The PRINCESS Abbess
ELLWOOD CITY, Pa.—The Romanian princess waits on a remote, windswept hill in western Pennsylvania, waits to hear the wishes of her people.
"I don't want to return to Romania, because I would like to die remembering her as she was before the communists," said Mother Alexandra, the former Princess Ileana. "But, of course, I will return if that is what the people wish. I will do whatever I can to help my country."
The 80-year-old nun in the Eastern Orthodox Church is overjoyed at the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime. Communist: exiled the Romanian royal family in 1947.
She is the daughter of Romania's King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, and a great-granddaughter of England's Queen Victoria and Russia's Czar Alexander II. Her father reigned from 1914 until his death in 1927. Her nephew, King Michael, was forced to abdicate; he lives in Switzerland.
The princess is now abbess the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, off a rural road west of here. "I did not think I would live to see the overthrow of this government," she said during a wide-ranging interview in a book-lined living room at the monastery. "But I knew it would happen. History teaches us that the Romanian people will not be suppressed.
"The Romans tried in [A.D.] 101 and, since then, there have been the Turks, the Greeks, the Germans, the Russians. But always Romanian culture and independence have survived. It is because of our language and our religion."
Mother Alexandra is a quiet woman. She speaks softly and she smiles often. She has a keen wit and a modest manner, and a certain air of intrinsic dignity. Her library is large and diverse. Theological works are balanced by volumes of poetry, fiction and history.
"Students from colleges come here to use our library," she says with evident pride.
"It is important for the nuns, for all of us, in fact, to read widely, especially history and even good contemporary fiction. We must know what is happening in the world and what has happened in the past."
She speaks French and German as well as English and Romanian. She and her late husband, the. Archduke Anton of Austria, had six children. They were divorced shortly after coming to America in 1950, and he died three years ago. One of her sons lives in the Detroit area, she said, and the other children live in Austria.
She spent the years between 1951 and 1961 touring the United States and lecturing about conditions in Romania.
"I traveled 40,000 miles and talked to thousands of people about what was happening in Romania," she said. "I am afraid most of them did not believe me. It is only now that they are learning about the horrors that occurred there, the killings and the concentration camps.
"Now, what must be done is to recapture our history. The communists destroyed so much of it and distorted so much of it. There are generations of children who do not know the truth and many who have been so indoctrinated by the communists that they cannot accept the truth."
The Orthodox Church was never abolished under communism, she said, but it was tightly controlled.
"The priests were paid by the government, and they were forbidden to teach or to preach. It is tragic that, during these years, so many of the older clergy died, and the younger ones had not enough access to learning.
"But we can change that. There are enough of the old people left who remember."
"People like me."
In 1961, she went to France to become a postulant nun in the Orthodox religion. After studying for six years, she took her vows and returned to America in 1967 to found her monastery.
She chose the rural area about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh because "it is so beautiful here." She also chose the area because of its large population of Orthodox Christians. There are 150 Orthodox parishes within 100 miles of Ellwood City, she said.
At first, she lived alone in a trailer on the land.
It was a long way from the life of luxury she had led in her father's palace, surrounded by treasure and servants and portraits of her glowering ancestors.
Was this ascetic life harder for her?
"Not harder," she said. "Only very different. At home, we were treated as royalty, of course, but we learned even as children that our work, our duty, came before everything. What I had to learn mostly, since coming here, was patience."
Within the first year, she had a small A-frame house built, and women began to join the community. Some were already Orthodox nuns, others were postulants. Gradually the monastery expanded.
A priest holds services there three times a week now, and the faithful travel some distances to attend. There are 11 nuns in residence in addition to Mother Alexandra, and a building program that will allow the community to double in size is planned.
In normal times, Mother Alexandra says, she spends up to five hours a day in the monastery's chapel, a room elaborately decorated with icons and murals. However, these are not normal times. In the last few weeks she has received many visitors with questions and information about the upheaval in her homeland. She also keeps in close touch with friends in Romania and has accepted many invitations to speak.
"It is very tiring for me," she said "but I believe that I must do everything I can for my country now. Everything is changing so quickly now that the monster of monsters is dead."
That was a reference to Romania's longtime strongman, Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed with his wife after a trial by a military tribunal.
"Who knows how many people he killed? Thousands. Even children. It was horrible."
She is now working with the Orthodox Episcopate of America in Jackson, Mich., to organize a Help Romania Fund.
"We need many things. We most urgently need money to send the help that has already been donated. For instance, there is a pharmaceutical firm that has donated many kinds of medicine, but we must raise the money to ship the medicine from England to Romania."
Will her nephew, King Michael, return to Romania now?
"We don't know yet. It depends upon what the people want. If they wish to have a constitutional monarchy, such as in England, the family will return. The family has always done what the people have wished.
"I don't expect to return. But I will go if I am called ,back, if I can be of help. I am a little bit old now, but I will do whatever I can."