Venerable Alexandra

Around 1760, a wealthy landlady (with landholdings in the Yaroslavl, Vladimir and Ryazan Provinces) and a widow, Agatha Semenovna Melgunova, arrived with her 3-year-old daughter to Kiev. She was the owner of 700 peasants, a sizable capital and large homesteads. It is known that Simeon and Paraskevi were her parents’ names. Father Vasily Dertev, a Diveyevo priest whose property Melgunova resided at, kept an account of her life’s events. Sisters from her community and Protopresbyter Vassily Sadovsky also preserved stories about her. All of these accounts of her life are fragmentary, since mother Alexandra meekly refrained from sharing stories about herself.

She took monastic vows at St. Florus Ascension Monastery with the name of Alexandra. Her life in asceticism did not last too long at the St. Florus monastery. “It is reliably known,” as priests Dertev and Sarovsky, together with N.A.Motovilov, confirmed, “that mother Alexandra was once, either after a lengthy prayer vigil or in a light dream, or even in a broad daylight, deemed worthy to have a vision of the Mother of God. She heard from Her the following: “It is Me, your Sovereign Lady to whom you direct your prayers. I came to announce My will for you. I do not wish for you to end your days here. Just as I sent my servant Anthony away from My lot at the Holy Mountain of Athos to have My new lot at the Kiev-Caves Lavra established here, thus I declare: go forth and travel to the land I am about to show you. Travel towards the north of Russia and visit all the holy monasteries dedicated in my honor. I will show the place where you will end your earthly God-pleasing life. In that new place of residence, I will glorify My name by founding a great monastery. Go forth then, My servant, and may the grace of God, My strength, and My grace, as well as My mercy and riches, always be with you.”

Mother Alexandra, even if she marveled in spirit, took some time to accept in faith what she just heard and saw. Keeping the Mother of God’s message deep in her heart, she told her father confessor about the vision. Later, she confided in other great and God-inspired fathers of the Kiev Caves Lavra, as well as elder nuns, who strived in spirit together with her in Kiev.  Mother Alexandra sought their advice and reasoning about the kind of a vision she had the honor to see, and whether she had dreamed or imagined it or fell into temptation.  However, the elders and nun elders, taking time to pray and reflect, unanimously decided that the vision of the Queen of Heaven was genuine. Mother Alexandra then, since she was bestowed and chosen as the founder of the fourth abode of the Mother of God in the whole creation, was to be considered a blessed and an ever-blessed one.

Records about the timeline and places of mother Alexandra’s wanderings were lost over time and are not mentioned anywhere in the written accounts. Some old-timers used to say that she travelled to Sarov monastery from Murom in 1760. Twelve verst before the monastery, mother Alexandra stopped to get some rest by the village of Diveyevo. She chose to stop by a lawn near the west wall of a small wooden church and sat down on a pile of wooden logs lying there. As she fell asleep, she was deemed worthy of seeing the Mother of God in a light dream, Who told her: “Here is the place I commanded you to seek in the north of Russia,” the Most Holy Theotokos told Mother Alexandra. “Here is the lot set aside for you by the Divine Providence. Reside here and do God-pleasing work till the end of your days, and I will always be with you and visit you. I will found a monastery unequal to anything before or afterwards in the world: it is my fourth domain in the whole creation. As many as there are stars in heaven or sands in the sea, shall I increase the number of those who serve the Lord Our God and Me, the Ever-Virgin Mother of Light, and who glorify My Son Jesus Christ. May the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God and the abundance of all earthly and heavenly treasures, obtained without a sweat, never grow scarce at this beloved place of Mine!”

Greatly rejoicing, mother Alexandra went on to the Sarov monastery. Since the monastery was well known at the time for the holiness of its great and wondrous ascetics, they could assist her with their advice and counsel. Having met them, Agatha Semenovna opened up her heart to them and sought their guidance and instruction as to how to act in view of such extraordinary circumstances. The elders of Sarov confirmed what she heard and understood from the monks in the Kiev Caves asking her to wholly surrender to the will of God and abide by the Queen of Heaven’s instructions. Soon afterwards, her nine or ten year old daughter died. In the death of her only daughter, mother Alexandra saw another sign of fulfillment of God’s will for her and confirmation of what she heard from the Queen of Heaven.

Agatha Semenovna, duly blessed by the elders of Sarov, made up her mind to resign her property. She relieved some of her peasants from serfdom for a small fee and sold others, who declined to be freed, to decent landowners for a reasonable price. It freed her from any earthly cares. She contributed some of her funds to the monasteries and churches in memory of her parents, daughter and family members, reaching out and assisting wherever such financial help was sorely needed. Her contemporaries named twelve churches that Agatha Semenovna either built or restored. Among them was Sarov, where her significant contribution allowed the monastery to finish construction of its Dormition Cathedral.

When she returned to Diveyevo, Agatha Semenovna built a cell for herself on the property owned by the priest Vasily Dertev, where she stayed for the next twenty years, completely abandoning her noble origins and tender upbringing. In her humility, she toiled away in the most labor intensive and messy jobs: mucking out Father Vasily’s barn, tending his livestock and washing linen. Besides, mother Alexandra would sneak into the peasant field plots to help with sheaving for the most vulnerable amongst them. At harvest time, she would quietly assist the peasant women, who spent long days in the fields, with housework. She would stoke fire in their ovens, knead their dough and cook dinners, or wash the peasant kids while changing them into clean clothing just before their worn out mothers returned from the fields. She used to do it discreetly when nobody saw it. Regardless of her attempts of doing it secretly, the local peasants gradually grew to acknowledge their benefactress. Children would point at mother Alexandra, while she would look on in amazement, if they came with gratitude, shunning their praise or credits.

Mother Alexandra’s cell woman, Eudoxia Martynovna, describes her appearance: “Agatha Semenovna wore well-worn, plain and simple clothing without changing it, from winter to summer; her head was adorned by a tightly woven black rounded small hat, trimmed with rabbit fur for she suffered from headaches. Her kerchiefs were made of cotton. She used to put on bast shoes if out in the fields and only changed to wear leather booties upon reaching advanced age. Matushka Agatha Semenovna wore sackcloth. She was of a middle height and jovial appearance, with a rounded white face, grey eyes, a button nose and a delicate mouth. Her hair was light auburn in her youth.”

In the beginning of the 1770s, mother Alexandra began the construction of a stone church in honor of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God at the location the Queen of Heaven had appeared to her in Diveyevo and as a replacement of the old wooden church. When the Kazan church was consecrated, the landowner Zhdanova donated a small parcel of land to the north of the church. This is where matushka the head superior built first three cells for herself, four of her novices and pilgrims travelling to the Sarov monastery. The interior of the cells matched the laborious and plaintive lifestyle of this great lady chosen by the Queen of Heaven. There were two larger and two tiny rooms in her house. One of the tiny rooms had a chimney stove and a stove ledge made of bricks. It had just enough standing space for the visiting Abbot Pachomius and Hierodeacon Seraphim to receive her deathbed wish to care for her Diveyevo sisters. There was also an entrance to a dark windowless room, a tiny chapel, with just enough space for matushka to stand before the great crucifix that was lit by a hanging oil lamp. Her prayerful contemplation before the crucifix sealed the lives of the forthcoming generations of nuns with the spirit of prayer. Praying internally in front of a crucifix and yearning for the Crucified Christ is one of the deepest kinds of prayer. These were the kind of prayerful deeds from which blessed Diveyevo was born.

Over the course of twelve years, on feast days and on Sundays, Agatha Semenovna would not go home after the Divine Liturgy without first stopping at a village square, teaching peasants about their duties as Christians and giving due reverence to the church festal days and Sundays. Long after her death, the local Diveyevo parishioners would remember these spiritual conversations with gratitude. Not only local peasants flocked to her, but also the high-ranking locals, merchants and even clergy would come to receive her counsel, a blessing, a piece of advice or even just a greeting. In family affairs, arguments and during disputes, the locals referred her to as a righteous judge and obeyed implicitly to her decisions. She shared alms in private, serving everyone with anything she could or was able to help them with. Her various deeds soothed her heart so much and were so pleasing to God that she was bestowed with the great gift of tears.

This is how mother Alexandra spent her days before they expired, living life of a God-pleaser, full of selfless labor, hardships, and prayer. She closely abided by the harsh typikon of Sarov, getting counsel from Abbot Pachomius in every affair. She and the sisters sewed overcoats, knitted stockings and took care of every single need in handiwork for the brothers in Sarov.  Father Pachomius, in his turn, would dispatch a once-a-day food delivery to the sisters from the Sarov refectory. The community of mother Alexandra was Sarov’s through and through. The lives of mother Alexandra and her sisters fully embodied Sarov ideas of living in poverty and laboring to cover their needs for sustenance.

In June of 1788, upon receiving advance knowledge of her own death, mother Alexandra took her vows into the Great Schema. She asked the ascetic fathers, for the love of Christ, not to forsake or leave her inexperienced novices without their care and to provide for her community, which the Queen of Heaven had pledged to her. Upon hearing this, Father Pachomius answered: “Matushka! I do not renege on my commitment to care for your novices and serve you, best as I can, in your pledge to the Queen of Heaven. I will pray for you till my death and our monastery will pray for you, as we will never forget the blessings you bestowed upon us. However, I do not pledge my word, for I am old and weak, and I have no right to promise what I will likely not live to see fulfilled. How about Hyerodeacon Seraphim, whose saintly life is known to you? He is young and will live to see it happen. Do entrust this matter of great concern into his hands.” Matushka Agatha Semenovna took to asking Father Seraphim not to abandon her community, and telling him the Queen of Heaven Herself will be pleased to counsel him.

The blessed elder Agatha Semenovna died on June 13, the feast of the holy martyr Aquilina. At the hour of her death, matushka asked her cell woman: “When I am nearing my end, you, sweet Eudoxia, take the Kazan icon of the Mother of God, and place it on my chest, so that the Queen of Heaven is by me as I expire, and light a candle before the icon.”

“She was a saint! I still kiss her feet myself!” Venerable Seraphim used to say about the Diveyevo’s foundress. He had a revelation that Venerable Alexandra’s relics would rest in Diveyevo.

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