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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Martyred Royal Saint Inspires Urals Pilgrims

ALAPAYEVSK, Ural Mountains -- While debate rages over what to do with the bones of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, another member of Russia's last royal family is already the object of quiet devotion deep in Russia's provinces.

The memory of Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Alexandra's sister and so far the only undisputed Romanov saint, has become the center of a small but growing grassroots religious revival in Alapayevsk, an economically depressed industrial town of 62,000 people.

Hundreds of pilgrims come each year to pray at the Monastery of the New Martyrs of Russia, located deep in the snow-covered woods 12 kilometers north of the town.

It was here that Elizabeth and five other Romanovs were thrown down a mine shaft July 18, 1918, by Bolsheviks. The day before, a Bolshevik firing squad had killed Nicholas and his family in Yekaterinburg.

The monastery dedicated to Elizabeth, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1992, is still under construction.

A small chapel has been built in the woods and a cross erected near the pit. A golden-domed gate with the icons of Elizabeth and her monastic helper, Sister Vavara, marks the path to the site. A bell hangs from a tree for use during outdoor prayer services.

A trip to Alapayevsk, 160 kilometers northeast of Yekaterinburg, provides a glimpse into the cult of the Romanov's as part of Russia's religious reawakening.

The leader of the monastic community of three priests and 10 novices is Father Moisei, who for now lives in town and also leads an Orthodox parish of more than 200 people there. Father Moisei, who hopes for the eventual canonization of Nicholas and his family, says popular commemoration of the Romanovs shows the way for Russia's religious development.

"The voice of the people is the voice of God," said Father Moisei, a thin, heavily bearded man with an otherworldly air about him. "It is a question of repentance, recognition and morality. The head of the state was killed and people should repent for it."

"Everything will be fine in Russia only when people realize the divine law, and then there will be monarchy and all will be in order," says Lidia Podkorytova, director of the Alapayevsk tourism bureau and part of Father Moisei's parish.

While the commemoration of the Romanovs is sometimes associated with Russian chauvinism, the Alapayevsk community has a milder outlook. Father Moisei, born in Latvia, is not even ethnically Russian and still speaks Russian with an accent.The group has an intense spiritual atmosphere that seems far removed from the nationalist rallies and church controversies in Moscow. At a church meeting last week, novice Sergei Blokhin read his poetry about Alapayevsk: "Perhaps the souls of royal dukes sail round here under angels' wings."

Elizabeth, like her sister Alexandra, was born a German princess in Hesse-Darmstadt. Raised a Protestant, she converted to Orthodox Christianity when she married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, Nicholas's uncle and the governor-general of Moscow, assassinated by a revolutionary in April 1905.

Elizabeth went to the prison and forgave her husband's murderer, Ivan Kalyaev. Then she relinquished most of her court duties, became a nun and used her wealth to found the Martha and Mary cloister in Moscow, which tended the sick and wounded during World War I.

After the revolution broke out, Elizabeth turned down all offers of refuge, both from Russia's Provisional Government and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, her relative. She was arrested by the Bolsheviks and taken to Alapayevsk in the winter of 1917-18.

When the White Army captured Alapayevsk several days after the murders, the bodies of Elizabeth and her fellow Romanov inmates and servants were discovered in the 18-meter-deep pit.

White Army investigator Nikolai Sokolov reported that the mouths and stomachs of some victims were filled with dirt, indicating they had died of thirst, starvation and exposure.

The bodies were taken away by the retreating Whites, and the bodies of Elizabeth and Sister Varvara, who served as her helper at the cloister, are venerated as holy relics today at the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem. Along with all the Romanovs, they were canonized as New Martyrs of Russia in 1981 by the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which split from the Moscow Patriarchate in the 1920s.

The Moscow Patriarchate canonized Elizabeth and Varvara in 1992, but is still debating the sainthood of other Romanovs: Nicholas, Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia and son Alexis. A church council is to make a ruling in 2000.

The remains of Nicholas and his family, exhumed in 1991, are in the city morgue in Yekaterinburg. A government commission is to decide when and where to bury them; Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg are competing to be their final resting place.

Their canonization is only a matter of time for Alapayevsk's Orthodox Christians. Icons of the royal family depicted as saints already hang in parishioners' homes.

Religious life is slowly reawakening in Alapayevsk. Though the St. Catherine Church on the outskirts of town was allowed to remain open during the Soviet era, all other aspects of religious life were completely uprooted, as elsewhere in Russia.

Today the restoration of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the town center is nearly completed. A Sunday school is open in the same one-story primary school building where the Romanov inmates were kept in 1918. Podkorytova, the tourist office director, became a devout Christian and turned the office's two-story wooden building into an Orthodox library, bookstore, and pilgrims' dormitory.

Last Friday, Father Moisei started his day with prayer, then had a meeting with local policemen, to be followed by visits to two schools and the senior citizens' home. He meets weekly with the head of the local administration, requesting help with construction and access to schools and hospitals.

"Father Moisei goes to any meeting, even if only several people are present," said Father Georgy Chefonov, another priest in Alapayevsk.

In the meantime, people keep coming to the formerly obscure place in the woods.

"What was it? Nothing!" said Nikolai Kuznetsov, a middle-aged furrier and Father Moisei's parishioner. "And now it turns out it is our Russian Jerusalem!"