A year ago, on January 21, 1991, surrounded by her worldly and spiritual family, Mother Alexandra quietly passed away at the age of 82 following a heart attack.
Though she lived in many countries and was married for many years to a non-Romanian, she remained Romanian at heart and in her spirit. Her love for her Romanian heritage came out forcefully in later years, and she found peace and serenity after an eventful and hectic life, embracing the monastic vows and totally dedicating herself to the Orthodox faith which had nourished and strengthened her ail along. She had always been deeply religious.
She was born January 5, 1909 as the youngest child of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania, a Princess whose birth in a royal palace was proclaimed with a 21-gun salute thundering over the capital. Her beauty, charm, and eagerness to meet with the people as a young princess made her the darling of the Romanian people. That love affair between her and the Romanian people will never wane, and will last till the end of her life.
At 22 she married Archduke Anton of Austria. The couple set up home in Sonnberg Castle near Vienna, and in the next 10 years they would be blessed with six children. Each time one of her children was born, she had a pottery bowl of Romanian earth put under her bed so she could claim that her children were born on Romanian soil. While she raised her children in the Roman Catholic faith of her husband and of the country, she herself never abandoned her Orthodox faith. As the years passed, her faith would become stronger until it became central to her life.
When the Russian armies advanced on Vienna during World War II, she took her children to relative safety in Romania. The Bran Castle, which she inherited from her mother, Queen Marie, would become the family's temporary home for the next four years.
There, she continued doing what she had done at Sonnberg, founding a hospital and caring for the sick and wounded. With Russian troops in the country and the Communists getting a strangle-hold on the country, her life was in constant danger. As the most beloved daughter of the royal family of Romania, she was a symbol of hope and strength for the Romanian people.
When the Communists forcefully exiled King Michael in December of 1947, Princess Ileana and her family were exiled as well. Switzerland declined to give them political asylum and the family ended up with much hope in a new future in Argentina.
Unfortunately, conditions in Peron's Argentina, fraught with cheating and corruption, were worse than it had been in Europe.
Stefan Habsburg carries the luncheon plate of his Mother at the Center's rededication luncheon July 4, 1988
In 1950, Princess Ileana was struck down with arthritis and she received permission to come to the United States for medical treatment. By then, her marriage to Archduke Anton of Austria was on the rocks, and she arrived in the United States with her children, $300.00, and wrapped in a nightgown, the by-now famous tiara with a sapphire as big as a man's pocket watch which Tsar Nicholas of Russia had had made for his Empress when he was crowned and which Queen Marie had inherited and had given to Princess Ileana when she married the Archduke. The story of the pawning and later sale of that tiara so she can buy a house in the lovely New England countryside near Boston and feed her children was told throughout the world. She had once been addressed as Her Imperial and Royal Highness, the Most Illustrious Archduchess and Lady; now the milkboy banged on her door and yelled "Mrs. Habsburg!"
She needed to work to maintain herself and her family. The work she found was unexpected. In the fall of 1950 she was asked by the Boston Institute of Management to give a lecture. She chose as her subject "Communism and Christianity," and she was paid $25.00 for it! It was the beginning of a completely new career, and eventually she was given the crucial test that awaits all public lecturers in America—she was invited to address a gathering at the New York Town Hall. She came through with flying colors and began touring as a lecturer throughout the country, traveling up to 60,000 miles a year lecturing.
As a public speaker for eleven years, she spoke throughout the country about the sufferings of the Romanian people under Communism. Deeply religious, she was also a favorite speaker at religious gatherings.
In the '50s, Princess Ileana's love for her Church and heritage found an outlet in a cooperation with the Episcopate and with the Solia. She began writing religious articles for the Solia and to teach at the Religious Education courses at the Vatra. This cooperation with the Episcopate and the Solia will last for many years for the spiritual enrichment of both. Princess Ileana also lent her support to the Episcopate's fight for independence from the Red-dominated Bucharest Patriarchate, and stood at the Bishop's side when the attacks against him intensified in the '60s.
The transformation of Princess to Nun was gradual and did not come overnight as a result of a revelation. It was gradual, and in some respect painful, as the process to extricate herself from a married as well as from a very active social life took several years.
Princess Ileana was of a deeply religious nature. One has only to read the booklets she published prior to becoming a nun to realize that she was consumed by her Orthodox Faith: "Our Father," "The Symbol of Faith," which were meditations on the Nicene Creed, "The Spirit of the Eastern Orthodox Church," and "My Inner Faith." Later, as a Nun, she successfully tackled the very difficult subject of "The Holy Angels."
In 1957, Princess Ileana underwent a very difficult operation which would keep her bedridden for weeks. It was during this time that the need to change her life to one dedicated to prayer and to the Church made itself felt very strongly. She struggled with this need in silence for an entire year. Finally, in the fall of '58 she shared her desire for solitude and prayer with her husband but took no active steps in that direction.
Princess Ileana's religious convictions came true in this pen and ink drawing of an angel, whose wings soar towards heaven as did her faith.
A few months later, in January of 1959, she lost her youngest daughter Minola with her husband in a tragic plane accident in Brazil. During the summer of that same year, her oldest son Stefan was struck by a severe case of viral encephalitis which would require years of recovery. Those personal tragedies in her life only strengthened her desire for peace and tranquility that a life dedicated to monasticism and prayer would offer but she would not take that step for another two years. Finally, in September of 1961 she visited Bussy-en-Othe, a monastery for nuns in France, for a first-hand experience of what life as a nun would be. She liked what she found there, and in March of 1963 she made the final and irrevocable decision to enter monastic life.
At the beginning of her postulancy in the Bussy-en-Othe monastery in France, the new Postulante Ileana wrote to a friend who wondered about her ability to retreat from a world in which she was such an active spokesperson in behalf of her suffering countrymen under Communism: "As far as my country and my countrymen are concerned, all that trespasses on my life of prayer has been gradually cut out, but I remain in the service of their and my Church. Our Faith and nation are so closely linked as to be one. I was born to a position of responsibility and leadership, and it is both in the Orthodox and Royal tradition that one of my station should in days of stress enter monastic life and pray with and for them." For several years prior and even at the beginning of her monastic life, Princess Ileana would send the Word of God and daily meditations that were transmitted via Radio Free Europe to her countrymen in Romania. For many listeners it would be the only Word of God they would receive in those times.
Her children were fully supportive of her desire to dedicate herself to a life of prayer and meditation. They could see her devotion to the Church and the visible joy she was experiencing in her new life. One thing her new life could not change though. The new habit she would wear henceforth and the various religious titles she would earn (postulante, novice, sister, mother, etc.) did not change the fact of her royal ancestry. Officially, her passport will continue to be issued to "Princess Ileana of Romania," profession: "monastic."
The thought of founding a monastery appears in Princess Ileana's writings as early as 1961, and will blossom in 1964 after taking the vows of an Orthodox nun. The Princess approached most hierarchs of the various Orthodox jurisdictions with the idea of starting an American Orthodox convent in the United States. Besides some verbal support for the idea, the implementation of it was ultimately left to the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate and its parishes, particularly those in the area in which the convent would ultimately be located. The advice and active organizational support of Bishop Valerian would be invaluable to Sister Ileana in her quest to establish the convent.
Sister Ileana in 1967, at Bussy-en-Othe Monastery in France, when she was professed a nun.
The search for a suitable monastery location went coast to coast for several years. From the many sites the search committee checked out, two potential properties for a monastery surfaced in 1966: a 40-acre property located in Smith Valley, Nevada, a desert-location much to the liking of Sister Ileana, considering the historical tradition of the beginning of monasticism to locate monastic communities in the desert, and the present 96-acre location in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania location had much in its favor regarding its proximity to Orthodox communities (centers) and accessibility to those communities, whereas the "desert" location recommended itself for its isolation and insulation from the jurisdictional squabbles of that time, from which this trail-blazing monastery wanted to stay away. Besides, the desert was more conducive to the contemplative life of a monastery, and Sister Ileana was attracted towards something she never had in her life: solitude. In the end, practical considerations prevailed and the present location in Pennsylvania was chosen.
From the very beginning, Mother Alexandra would be the heart and soul and the driving motor which carried the project of the monastery from its inception to its completion. Most of the money to purchase the property in Ellwood City and to build the monastery came from Mother Alexandra's (Sister Ileana's at that time) own pockets. She believed in backing up her dream with her own resources, limited as they were.
And a dream come true it was. In an interview with a reporter from The Pittsburgh Press, she stated that, "When I lived in Austria and my children were small, I dreamed of building a monastery in a glorious place in the mountains to later retire to it, but the war made it impossible" she said. Her dream was now coming true, but in the foothills of Pennsylvania instead of the mountains of Austria.
Slowly, through Mother Alexandra's relentless efforts, the Monastery of the Transfiguration took shape and began functioning as a religious institution. A year after its founding, in September of 1968, the chapel of the monastery was consecrated by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Iriney, and six months later, Mother Alexandra was appointed Mother Superior of the Monastery and invested as such by His Grace, Bishop Valerian on March 25, 1969.
Believing that the habit worn by the nuns at Bussy-en-Othe was a bit too severe for America, Abbess Alexandra designed the above more modern habit for the nuns of the Monastery of the Transfiguration.
Building the community of nuns which the Monastery of the Transfiguration is today was not an easy task to accomplish. Postulants would come and go and at times she felt all alone, but she did not give up. Today, the Monastery of the Transfiguration is a viable, first of its kind institution, an all-American, English-speaking monastery in the United States, a part of the Orthodox Church in America and under the canonical obedience to Bishop Nathaniel, a religious institution in which any and ail ethnic groups may feel at home.
Princess Ileana dedicated the last 30 years of her life to her Church, a dedication in which she found the, peace of mind she had been seeking. But they had also been physically stressful years, conquered only by her indomitable spirit to overcome physical pain and adversities. However, in July of 1981, because of ill health and failing strength, she most humbly requested Archbishop Valerian to release her from the responsibilities incumbent upon the Office of Abbess.
In an interview published in The Ellwood City Ledger, Grace Rischell described Mother Alexandra as "a woman with definitive ideas. In an age of situational and relative morality, she has something people don't mention much anymore: character. Her concepts about what is right or wrong are clear and steadfast." I found this to be a most accurate description of Mother Alexandra.
When she became Sister Ileana the title "Princess" became a thing of the past, but only for the profession she had embraced. The true-blue, royal blood of a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria could not be changed by the new habit she wore, nor did our people think otherwise. For them, she continued, and continues to be a Domnitza, a Royal lady with capital letters.
May her memory be eternal.
We Pay Homage to their Memory
For the last four years we dedicated each January issue of the Bulletin to the memory of our founder, Archbishop Valerian, who passed away in January of 1987, and we will continue to honor his memory each January hereafter.
In addition, in this issue, we honor the memory of a great lady who made a decisive impact on our ethnic and religious community: Princess Ileana. Our lead article is dedicated to her memory, together with a very loving tribute by her son, Stefan Habsburg.
Fate wanted it that these two great personalities would work closely together the last 30-some years of their lives, for the benefit of our Romanian-American community.
Princess Ileana's strong Faith which came forth in her writings and lectures would lead her to dedicate the last 30 years of her life to the Church. Her decision to leave worldly pleasures behind and dedicate herself to monasticism did not come overnight; it took several years to mature, to find within herself the strength to follow her innermost desire to dedicate herself to a life of prayer, meditation, and dedication to her Church.
It might be said that from the very beginning, Princess Ileana, once embarked on the road to monasticism, also pursued a dream dear to many royal ladies in our historical past: the founding of a monastery. For six years, these two goals will be pursued with an energy that only those possessed by faith can muster, until both goals were achieved.
Besides her strong attachment to the Orthodox Faith in which she had been born and raised, she was also strongly nationalistic. "I feel very Romanian in my heart" she once declared. "I cannot renounce the monarchy and deny my own king. It wouldn't be honest." She remained Romanian to the end.
While visiting her youngest daughter Herzi in Salzburg on Christmas Eve, 1973, in a letter to Archbishop Valerian she wrote: "The weather here is unbelievably beautiful as it used to be back home in Sinaia; deep snow, cold, and a clear sky. These holidays inevitably bring many memories for us all, especially for us who no matter how much we might have acclimatized ourselves are still wanderers . . ."
Indeed, at 65, in frail health with a shattered spine weakened by several rheumatic bouts in the course of her dramatic life—the first one at a tender age during World War I—this illustrious lady who was a comfort and inspiration to thousands of wounded soldiers during WW I and WW II, may be forgiven for showing the all-too human yearning for the kinder world of the past…
The preceding six years which led to the establishment of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery had been extremely trying times for her during which she not only had to conquer herself to embrace the humble life of a nun, but pioneered new ground with the founding of the first American Orthodox monastery for nuns. She considered the monastery as the greatest possible offering she could make to God and to the Holy Orthodox Church.
Throughout those trying organizational times, she could rely on Archbishop Valerian's unswerving support. She had the enthusiasm, energy, desire, and determination to see her dream of an American Orthodox monastery for nuns come true, but lacked the considerable organizational skills needed to bring this project about, areas in which the Archbishop excelled. He would guide her steps in organizing committees of all sorts, writing Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, rules for the new monastic community, fund raising and in negotiations with lawyers, architects and builders, all areas in which His Eminence had considerable experience. Last but not least, he skillfully helped her navigate the project among the various Orthodox jurisdictions whose support was needed if the monastery was to truly become an American Orthodox religious institution. The help she gave the Archbishop in the '50s was repaid by him ten fold in the '60s.
They made a team; they both would be called to their Creator in the month of January, giving us the opportunity to memorialize them both in this issue.
A year ago, Mother Alexandra's mission on this earth came to a peaceful end. She has now found eternal rest on the grounds of her beloved monastery. May her memory be eternal.
Princess Ileana's Monastic Vows
While we, in the article in this issue, attempted to explain Princess Ileana's decision to embrace monasticism, we were fortunate in the end to come upon a document from 1961 in which she explains her decision to become a nun. Here is part of that document:
"Why did I myself so late in life choose to become a nun? The reasons are many and complex and run through my entire conscious life, and my desire for the monastic life dates far back into my youth. My way has been long and tortuous, circumstances, my obligations at specific times, as well as my many failings have stood in the way. But I never, throughout the years, lost sight of God, nor did my longing to come closer to Christ decrease.
I have now entered the monastic life because I felt and feel, without the shadow of doubt, that this is the one and only right way for me front now on. The true way for me to serve my Church, my country and my fellow men, and God willing, a way of salvation for my own immortal soul. I believe that there is a crying need for Orthodox monastic institutions in this country, especially for the English-speaking faithful. I feel that God has called me to this specific work, whatever difficulties may lie in my path. For me not to follow this call would spell disobedience to God's will and purpose.
In no way do I think I am particularly capable or worthy, but for a reason I cannot fathom, I have been commanded to this particular duty, and my job is to do the best I can with those gifts I have been endowed with, humbly accepting to run the race that is set before me. The answer to any doubts I may have I find in the words of the Lord Christ: 'What is that to thee? Follow thou me!' (John 21:20). This I shall do, so help me God."
I was kneeling at her bedside with little idea of how long I had been there. My concern was to do what I could to fill her last wishes. Both of us knew that life was leaving her frail body. There was no chance that her broken leg would heal. She breathed with difficulty and her damaged heart beat weakly and irregularly. She could not speak.
She was intensely holding her favorite cross in one hand and my hand in the other. She smiled at me. Then her expression became vacant. Her grip slowly let go of my hand. Her breathing stopped and so did her pulse. I stood up, put her hand on top of the one holding the cross to her chest. I closed her eyes all the way. I kissed her goodbye and then turned to call the nurse.
There was no need; as I turned my head I realized that Mother Elisabeth and a hospital nurse were standing at the door just behind me. The nurse called the doctor to certify death. My calendar watch told me it was noon, Monday, January 21. That meant I had been at her bedside for thirteen days as she struggled to recover from a broken hip joint and two heart attacks.
It is the year of the Lord, 1991.
She was born in 1909 on January 5, the youngest daughter of Romania's King Ferdinand and Queen Marie. Princess Ileana's life started in the dream world of the royal palace. Her beautiful and internationally famous mother exposed her to art and beauty at an early age; while her stern German father talked of duty and devotion to his adopted country. Her love for Romania will be deep and lasting.
She also remains a devoted Orthodox in spite of living much of her life in catholic Austria and protestant America. She was only 5 years old at the start of World War I. She saw her country crushed by occupying troops and had to flee with her parents to Jassy. She saw her mother mostly in a nurse's uniform. In 1918 she saw her parents welcomed back to the formation of Romania Mare—Greater Romania.
Love and Marriage
She was 17 years old when she traveled with her mother to America where they were honored by a grand ticker-tape parade in New York. Two years later she accompanied her mother on a trip to Spain. There she met the young Anton Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, who was banned from his own country by the political situation at the time. An electrical engineer by training, he was earning a living as a barnstorming airplane pilot. A romance developed and in' 1931 they were married at the Pelishor Palace in Sinaia.
Starting Married Life in Austria
King Carol II, her older brother decided that no Habsburg should be permitted to be born on Romanian soil, thus requiring the young couple's departure from Romania. The Spanish revolution prevented their return to Spain. After considerable search, Anton and Ileana were given permission to visit Austria but their children would not be allowed citizenship. So, yours truly was born in Moedling, a suburb of Vienna, but officially "Heimatlos" (without home country), in August, 1932. When she left Romania, Princess Ileana took a handscoop full of Romanian soil, put it in a silver box, and carried it with her. It remained her most prized possession. Her box of Romanian soil was placed symbolically under her bed for the birth of each of her six children. My sister, Maria-Ileana, was born in 1933, also "Heimatlos", in Sonnberg. Sonnberg is a relatively small country village north-northeast of Vienna. The village had a lovely castle on a moat surrounded by woods and a meandering stream. It was in bad shape and for sale. My parents bought it and then put great effort into making it comfortable. There was a swimming pool and Mama taught me to swim.
As we grew, we became more aware of the household that surrounded us. The castle was full of action with visitors a regular part of life. Our favorite visitor was Granny—Mama's mother, Queen Marie of Romania. She visited us at least once a year, at Christmas time, and we also often traveled to visit her in her country. Granny had a wonderful talent for becoming friends with us children. Papa had two enthusiasms: flying and ham radio. He built a 6-seater, twin-engine, airplane to his design that made it possible to fly directly from the field at Sonnberg. Mama liked not only to visit her mother, but also to keep in touch with her brothers and sisters. Uncles and aunts were regular visitors from various parts of Europe.
Travel was a normal part of our lives. We went to Italy, Yugoslavia, England, Germany, and other places where we had relatives. Travel was by means of cars, trains, and the airplane. I loved to ride the "wagon lits" sleeping car on the Orient Express from Vienna to Brasov or Bucharest. When the family traveled by car, it often stopped in Budapest for one night.
As a young child, I had no idea of the meaning of economic terms like depression, unemployment, and social upheaval; but Mama exposed us early to the fact that some people—in fact, most people—had a difficult time with life and living. She set up a "soup kitchen" dining area in a large open first floor room next to the castle entrance. Unemployed and otherwise disadvantaged people of the village were given warm food. We children were expected to help as soon as we could carry a tray.
Raising a Family
Our family grew. My sister, Alexandra, arrived in 1935 and my brother, Dominik, in 1937. The laws had changed so that these two children were officially born as Austrians. By now I was attending kindergarten and becoming more aware of the outside world. We had many visitors and children were expected to have good manners. My parents also had an apartment in Vienna where they could stay to attend cultural events and shop at the big stores. For us children the main thrill of going to Vienna was visiting the amusement park called the Prater.
Christmas at Sonnberg was usually a big event. In addition to both our grandmothers, various aunts and uncles would also visit. That also meant contact with our cousins from distant parts of Europe. Mama always had a special Christmas Eve event to which ail the employees' children were invited. There would be refreshments served and all received gifts. Only after these obligations were filled were we children allowed to go search out our own presents under the family Christmas tree.
German Expansion—Nazi Takeover
I was just six years old and attending first grade when our peaceful village of Sonnberg experienced the "Anschluss". Austrian flags were removed and a big red flag with the white circular field and a big black swastika was substituted. Every house was required to fly one. Signs sprung up at every village corner proclaiming "our salute is HEIL HITLER". Men in brown shirts would arrive by truck and go through highly militaristic maneuvers. They approached the castle, Sonnberg, as though it were some kind of military target—to be surrounded and conquered.
Mama was just returning from visiting her sick Mother in Meran, Italy. Papa met her at the Vienna Railroad Station and told her that when they reached Sonnberg she would find her home with 50 uninvited guests from the S.A. (SturmAbteilung-Storm Squad, later to becorne SS-Sturm Soldaten). Mama treated our "guests" with the utmost courtesy. It was the first time I saw a clear illustration of the gospel of "turning the other cheek".
Queen Marie's Death
Austria was annexed by Germany in March of 1938. Mama's dear mother, my beloved Granny had an illness that was not clearly identified. She had visited us for Christmas 1936, feeling an unexplained weakness. First she was advised to go to Meran, Italy, and the following spring to Dresden, Germany. By 1938 she'd had several hemorrhages of unexplained cause. In a medical blunder that is difficult to ascribe to mere error, she had been given one transfusion with the wrong blood type and the situation became critical. Dr. Stomer of the Hotel Weiser Hirsch visited the Queen and then telephoned Mama to tell her that he thought her mother was dying and should be taken to Romania.
Papa proposed to remove the passenger seats from his twin-engine airplane and carry Granny on an aluminum stretcher. When he checked with the German authorities for permission to fly his Austrian airplane it was denied. At the same time, however, he received a surprisingly generous offer. Herr Hitler offered the use of one of his personal airplanes to carry the queen home. But, the Romanian government (i.e. King Carol II) would not approve a German aircraft landing in their country. Mama must have felt desperate being un-able to help her mother.
On July 15 the train set out from Dresden taking a torturous three days. Mama received a much interrupted telephone call from Romania that her mother was dying. My parents set off in the car for the long drive to Sinaia. The car had Romanian plates so it passed the border, but all other documents were no longer valid. It would take them 19 hours altogether. When they reached the Romanian border at dawn on July 20, Mama saw the flags at half-mast. It could only mean one thing! She was too late. Her mother had died at five o'clock the evening before. The Budapest embassy had known, but had not had the courage to tell Mama.
After the funeral my parents returned to Sonnberg. From the perspective of a six year old, I am only mildly aware of what a pain this must have been for Mama. It was only many years later that I read in Terence Elsberry's book, Marie of Romania, that their travel delays may have been caused by King Carol, Mama's own brother.
World War II
World events were pushing the war into an ever-larger scale.
In 1939 my sister Magdalena was born and Elisabeth, Mama's sixth, followed in 1942. These two children were officially Germans.
Russia forcibly annexed the Romanian province, Basarabia, pushing Romania into the war on the side of the Axis. More and more wounded men were coming home from the front. At Sonnberg, Mama turned the guestrooms, Granny's room, and part of our play area into a recuperation hospital for wounded Romanian soldiers.
In September, 1940, King Carol of Romania abdicated (for a second time) and moved to Switzerland with his lady-love. His son, Michael, age 19 became king.
Papa was drafted into the German army. He first underwent basic training as a private. Since he was an excellent pilot he flew liaison planes during Germany's conquest of France. He was given a commission and then assigned as a flight instructor in Berlin. Mama had to handle all aspects of not only running a large household and hospital, but also of having to deal first-hand with various levels of officialdom.
Let me tell you a little anecdote about Mama. It is the middle of World War II. It is January and cold with plenty of snow. Papa is in Gatow teaching flying; and we have one of our many quartering's of German troops. This happens to be a small, polite group with several officers. Mama invites the commanding officer and his staff to have family lunch with us.
In conversation, the officer starts to relax and discloses some of his sex prejudices. He kids his hostess about pretty women being largely for decoration. Mama points out that she has had to handle not only the overall house management, but also many of the mechanical tasks previously done by Papa. "Oh," says the officer, "I bet you have never changed a tire or installed a set of snow chains!" There is a derogatory challenge in his voice. "Yes, I have" she replies with a smile, "I carry the chains right in the trunk of my car." As the pitch of the discussion rises he makes a blunt challenge, "Let us go outside right now and see which one of us can install a set of snow chains faster, you or I!" To everyone's surprise (except maybe mine) Mama says "All right, challenge accepted!"
They discuss the rules: each with his or her own car, standard jacks, and tools; outside directly in front of the castle; the chains in the trunk and the trunk locked. "And," he says with emphasis, "each of us drives 50 meters and returns without anything coming loose." The contest is on! The military visitors, household staff, and the children have a great time drawing up the exact rules, the tools permitted, and the exact route. A pair of stopwatches are produced and assigned, and the starting whistle blows.
By the time our guest had blocked his wheels, lined up his jack, raised one side of his car, and draped one chain over the wheel—Mama had carefully laid out her chains on the ground behind the wheels, backed onto them, stretched them over the tires and tightened the latches. She has used no tools at all. Not only is she far ahead of him, but she drives the course without any noise. By the time he gets his chains on, they are so loose they bang and bash against his fenders in a rather humiliating concert. Mama waits for him to complete his run and then invites everybody for a nice hot drink. The officer takes his defeat with grace and offers a toast to the first Princess he has come to respect as a real man.
That's my Mama.
War was becoming ever more real for us. Mama and I visited Papa at Gatow Airbase outside Berlin and experienced the first nighttime bombing raids by British airplanes.
Mama was sure that her children would be safer "at home" in her Romania. In 1942, Minola and I were enrolled in German-speaking schools in Braşov, a city located in the Carpathian Mountains near the geographic center of Romania. We lived with the chief of the fire department, whose wife happened to be the sister of Mama's secretary. We learned Romanian quickly and by the next year were in Romanian schools; I attended Liceul Andrei Şaguna. From this point on, Mama and I always spoke Romanian to each other. She taught me a great love for her country.
In early July, 1944, the whole family was in Bran, expecting to stay for the summer. Mama had inherited the Bran Castle from her mother. Papa, who had an excellent record as a flight instructor in Berlin, was suddenly dismissed—because of his name. His dismissal was honorable. He was proud of the fact that he had never fired a shot against another man. He came to visit the family in Bran.
The War Ends
On August 23, 1944, Romania decided to officially disconnect itself from the Axis. We remained in Bran much longer than the two months we had initially expected. The fact that Papa had been discharged from the Luftwaffe saved his life, but he is technically confined to Bran. Mama, once again, is the one who has to deal with government officials.
Hospital of the Queen's Heart
Bran was a group of 13 villages scattered over various hills and valleys. Most of the inhabitants were farmers who owned their own land. There was a village school, a blacksmith, a general store, a bakery, and a village square where there was a weekly food market. There was only one village doctor, and a midwife, but no medical facilities. It was typical of Mama to set out to do something about it; she planned to build a hospital. She could not, as she had in Sonnberg, turn over her own house, but she did the next best thing. She donated a piece of land near the village center, across the Turcu River, and then began to look for help to put a useful building in place.
Mama named her hospital "The Hospital of the Queens' Heart" honoring the fact that Queen Marie's heart rested in a small rock chapel nearby. The hospital quickly became an active part of not only the little village, but for the surrounding area. A nearby industrialist donated a complete operating room. Mama be came so involved in the daily running of the place that she often found herself assisting at surgery. Each year the hospital grew in the tasks it undertook and in its reputation in the community.
Christmas 1947 was a special Christmas. It had snowed more than many a winter. Bran was like a fairytale, completely covered in lovely clean snow, with only horsedrawn sleds to get around. I had to come home from Predeal on skis. Beautiful carols were sung at the hospital and the village school. We cut a pine tree from the woods and the decorations were made by hand from whatever scraps we could find. Mama had inherited from her mother a beautiful diamond tiara which she removed from the safe and wore as a special treat. It was an idyllic moment almost totally disconnected from the ugly events around us.
We were listening to the news, four days later, on December 30 when we heard that King Michael had abdicated! I put snow chains on the car. Mama, her secretary, Mr. Bitterman, and I drove to Sinaia since we could not reach Michael by telephone.
Michael, who had just returned from being married to Princess Anne of Bourbone Parma, had been given a simple ultimatum. Our entire family had five days to leave the country.
The New World Lecturer
After much painful thought, Mama decided that she had to leave for the sake of her family. There followed a frantic session of packing what our guards approved as "personal". They go so far as to seal each approved suitcase with a wire security lock. During a moment when they were distracted, Mama took the tiara which she had not had a chance to return to the safe and wrapped it in a nightgown while Papa and I removed the hinge pin from an already inspected suitcase. The tiara was hidden between other underwear and the hinge pin put back in place. The tiara will travel that way half way around the world.
Finding a New Place
Let me now skip over big chunks of time in outline form. We stayed in Switzerland for a half year and then went to Argentina—the only country willing to give us permanent residency at that time. After a year Bishop O'Hara, who had known Mama during her relief work in Romania and was by then in New York, helped the children get scholarships in catholic schools in the U.S.A. My sister, Mino, and I flew to New York together. I went to Pennsylvania, and Mino went to Kansas City. I was then a junior in high school and Malvern Prep was the first time in my life that I attended the same school for two whole years.
In 1950, Austria got its peace treaty. My parents sold the house in Buenos Aires. Papa went back to see if he could salvage any of his possessions. He found that Sonnberg was a pilfered wreck. He then set to work to recover what he could. It took years. Mama took the younger four children and came to the U.S. to visit a long-time friend in Boston. The younger girls went to Dana Hall Schools. Niki went to Fesenden Academy. She not only had to clothe, wash, and feed us six; but now she faced the challenge of earning a living. During that time my parents were divorced.
Mama sold the tiara and invested the money in a house in Newton, Massachusetts. She bought furniture at the local goodwill store and eating utensils at the local 5 and 10 cent store. She also bought a cookbook. It was the first time in her life that she had to actually go to a market and buy food herself and then cook it—and all six of us children were growing and wanted large portions.
Our residence in America was officially temporary. Mama was a guest visitor and all her children were here as students who were to leave upon completion of their studies. Theoretically, she was not permitted to earn a living. She asked her neighbors, her grocer, our school principals, and the local women's clubs to write to the Senate. Senator
John Fitzgerald Kennedy responded. A special bill was introduced, passed both Houses, and was approved by President Eisenhower. We were given permission to remain in America as permanent residents.
Supporting a Family
Although she had bought a house with her tiara, Mama had to face the fact that she had to earn an income to feed her family. Several people suggested that Americans would be interested in her story. She began giving lectures about her experiences. During the entire school term, when her older children were in boarding schools, she traveled the lecture circuit throughout the U.S. A housekeeper was hired to take care of the younger children. Mama started to work hard on a book of her recollections. The book was called I Live Again and was published by Reinhart and Co. in New York in 1951. Mama then immediately set to work on a second book titled Hospital of the Queen's Heart. It was published in 1953 and further added to her appeal as a lecturer. She crisscrossed America speaking before civic organizations, women's clubs, and colleges.
Her children progressed into college. I went to MIT while Mino attended Vassar for a year and then worked for Bishop Sheen in New York. Sandi attended New England Baptist Nursing School. Niki went to Rhode Island School of Design, while Magi and Hertzi became the second shift in Kansas City. Eventually, each of them returned to Europe (Niki with an American wife. The girls each married in Europe). I also married an American girl and am the only one of her children who made his home in America permanently. I went to Detroit and started on a rather rapid rise at GM Designs.
Mama's life was hard work and lonely. She married Dr. Issarescu in 1954. In retrospect, it was a mistake. She tried hard to develop a good relationship but it did not work out.
As each of her children grew up and were married, Mama felt less and less pressure to support them; and more and more the need to turn to some form of community service. She visited us in Michigan after lecturing to summer students at the Romanian Vatra in Jackson. She was talking of possibly becoming a nun.
Becoming Mother Alexandra
1959 must have been a terrible year for her. Her oldest daughter, Minola, was pregnant for the second time and was traveling with her husband Rusch. The airliner missed the runway at Rio de Janeiro and all aboard were killed. A little orphan named Ileana—after her Granny—was left behind. Her oldest son, yours truly, emerged from an ordeal of viral encephalitis with serious brain damage. I needed full-time nursing for some time. For six months Mama let me, my wife Jerri, and our three children stay with her in Newton, Massachusetts, as I tried to find a way to return to my job.
Mama had clearly decided that she wanted to withdraw from the worldly life. She wanted to look into monasticism, but her husband would not approve. She first had to spend a half year in Nevada getting a legal divorce. She worked at an Indian mission far from the big cities for that period. Then she came to visit us in Michigan and talk to her Bishop. The Bishop felt that it would be wise for Mama to experience some time in a monastery before making any final decisions. She chose a monastery far from any major urban center in the France province of Othe. It is located in a small town called Bussy.
After about a year as a postulante, Jerri and I visited her in France and then went on to my siblings. Finding Mama in her monastic dress reminded me of the days, long bygone, when she always wore nurses clothes. She was more at peace than I had seen her in a long time. She was actively writing and studying. She had become deeply interested in the creed and would eventually write a book about it. I had little doubt that Mama would become a nun. She was in France for a full six years, during which she became fully professed which included the baptism in a new name; she was Mother Alexandra from that day forward.
Typical of the enthusiasm which she brought to every project, she delved deeply into religious subjects. She became especially interested in the holy angels. Eventually her studies will result in a book on that subject. For me, personally, I only regret that I saw her so much less. However, my children loved their Granny, and we were able to have her visit at least once a year. I have made my life in America, and my illness has limited my earning power so that travel across the ocean was bound to be rare.
Then I had a wonderful surprise. The Bishop supported Mama in her desire of setting up a monastery for English-speaking orthodox women in America. She visited us on her way to the Episcopate in Jackson, and then again later as she searched for a monastery location. I would, of course, have liked to see it somewhere near us. The final decision, however, was the environs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The little town of Ellwood City was chosen as a site. The official founding of the Monastery of the Transfiguration took place in 1968. Mama received a partial reparation for some of the clearly private property that she had in Romania and she promptly donated it to the Church toward the building fund for the monastery. Mama served as Abbess from 1969 to 1980. She was succeeded by Mother Christophora as Abbess, but remained active to her last days.
Over the years, Mama and I remained in quite close touch. We shared the growing of two completely different families: she saw to the gradual growth of her religious community, while I told her of the trials and tribulations of the growing of my five children. I think that both of my daughters have come to admire her deeply and—each in her own way—use their beloved Granny as a model of what a woman can accomplish. Each of my children have insisted on their Granny being present at their marriages and—of course—at their children's baptism. Mama also kept in touch with her other descendants who have all found their way to making lives in Europe. For her 80th birthday, January 5, 1989, her children and grandchildren came to Pennsylvania for dinner in her honor. Bishop Nathaniel presided, and the choir of Nuns sang lovely hymns. It was a very special day.
More Recent Reflections
Let me take another big jump in time. It is a year and a half later, July 1990. I have been retired from General Motors for two years. My children have each found adult lives and I have four grandchildren. Mother Christophora bas become abbess and the community of nuns is growing. There are new building plans being discussed as the convent enters its first major expansion phase. I have bought a little cottage on the Leelenau peninsula of Michigan. It sits on the west shore of Leelenau looking out at the Manitou Islands. In a kind of childhood wish fulfillment, I have bought a little 14-foot sailboat and anchor it off-shore. Mama comes to spend ten summer days with us. It is a wonderful time of relaxation. Mama is very tired. Her hair is thin and grey, her body is probable the lightest it has been since she was a little girl. The convent seems to be doing well under the energetic Mother Christophora.
Mama watches me sail my little boat and the teacher in her starts to tell me of the subtleties of sailing. I ask her if she would care to get in the boat with me. She has some doubts about it being appropriate, but I assure her that there is no one for miles around to watch us. I pull the boat to shore and she comes down to join me. I hold the boat while she kicks off her shoes, carefully lifts her flowing black robe, and climbs aboard. I push off into deeper water, scramble on board, and we spend a pleasant half hour or so tacking back and forth along the shore. It brings back to both our memories the first time she taught me to sail at the Wörtersee in Austria as a little boy. She strikes me as energetic as ever, and her outlook remains that of the enterprising young woman who sees tasks she wants to accomplish and challenges she will face. As we talk I can visualize her standing in front of me in her sailor uniform proud as can be over being the first woman to have officially passed the seamanship exam by docking a multi-masted sailing skip in the Black Sea port of Constanza. I do tell her that I hope that she will find more restful ways to use her incredible talents.
Romania Calls Once Again
But it is not to be. Her country calls. Romania has had a revolution. The long oppressed people of Mama's beloved country have overthrown the Ceauşescu communist dictatorship. Tragic stories appear in the news. A whole generation of children have been born infected with the aids virus because the government had not only prohibited all forms of birth control, but had forced women to reproduce "for the good of the state." My Mama is now 81 years old and in fragile health. She walks with a cane because her hipjoint was replaced 12 years before, and now the other is becoming dangerously fragile. She has arthritis and has had spinal surgery several times on bones that show the malnutrition of two world wars. She has a backbrace which she attaches to herself before she can dress. For a lesser person it would probably mean a sedentary life. But not for Mama; she has to go to Romania to see what she can do for those children. Two days before her planned departure, Mama visits her doctor for an infusion of medication to control her chronic backpain. While in the office she has a heart attack. She is taken to the hospital across the street. But her plans have not changed. The doctor is horrified, but powerless to keep her from her mission. If she feels well enough to walk, she will go on. Her first stop is Germany where she stays with her daughter Sandi (Alexandra Baillou). Sandi realizes that Mama is really much too weak to travel, but she also knows that nothing will stop her. Sandi—a trained nurse—decides that she will accompany Mama and help in any way she can.
The trip turns into an incredible emotional and personal success for Mama. She is a Nun and stays at convents. Even so, at Bran 2,000 people turn out to welcome her. She returns to Ellwood City with her hands full of work to be done. When I talk with her on the phone she is deeply involved in raising funds, collecting clothing, and soliciting medical donations. The task of trying to help 100,000 ("Yes," she says emphatically, "100,000!") orphaned children, neglected, sick, and condemned to die of AIDS seems overwhelming; yet it is characteristic of Mama to not be intimidated by overwhelming odds. "It is better to help one child than to say what we can not do about a thousand!" That is her attitude. I have no doubt that she will accomplish what she hopes. If she were not so frail! Will there ever be a time for her to rest?
I get a phone call from the monastery. Mama has fallen and is hospitalized with a broken hip. She was placed in bed and was being prepared for the necessary surgery when she had a mild heart attack. That became the priority rather than the surgery. She was moved into the cardiac care unit. There she suffered a second and much more serious seizure—about 1/3 of the heart muscle is incapacitated. In addition to the heart attack there was a pulmonary collapse. Therefore, we find her in a rather frightening situation. She is receiving oxygen, but her breathing is her own and her heart is beating—if somewhat irregularly.
Mama is also surrounded by various serum bags, blood containers, and electrical monitors. She is holding her own, but considerable suffering is the result of the equipment attached to her. Over the next few days she improves ever so slowly. The time bas come to consider removing some of the life support equipment. Removal will require surgery. After a serious conference between the doctors, the family, and the nuns, we decide that it is worth taking the risk. Sandi calls regularly by phone, and keeps the European family informed.
We decide that I will represent the family at Mama's bedside, and that my sisters will take my place from time to time. I even manage to persuade Mother Elizabeth that she should get some sleep in a bed (or at least on top of one). I am there for Mama's return from surgery. It has gone well, she is under heavy sedation but breathing on her own. For the first time this week she is sleeping. I go to the guest house and have the joy of seeing my pretty wife asleep next to me!
It is still well before dawn when I shower and put on fresh clothes and walk over to the hospital. Mama is still sleeping and the nurse tells me it would be good if I could get her to drink something when she wakes. I have almost become a member of their team. When Mama does wake, I succeed in giving her a few drops of water with a straw. Slowly, ever so slowly, I help her quench her thirst. By evening, I have even succeeded in feeding her a few spoons of applesauce.
Magi and I alternate with Sandi and Herzi at the bedside. Mama is steadily improving, but having horrible hallucinations which prevent restful sleep. My sister Magi and I develop ways of interrupting her nightmares and of getting her to relax. The hallucinations reoccur over the next three days.
She has now been in the hospital for 18 days. Essentially all her nutrition has been intravenous. She sleeps for over 24 hours and wakes up feeling much better. She has a drink of broth. Slowly, but surely, she is getting better. But then, I must face facts. Her heart is still damaged, she has had no significant food by mouth for almost 3 weeks, her leg is still broken, and the doctors tell me there is a high chance of pneumonia developing. In spite of the best of modern medicine, ail they can do now is alleviate pain. I ask them to do that.
On Sunday, January 20, Mama's priest comes and she is fully conscious. She receives Holy Communion. She then takes small amounts of food in mashed form and drinks juice. I talk to the doctors and they tell me and the Mother Superior that they doubt that Mama will live more than a few days. I tell Mama, and she smiles at me in a loving, caring way that only a mother can. Then she signals me she wants some paper and a pencil. In painfully wiggly lines she draws a little cross with a roof on it. I understand. She is telling me the kind of cross she would like on her grave a simple Romanian cross with a peasant style roof. I sketch what I think she wants and she smiles approval. I also promise that her precious litte box of Romanian dust will go to the grave with her. She is clearly pleased.
Bishop Nathaniel comes by and gives her his blessing. I know that she had a lot to do with his joining the priesthood and, in turn, he bas encouraged her in the long struggles to build a convent. For a white we stand together at the foot of her bed as two sons. Mama looks relaxed and beautiful. I tell her so. She gives me a hint of a smile and then sleeps some more. I know that I cannot leave her side. When she wakes she indicates she wants something. By now, I understand her even if she can barely move her face and bas no voice. She wants to hold her favorite cross. It is a simple metal cross, but bas deep meaning for her. Back in January, 1948, a lifetime friend had pressed it into her bands as the communist guards pushed Mama aboard the train leaving her country. The friend died in a concentration camp.
In the morning, the doctor comes by, looks at her pulse, and leaves the room. I follow him outside and he says he doubts that she will be alive tomorrow. I go to the waiting room to tell Jerri, and return to Mama's side. My sisters, and my children come in one at a time for what may be the last time. Mama receives the sacrament of Holy Unction and has the Prayers at the Time of the Parting of the Soul read over her by her priest.
I sit at the side of her bed as I have been doing for the last dozen days. She takes my hand and holds it tightly. She smiles at me. I say the Lord's Prayer and see her lips moue with my words, though no sound comes out. Her breath becomes shallow, but her eyes look straight into mine.
There is none of the tension I saw in her look a week ago. I talk gently about the wonderful life we have experienced together, and thank her for all she has done for me from when she taught me to swim to her recent visit where she went sailing with me. She still responds with a smile and a very gentle grip on my hand. Her eyes roll slowly up as the lids come partway down. Her breath stops. Her hand lets go of mine. I close her eyelids all the way. I place her left hand on top of her chest along with the one holding her cross. I kiss her for the last time and get up to call the nurse. There is no need. She and Mother Elizabeth are standing at the door. They call the doctor.
The doctor briefly looks at the silent face, checks her pulse, and signs the hospital log. Before going to tell the family I notice the little book of scriptures that had fallen from Mama's hand. It has a marker in it. I see the letter to the Romans (14:7, 8):
"None of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then whether we live or die, we are the Lord's."
My watch tells me it is noon, Monday, January 21, 1991. I go to the waiting room to tell the family that her life has ended.