FORMER ROMANIAN PRINCESS FINDS LIFE IS RICHER AS A NUN
By Marcia Dunn
ELLWOOD CITY—Her family jewels are gone and her castle is property of the Communist state, but Romania's Princess Ileana believes her life is blessed in far greater, grander ways.
The princess, 79, has found peace as the Rev. Mother Alexandra, one of 12 nuns who share food, work and prayer at an Orthodox monastery in rural Western Pennsylvania.
"One's objects stand in the way," she said. "I'm freer and richer spiritually, and mentally, too, I hope."
The nun of 27 years has long since buried her royal roots as founder of The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration, the, first English-speaking Orthodox monastery in the United States.
But vestiges of those days remain, even at the monastery.
Portraits of her parents, Romania's King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, hang in the living room of the A-frame house she shares with another nun.
Gold and silver icons dating back to the 15th century fill a corner of her bedroom. Antique icons also decorate the monastery's small, candlelit chapel as do crosses and triptychs, some of which she brought from Europe.
A small, gold container on a bed stand holds her most precious possession, a handful of Romanian soil snatched during her escape from Russian Communism in World War II. She wants it buried with her.
"There's a big gap between then and now. So much has happened in between," Mother Alexandra said.
"It's been different so many times over," she said. "But you see, one lives day by day, doesn't one? So that really it becomes a sequence of its own and you take it as it comes. Thank God, I always had a really strong faith that carried me through everything."
She refuses to compare her regal and- religious lifestyles.
"There is no, point," she said. "I did my duty as a princess. And now I'm doing my duty as a nun."
Her superiors, nonetheless, are impressed by her example.
"As a person, as an individual, I have admiration because even not having a position, she could have had a social life, which would be much more in keeping with other people of her background," said Bishop Nathaniel Popp, 47, head of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America.
"Instead of saying she was a princess who became a nun, I think it was more she was a nun coming through the life of a princess," he said.
Although just a child during the German invasion of World War I, Princess Ileana accompanied her mother, the queen, from hospital to hospital, administering to Romania's wounded and hungry. By World War II, her parents were dead, her older brother, Carol, had ascended the throne, one sister had become queen of Yugoslavia and another queen of Greece.
Princess Ileana lived in a castle near Vienna, wife of an archduke of Austria and mother of six.
Fearful of the Nazi regime, Princess Ileana and her family moved in 1944 to Romania. There, she set up hospitals and did what she could for her suffering compatriots despite Russia's growing threat.
On Dec. 30, 1947, her nephew, King Michael, forced by the Communists to abdicate. The next week, Princess Ileana and the rest of the royal family were exiled.
Princess Ileana immigrated with her family to Switzerland then Argentina before settling in 1950 in the United States, a move that ultimately led to divorce. To support her children, she sold her diamond and sapphire tiara, lectured about life behind the Iron Curtain, and wrote the autobiography "I Live Again."
In 1961, after her children were grown, the 52-year-old princess became a postulant. She ended a second marriage to do so.
"In my heart, I always wanted to become a nun," she said. "But there was so much to be done in Romania when I was young."
Princess Ileana took the monastic vows of stability, obedience, poverty and chastity in 1967 and, with that profession, became Mother Alexandra. Later that year, she put up a trailer on 100 acres of farmland outside Ellwood City and began building an English-speaking monastery for Orthodox women of all ethnic backgrounds.
Even though she has stepped down as the monastery's abbess, Mother Alexandra's work goes on. She oversees construction of a new complex to accommodate more activities and the growing number of women drawn to the cluster of redwood buildings on a hill.
Her royal background, surprisingly, has helped her cope with the austerity of monastic life: two-hour prayer sessions three times a day, black habits and headdress, renunciation of the temporal world and ail its trappings.
"As a royal person, you have to be very disciplined," she said. "From the beginning of your life, you are a public person. You belong to the country. Your own personal amusement does not play any part. Your duty comes first.
From that point of view… I've watched the other sisters, the struggles they have I don't. For me, it isn't difficult.
What is difficult for her is dealing with the strangers who periodically show up at monastery, hoping for a glimpse of a real-life princess.
"It's my cross I have to bear," she said, sighing.
To her sisters in spirit, she is just another nun.
"We live quite equally here," said the Very Rev. Mother Christophora, the monastery's abbess.
"Each of us has a background and a past. It's there and you think about it occasionally," said the 34-year-old abbess, a former alcoholism counselor from Lopez, Sullivan County. "But most of the time, we're just getting along, surviving, loving our faith. Of course, that's the way it should be. We should leave our past behind."
"Mother Alexandra is a nun, sure. She's in the garden, in the flowers, digging like everybody else," said the Rev. Roman Braga, 65, the monastery's chaplain.
Although she treasures her secular past, Mother Alexandra has no desire to resurrect it by visiting Romania, even if she could. Her passport, British because of her House of Hanover ancestry, is stamped: "You have no right to return."
"I couldn't bear to see everything that my parents did, we all did and worked for, destroyed," she said.
Still, there are times, especially around Romania's National Day on May 10, when her heart longs for the land she left behind.
"I'll always be homesick," she said. "I think that's an illness of which one is never cured. You accept it like one accepts anything else.
"Besides, what I'm homesick for doesn't exist anymore. That's the tragedy."