Mother Alexandra (1909-1991) of Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Ellwood City, Penn.
John J. Regule
Born Princess Ileana in Bucharest, Romania (January 5, 1909), Mother Alexandra was the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie. She had six children with her husband, Archduke Anton of Austria. Fleeing the Nazis in Austria and Communists in Romania, she finally ended up in the United States. After the death of her husband and once her children were well established, she fulfilled her lifelong desire to become a nun. She founded the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, and was the abbess there until her death in 1991.
She is known by many different names: Ileana Hollenhausen; Ileana, Princess of Romania; Ileana, Arch Duchess of Hapsburg; Sister Ileana; and finally, Mother Alexandra - all the same person and what a life she had!
My story begins in 1953 when I was a law student at the University of Pittsburgh. One day I was walking down Forbes Avenue and I bumped into a friend who introduced me to another friend. During the conversation the subject of my Romanian ancestry came up and this fellow said to me, "You know, I was an RAF [Royal Air Force] pilot and I was shot down when we were bombing the Ploesti1 oil fields during the war, and I was rescued by a Princess of Romania who took me and hid me in a make-shift hospital near the castle at Bran." At the time, I did not know anything about the Princess of Romania, Sister Ileana, or the future Mother Alexandra.
In 1973 my family and I took our first trip to Romania as chaperones for our local high school chorus. On our itinerary was a scheduled visit to the castle at Bran.2 When we were there I remembered the story of the RAF pilot who was shot down as I went through each of those rooms.
Later, when I was speaking with Mother Alexandra, I asked her about her rescue efforts and she said, "Oh yes, we took care of a lot of them and it was risky because they were enemy soldiers." So I said, "Weren't you a little bit frightened that you would get caught?" And she answered, "We treated many enemy pilots." I asked her again, "Weren't you frightened you might be imprisoned or lose your life for what you were doing? Weren't you afraid that you would, you know, lose your head?" because that was the common punishment if you were found guilty of treason. She then replied, "If I am going to lose my head, then at least as long as it is still on my shoulders, I am going to use it to the best of my lights, to the best of my talents, to the best of my lights."
There were several outbuildings near Bran Castle. In one of them they set up a makeshift hospital and called it the Queen of Hearts.3 Nearby one of the outbuildings (called the Hermitage) there was a cave with a large hole in the ground. They would take the wounded down through that hole into a pit and hide them, first from the Germans, and later from the Russians.
After the War and subsequent Communist takeover in Romania, Mother Alexandra was forced to leave her homeland and eventually settled in America. After all her children were grown, she fulfilled her desire to devote her life to God. She had always dreamed of establishing a monastery in her adopted homeland. When she decided to build it, she first set her sights on forty acres of ground near Smith Valley, Nevada where she planned to minister to the Hopi Indians. She was later convinced that it would be better to locate the monastery somewhere in Pennsylvania. I was with her as she walked the grounds in Ellwood City. Mother Alexandra's granddaughter just spoke of how athletic she was. I can vouch for that because we walked around the hundred acres of land. As we walked she reached down and took some dirt and I said, "You know, that reminds me of what they did in the early days before there were deeds to land or property. When they would sell property, they walked the land with a witness. In the presence of a witness the seller would reach down and seize a piece of dirt and give it to the buyer and say, "I am now giving you the seize." That's how we got the legal term, "you are seized of land." As Mother Alexandra was there grabbing her own piece of dirt, she was seizing the land in the name of the monastery.
The monastery was near and dear to her heart. Whenever the monastery faced financial difficulties, she would sell some of her personal belongings in order to provide the necessary support. When she died, she left her inheritance to the monastery. While she was still alive, I often tried to convince her to set up a hospital near the monastery because of her experience during the War. Finally, after much prodding, she told me the story of a soldier who came into the hospital with severe frostbite. As they were trying to remove his pants so that they could treat him, his legs came off with the clothing. This had had a such profound impact on her, she was reluctant to take on the responsibility of a hospital.
Still, Mother Alexandra had always wanted to set up some kind of charitable organization in Romania to serve the orphans and the poor. This desire was finally realized in 1990 when she was allowed to return to Romania after the 1989 revolution. She founded the Christiani Hospital/Hospice in Bucharest, just months before her death.
We are all touched by someone, someone who encourages us to use what God has given us. As Mother Alexandra said, if we're going to lose our heads, then at least as long as they are still on our shoulders, we should use them to the best of our lights.
Thank you Mother Alexandra, for letting me be a part of your life.
1. A town in central Romania.
2. Outside of Brasov, in central Romania. Bran Castle was the summer residence of the royal family. It was given to Princess Ileana on the occasion of her wedding.
3. Queen Marie, the mother of Princess Ileana, instructed her court to remove her heart when she died and bury it at the seaside. At that time the resort area at the seaside was owned by Bulgaria, so she requested that her remains be buried near Bran Castle. The makeshift hospital was named the Queen of Hearts in her honor.