The Convent of St. Mary Magdelene, Jerusalem

The St. Mary Magdalene Convent in the Garden of Gethsemane, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.
The St. Mary Magdalene Convent in the Garden of Gethsemane, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem.

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene is situated on the slope of the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane and is one of the most easily recognizable landmarks of Jerusalem. This striking example of Russian architecture was built in the Muscovite style with golden onion domes or cupolas.

It was built as a memorial to Empress Maria Alexandrovna by her son the Russian Czar Alexander III and his brothers. Grand-Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, brother of Alexander III, and his wife Grand-Duchess Elizabeth (Princess Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt), grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and sister of the last Empress of Russia, presided at the consecration of the church of Saint Mary Magdalene in 1888 as representatives of the Emperor.

The Grand-Duchess took a deep personal interest in the church and commissioned the well-known Russian artist Sergei Ivanov (1864-1910) to paint the large imposing murals depicting the life of Saint Mary Magdalene which were brought to Jerusalem for the consecration and hang in the church today.

The large canvas above the iconostasis shows Mary Magdalene before the Roman Emperor Tiberius. In her hand she holds a red egg which she presents to the Emperor, symbolizing the resurrection and eternal life. She tells Tiberius about the unjust judgment and death on the cross of Jesus Christ. It is known that after re-examining this unlawful trial Pilate, at that time governor of Jerusalem, was deposed and sent into exile. The elegant white marble and bronze iconostasis holds icons by the distinguished Russian artist, Vereshchaguin.

On the right side of the iconostasis in a specially carved wooden icon-case is the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God ‘HODIGITRIA’. This icon comes from Lebanon. Records of its miracles date back to the 16th century when it miraculously survived a fire that consumed the church. Later it healed many people during a cholera epidemic.

In this century, the metropolitan of Lebanon had repeated dreams telling him to give the icon of the Hodigitria to Abbess Mary in Palestine. After some inquiries he found Abbess Mary at the Russian Orthodox Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane, and this is how the icon came to be in the Church. To this day believers receive miraculous help from the Mother of God after praying before Her holy icon.   

Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. At right is shown her reliquary in the Gethsemane Convent of St. Mary Magdalene.
Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. At right is shown her reliquary in the Gethsemane Convent of St. Mary Magdalene.
Grand-Duchess Elizabeth, widowed by an assassin’s attack on her husband in 1905, became a nun and founded a convent devoted to nursing and charitable work in Moscow. After the revolution, in 1918, the Grand-Duchess together with her companion Sister Barbara and several members of the Russian Imperial Family were thrown into a mine shaft by the Bolsheviks and left to die. Her remains and those of Sister Barbara eventually were brought to Jerusalem. In 1920, they were laid to rest, as the Grand-Duchess wished, in a crypt below the Saint Mary Magdalene Church. They were canonized as Martyr Saints in 1981 and at this time their relics were moved into the main section of the church where they rest today in marble sarcophagi.   

The interior of the Convent Church of St. Mary Magdalene
The interior of the Convent Church of St. Mary Magdalene
Princess Andrew of Greece (Princess Alice of Battenberg), mother of the Duke of Edinburgh visited the church and stayed in the monastery in the 1930s. Her wish was to be buried near her Aunt ‘Ella’, the Grand-Duchess Elizabeth whose devotion to the church and to nursing and charitable service she strove to emulate. Princess Andrew died at Buckingham Palace in 1969. Her wish to be buried at the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane was finally realized in 1988 when her remains were transferred to her final resting place in a crypt below the church.

The church stands in the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus spent His last night on earth. Also found on the convent grounds are the remnants of a pre-Roman road, the biblical entry to Jerusalem. Not far from this road is a large stone on to which the Mother of God dropped her cincture to Apostle Thomas on the third day following her Dormition.

There are many caves in the Garden of Gethsemane which the Church tells us were used by Christ and his Disciples for prayer. One large cave in the grounds of the convent is used as a chapel, where the sisters meet to read their evening prayer rule.

Today, the church is the place of daily worship for the women’s convent of St. Mary Magdalene, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The sisterhood was established in 1936 by Mother Mary (Robinson), an English convert to Orthodoxy. The convent is a thriving community of 30 nuns from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Australians, Arabs, Serbs and Romanians.

(Left) the foundress of the sisterhood, Mother Mary (Robinson).
(Left) the foundress of the sisterhood, Mother Mary (Robinson).
The sisters are multi-talented: some paint icons, others embroider vestments and items for liturgical use. Hand-painted Russian eggs from Gethsemane are famous around the world as are the sisters’ prayer ropes, bookmarks, and other hand crafts. They also make incense for use in the church and for private prayer. All these items are available at the monastery kiosk.

(Right) Abbess Elizabeth of the Gesthemane Convent of St. Mary Magdalene
(Right) Abbess Elizabeth of the Gesthemane Convent of St. Mary Magdalene

These are perilous times for historical landmarks throughout the world. Each year our precious monuments of ‘living history’ fall victim to deterioration and decline, often due to lack of funds to maintain and repair them.

The Holy Land is no exception. The church is in a bad state of deterioration and ‘The Gethsemane Restoration Project’ was launched in 1994. Our goal is to repair and restore this famous landmark to its former magnificence. We ask for your help to achieve our aim.

Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem

3 августа 2013 г.

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Yvonne Bodosky22 февраля 2017, 03:00
Our church, St. Michael's Orthodox Church, in Portage, Pennsylvania, USA, has learned from our parish priest, Very Rev. Grigori Tsjouman, that your convent is in of bedding linen. We would like to send some linen to you but we need to know the measurements of your mattresses and pillows. Can you provide this information for us? Thank you in advance for your assistance. May God Bless You!
Fr. Vasily Lickwar15 февраля 2017, 21:00
Dear Matushka Igumenia, Greetings with the Feast of the Lord's Meeting in the Temple! Do you have any biographical data and information to share about the departed Mother Maria Shevchuk, who came to the convent from Syracuse, NY. I remember reading about her in the Russian Orthodox Journal when I was a boy some fifty years ago. I whoul like to write a short article about with a photo (if you ave one to email to me) for my parish newsletter. I believe she was the first Russian American person to enter an Orthodox convent. Vladyka Lavr gave my parish a relic from the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, that belinged to Mother Maria, to my parish which is in Cumberland, Rhode Island. May God bless You!
marina bernadette beverley anne staunton 2 января 2017, 21:00
I am considering asking to join your monastery; I really want to establish ' the house of the Holy Order of the Third Covenant, but I don't have any money and perhaps it isn't the right time yet; and perhaps I am not ready. I speak and read Greek as a second language, and I sing and am generally creative. I have stayed in a monastery several times overnight and once for one week. I believe I may be suitable, and want to try, to see if it is Our Father in Heaven's will for me.
Jasmina29 июня 2015, 15:00
Dear editor, I would like to contact monastery in order to ask for possibilities of accomodation of married couple eho are in Orthodox Serbian Church. If possible please leave me any available contact in order to communicate persons in charged for such questions (preferably e mail). If not possible.there I would highly appreciate your help for other monastery accomodation. Thanking you in advance,
peter henry10 июля 2014, 16:00
Could you please tell me how to make a donation.
Gwen Stube24 сентября 2013, 23:00
Much detail in your commentary. I appreciate that. Hope to see it some day
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