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Living Link to European History : Exiled Princess Finds Peace in Monastic Life

April 09, 1988|MARCIA DUNN | Associated Press

ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. — Her family jewels are gone and her castle is Communist property, but Romania's Princess Ileana has found peace in a monastery here in rural Pennsylvania.

The 79-year-old princess, known as the Rev. Mother Alexandra, is one of 12 nuns who share food, work and prayers in the Romanian Orthodox cloister.

She was the founder of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, the first English-speaking Orthodox monastery in the United States. It has been 21 years since she took her vows, but vestiges of her royal past remain, even in seclusion.

Portraits of her parents, King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, hang in the living room of the A-frame house she shares with another nun.

Gold and silver icons, some dating back to the 15th Century, fill one corner of her bedroom. One of them, handed down in the family from Czar Nicholas I of Russia, is said to contain a splinter from Christ's cross. Antique icons also decorate the monastery's small, candle-lit chapel, as do crosses and triptychs, some of which she brought from Europe.

Treasures of History

A small, gold container on a bedstand holds her most precious possession, a handful of Romanian soil snatched as she fled the Soviet takeover after World War II. She wants the soil buried with her when she dies.

"There's a big gap between then and now," she said. "So much has happened in between."

A statuesque woman who is uncomfortable sitting with idle hands, she worked on a knotted prayer rope as she reflected on her life.

"It's been different so many times over," she said, "but, you see, one lives day by day, doesn't one?"

She refuses to compare the royal and religious ways of life.

"There is no point," she said. "I did my duty as a princess, and now I'm doing my duty as a nun."

Her superiors, nonetheless, are impressed by her example.

"As a person, as an individual, I have admiration because, even not having a position (as a former princess) she could have had a social life, which would be much more in keeping with other people of her background," said Bishop Nathaniel Popp, 47, head of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America.

Other Way Around

"Instead of saying she was a princess who became a nun, I think it was more she was a nun coming through the life of a princess."

Although she was just a child during the German invasion of World War I, Princess Ileana accompanied her mother, the queen, from hospital to hospital, ministering to Romania's wounded and hungry. By the time World War II erupted, both her parents were dead. Her older brother, Carol, had ascended the throne. One sister had become queen of Yugoslavia and another was queen of Greece.

Princess Ileana, wife of an archduke of Austria and the mother of six, was living in a castle outside Vienna. Fearing the Nazi regime, she and her family moved in 1944 to Romania. There she set up hospitals and did what she could for her suffering compatriots.

In December, 1947, the Communists forced the king of Romania to abdicate. The following week, Princess Ileana and the rest of the royal family were exiled.

The family went to Switzerland, then to Argentina before settling in 1950 in the United States. It was a move that ultimately led to divorce. To support her children, Ileana sold her cherished diamond and sapphire tiara, lectured about life behind the Iron Curtain and wrote her autobiography, "I Live Again."

It wasn't until 1961, after her children were grown, that the 52-year-old princess became a postulant. And she ended a second marriage to do so.

"In my heart," she said, "I always wanted to become a nun, but there was so much to be done in Romania when I was young."

Princess Ileana took the monastic vows of stability, obedience, poverty and chastity in 1967 and, with that profession, became Mother Alexandra. Later that year, she set up a trailer on 100 acres of farmland outside Ellwood City and began building an English-speaking monastery for Orthodox women of all ethnic backgrounds.

There are now 12 English-speaking monasteries under the jurisdiction of the 2.5-million member Orthodox Church in America, according to the Rev. Robert Kondratick, secretary of the church. They are home to perhaps 100 monks and nuns, who are called sisters before their vows and mothers afterward.

The Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, based in Jackson, Mich., is similar to the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches in that they share religious beliefs, but each church is self-governing.

The Romanian and Russian Orthodox churches are part of the Orthodox Church in America, along with the Bulgarian and Albanian Orthodox churches and a few smaller factions. The Greek Orthodox church, however, is under the patriarch of Constantinople.

The Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America has no ties with the church in Romania.

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