At the otherwise deserted railway station of a small French port, a group of young people caught a traveler’s eye. Some of the boys wore heavily studded leather vests which sported chains attached to the wearer' s wrist. One of the girls had her hair cropped very short and dyed bright orange; another was wearing clothes so tight that they appeared to be painted on. They were wandering aimlessly about, shifting benches, kicking wastebaskets and each other to the accompaniment of bursts of loud laughter and crude expressions.
At a distance of less than two hour' s journey, the traveler entered as if another world and encountered a very different group of people, including young, in the Convent of our Lady of Lesna, situated peacefully amidst the undulating hills of Normandy.
While the world in general is becoming gradually more and more subservient to the master of darkness and desolation, there still exist havens where a Christian soul can find strength and sustenance. Amongst such havens is the Lesna Convent at Provemont in France, originally founded nearly one hundred years ago in honor of the holy Icon of the Lesna Mother of God.
The Convent was first established in Lesna, a settlement in Byelorussia. This area had suffered spiritually from forceful Latin proselytization, and when it came once again under Russian rule, it was decided to open a women's missionary monastery that would provide an example of living Orthodoxy, able to attract those who had become Uniate back into the fold of the Church, and at the same time to be custodian of the wonderworking Lesna Icon. The pious Countess Eugenia Borisovna Efimovskaya, in monasticism Catherine, became its first Abbess at the age of 35. She had studied literature at Moscow University and had written some brochures and articles on religious themes, amongst them, "Concerning Deaconesses" and "Christian Asceticism."
Under the wise guidance of Abbess Catherine the Convent grew, and within 30 years it became a widely and well-known center of Orthodoxy. Its services were many and varied, including the caring for orphans. At times up to 400 girls received schooling at the Convent. Gifted girls from the orphanage entered a special school in the Convent where they became qualified primary school teachers; the less intellectual were prepared for useful occupations.
The activities and achievements of Abbess Catherine and her co-worker s at Lesna became known in faraway places--in Warsaw, Moscow and Petersburg. And from all directions came help and helpers to Lesna. One of the generous benefactors of Lesna was St. John of Kronstadt who remained in close contact with the Convent to the end of his days. St. John was known for his outstanding aptitude in figurative speech and writing, also for his prophetic vision. He likened Lesna to a beehive from which swarms of bees take off to form new colonies elsewhere. His metaphor became a reality as many Russian and later Serbian convents were founded over the years by the Lesna nuns.
Abbess Catherine, desirous of being able to dedicate her time to higher spiritual aspirations, resolved to resign in 1908 and to hand over the running of the Convent to her close collaborator, Mother Nina. The wishes of the first Abbess, however, were not to be fulfilled entirely, and up to her repose there were two Abbesses in the Convent, working in perfect union with each other. Mother Catherine took care predominantly of the spiritual side of convent life, while Mother Nina engaged in practical and economic problems.
The Convent was surrounded by swampy areas which created both hygienic and economic problems. Mother Nina devised a plan for draining the swamp and putting the water to use. The result was a system of ponds, serving as reservoirs for watering the gardens, having not only practical but also great aesthetic value.
The Convent had six churches. The majestic cathedral was dedicated to the Elevation of the Cross, and housed the wonderworking Icon. On some feast days, however, all the churches together were not sufficient to accommodate the great crowd of pilgrims who sometimes numbered as many as 30,000. To overcome this problem, Mother Catherine laid the foundation for an outdoor church in which an open altar stood under the skies and which had no limiting walls.
Before the First World War broke out-that is, in less than thirty years after it was founded--there were over 400 nuns at Lesna, more than 100 employees, and nearly 700 children in the convent's care. The community had developed into a sizeable settlement which contained on about 120 acres--mostly drained from swampland--a large dairy with a cheese factory, a small sawmill, a brick factory, numerous buildings for living quarters, schools and infirmaries which served not only the monastic society but also the surrounding populace. All this was achieved through the blessing and grace of the Mother of God.
In 1915, as the front was approaching, it was reluctantly decided to evacuate, and the sisters set out on a long and arduous journey in search of a new home. After two years in Petersburg and four years in Rumania, Mothers Catherine and Nina decided to appeal to the Serbian king Alexander--a true friend and protector of Russians--for help. King Alexander advised them to move their Convent to Yugoslavia and continue their worthy labors on Serbian soil.
In the autumn of 1920 Bishop Dosithios welcomed 62 of the Lesna nuns to Belgrade and expressed joy over the fact that a convent was to be established in a land where no convent had existed since the Turkish occupation. For the first months the Convent resided in the Kuvedzhin monastery; then it moved to Hopovo where it remained for over 20 years until the German occupation.
Hopovo, built in the 16th century, was situated in a picturesque valley amongst forested mountains. As in Belorussia, the Lesna Convent pursued its principal activities-looking after orphans, educating children, and helping those in need, all the while maintaining the monastic traditions.
In 1925 the remarkably achievement-rich earthly days of Abbess Catherine came quietly to an end, and Abbess Nina resumed full responsibility. Although frail in physical health, she possessed an admirable spiritual strength. Life in Hopovo fell into a regular rhythm. Both Russian and Serbian women arrived to find a new and purposeful life in the monastic society. The whole atmosphere was charged with piety and genuine Christian warmth. All this became widely known and many, burdened with worldly tribulations or in search of spiritual treasure, came to Hopovo.
Then World War II cast its terror laden shadow over Europe. Hopovo lived through the retreat of the Serbian army and the German occupation, Next Croatian soldiers took possession of the Convent. At that time the surrounding forests were full of partisans--Serbians fleeing the Croatians who, sheltering within the Convent, kept firing into the forests, so that the nuns, while working in the garden, were constantly under fire.
The Croatians forced the nuns to work for them while at the same time persecuting them in every possible way; they finally attempted to evict them from Hopovo altogether. But the Mother of God protected Her own: through the intervention of German authorities the eviction notice was cancelled and life continued. A winter of hardships gave way to a restless spring. During Passion Week communists ravaged the Convent and burnt all buildings except the church--the most important part of the Convent was spared. Friendly Serbians in the surrounding villages gave accommodation to the nuns who continued to go to work in the Convent garden and to services in the church. This continued until one day, after Pascha 1943, the Germans ordered their evacuation to Serbia.
. For a month the nuns remained in quarantine, then they were given quarters in a home for the aged in the outskirts of Belgrade. Although some found work as menial servants, their earnings did not keep them from experiencing hunger. American air raids were frequent. The nuns stayed close to their holy Icon and, trusting themselves to the care of the Heavenly Queen, they came to no harm. Once six bombs fell around the home but none exploded. The German officer who came with his soldiers to remove the unexploded bombs, exclaimed: "This is a miracle! And I did not believe in God!"
By the end of 1944 the buildings of the home were so badly damaged that it was not possible to stay there any longer. As most of the Belgrade Russians were fleeing the approaching communist forces, the Hopovo refugees round accommodation in the center of the city in what had been a home for Russian students who had fled, leaving their home to the nuns. Owing to the advanced age and frailty of Mother Nina as well as of several other nuns, their speedy evacuation was not feasible, and they remained there under the Soviet occupation.
Difficult days followed, but with the help of the Lord and of pious Serbs and Russians the nuns kept going. They worked as domestics or nurses, gave lessons in religion, English and French, and took care of the old and infirm. In those frightful times many families had been torn apart, some of their members having been arrested and either deported or placed into local prisons. At the Convent church molebens were served unceasingly...
In 1949 Abbess Nina succumbed to angina pectoris, and her place was taken by Abbess Theodore (Princess Lvova) who had been at the Convent for 21 years. As life in Belgrade became intolerable,. Abbess Theodora proceeded to look for ways to leave Yugoslavia, and in August, 1950, the Convent left for its new home country, France.
For the first four months the Lesna nuns received cordial hospitality from some Catholic nuns at their convent in St. Cloud. Then they moved to Fourqueux, not far from Paris, into a large house which had served as a Catholic seminary before the war. It took a lot of hard work to make it habitable. Precious help, both in work and materials, was received from Russians living in France, and also from Catholic nuns and neighbors. The nuns worked hard to plant a garden and fruit trees. They kept chickens and goats and had about 40 beehives.
Through many difficulties life in the Convent settled to a normal flow. Regular services, including daily liturgy, were held by Hieromonk Nieandor--who had served the Convent still in Hopovo--and Hieromonk Timothy, both of Valaam. At times Bishops Leonty and Nathaniel, and later, Archbishops John (Maximovitch) and Anthony (of Geneva and Western Europe) served at the church in Fourqueux.
But the wanderings of the Convent of Our Lady of Lesna had not yet come to an end; it appeared that the Mother of God had not resolved to make Fourqueux the permanent home of the Convent. The seminary grounds were to be incorporated into the urban development scheme, which would have deprived the Convent of their necessary garden. In the spring of 1967 a new home was found in Provemont, about 65 miles from Paris, in the form of a mansion and surrounding buildings which, to the great joy of the nuns, included a 200-year old Catholic church and were set on grounds covering 30 acres. Again much effort was needed to get the buildings in order, particularly the church which was in a state of advanced disrepair.
In October of that year the miracle working Icon was solemnly carried into the new home --into the great hall of the mansion, converted into a chapel as the rebuilding of the church was not yet finished. Less than a yearlater, however, on the Feast of the Lesna Icon, the church was consecrated by Archbishop Anthony of Western Europe.
Under the protection of its holy Icon the monastery continues its cycle of services. The midnight office is read at 4:30 AM in a small chapel in the main house. Liturgy is served daily by Archimandrite Arseny. Vespers-Matins are held at 5:00 PM. These services take place in the large church which is adorned with icons in the ancient Russian style, the work of one of the nuns, Mother Flaviank (reposed). Compline in the small chapel follows supper. All services are in Church Slavonic.
The Convent has large fruit and vegetable gardens with neatly trimmed shrubs and a variety of flowers. The abbess blesses obediences in the guest houses, guests' tea room, kitchen, vegetable garden, ground s, and trapeza (refectory). Sisters also take care of bees and chickens, make prosphora, sew vestments, paint icons, and struggle in the office with the latest bureaucratic red tape sent by the socialist French government. Guests share a common trapeza with the sisters three times a day.
In December 1976, after a lengthy illness, Abbess Theodora reposed, and Mother Magdalena, her spiritual daughter and assistant for 20 years, became the Convent's fourth Abbess. Under her strict but loving guidance the Convent has continued in its age-old traditions, and has become a spiritual center caring for the needs of many pilgrims from all parts of the world. Some come for services; other stay for a while for spiritual edification and refreshment, or simply to escape the aimless rush of the world outside.
Lesna has few living links with the past, although spiritual links remain. The last monastic to enter while the monastery was actually in Lesna died in 1983. Only two remain who entered in Hopova. There are eight tonsured monastics (small schema); five rassaphore nuns; and fourteen novices--including sisters from Germany, England, Australia, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
Although it might be excessive to hint at a full monastic revival, still one can' see plainly the fruit of the resolve planted in Lesna: though uprooted, severely pruned, and even hacked down, the Convent has kept its roots intact and continued to blossom to the dory of God even in our age of spiritual draught.