithful rejoice in God's power which has revealed itself to and strengthened the world. Those of little faith are brought to reason, the unbelievers are amazed by visible miraculous signs, they humble them-selves, close their mouths and think over their false teachings, and some of them come directly to obedience to the Faith of Christ.
"Yes, the reposed virgin eldress Paraskeva was not famous, she was modest, quiet, but stirred up faith in thousands. If it were not for Paraskeva Ivanovna in this city perhaps the local luminary might have burned under a bushel, many, many might not have known Christ, might not have repented, might not have been renewed in spirit."
Such was the life of the ever-memorable eldress Paraskeva Kovrigina: laboring for her family in the first years of her life and serving the needs of her neighbor in the later years.
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From Strugglers for Piety in the 18th and 19th Centuries (in Russian), Vol. September. pp. 275-285, as found in English in Orthodox Life vol. 51, no. 4, July-Aug, 2001