This week we especially remember Mother Alexandra, Foundress and Abbess of the Monastery of the Transfiguration, Ellwood City, PA, who fell asleep in the Lord 28 years ago—on January 21, 1991.
Mother Alexandra—the former Princess Ileana of Romania—planted the monastery in 1967 as the fulfillment of her dream to provide a place where American Orthodox Christian women from all ethnic backgrounds could live the monastic life and benefit from the liturgical cycle in the English language. The desire of her heart was to provide a fountain of spiritual refreshment to the people of the country that gave her a home after her exile.
Born Princess Ileana in Bucharest, Romania in 1909—the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie of Romania—Mother Alexandra endured the harsh realities of World War I. With her mother and sisters, she would visit the soldiers in the hospitals and on troop trains, praying with them. She also helped the Red Cross as an interpreter for one of the American colonels distributing supplies.
In 1931, she married Archduke Anton Hapsburg of Austria, with whom she gave birth to six children over the course of 10 years. During World War II, their castle in Austria was initially used as housing for German troops, but later she turned it into a Red Cross hospital. In 1944, she returned to Romania, to Bran Castle, which she inherited from her mother, where she established the new Hospital of the Queen’s Heart across from the castle in memory of her mother to serve soldiers, villagers, and anyone in need of medical attention.
She and her entire family were exiled from Romania by the Communists in 1947, having been told they could leave the country with whatever they could carry or be confined in a monastery until they were executed. They lived in Switzerland for a short time before moving to Argentina. In 1950, she was given a medical visa to come to the United States. The following year, although separated from Anton, she came with her four youngest children (the oldest two children were already in the United States for their studies) and settled in a suburb of Boston. At that time, then-Senator John F. Kennedy introduced a bill in the US Congress to grant her permanent residency. To provide for her family, she accepted numerous speaking engagements across the country, in which she spoke of her life and about the evils of Communism.
In 1961, with the blessing of His Eminence, Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom], she began the process of discerning her calling to the monastic life and entered the Monastery of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God in Bussy-en-Othe, France. Sister Alexandra remained in this monastery for six years, visiting the US every summer to maintain her permanent residency status. While in the US, she would teach at the Vatra, Grass Lake, MI about Orthodoxy and monasticism. She clearly saw the need to plant in America an English-speaking monastery for women.
In 1964, property was purchased in Ellwood City, PA, and three years later, she was tonsured into the monastic life as Mother Alexandra. She returned to Ellwood City where the Monastery of the Transfiguration was officially established. She lived to see the fall of Communism in her homeland in 1989 and was able to make a return visit to Romania the following year.
Mother Alexandra authored numerous books and other writings, including I Live Again, available in print and ebook format; The Holy Angels; Hospital of the Queen’s Heart; The Lord’s Prayer (available from the Monastery of the Transfiguration bookstore); The Symbol of Faith: Meditations on the Nicene Creed; and Introduction to the Jesus Prayer.
Mother Alexandra fell asleep in the Lord on January 21, 1991, and she was interred in the monastery cemetery. She requested the following verse to be on her gravestone: “None of us lives to himself and none of us 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 whether we die, we are the Lord’s” [Romans 14:7].
May the memory of Mother Alexandra be eternal!