Thursday, 8 May 2014


Dimitry Klepinin was born in 1904 in Piatigorsk in the Caucasus. His parents were both devout Orthodox, his father Andrey a respected architect, his mother Sophia deeply involved in religious observance and charitable work. The family moved to Odessa in southern Ukraine when Dimitry was still young. In 1919, Sophia was arrested by the Cheka (Bolshevik Secret Police) but was released by a female officer who knew about her work with the poor. However, this was a warning signal and, during the Civil War, the family moved to Constantinople. Together with another family, the Zernovs, they laid the foundations for the Russian Student Christian Movement in which Dimitry was to play an important role later. They then moved to Yugoslavia where Sophia died in 1923.

When he was 15, Dimitry had been put off the Church by the unfeeling comments of a nun in Odessa when he was at a very low ebb after the arrest of his mother. However, it was his mother’s death that ironically brought him back to his faith. He wrote: “For the first time in my life, I understand the meaning of suffering, when I realized that everything I had hoped for in life had evaporated. …. I recalled the words of the Lord, ‘Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ I went to my mother’s grave with a heavy load of worldly sorrows, everything seeming so muddled up and forlorn, and suddenly I found the ‘light yoke’ of Christ. After this revelation, I changed the direction of my life.”

In 1925, he enrolled in St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, where he became heavily involved in the Russian Student Christian Movement. He graduated and then broadened his education by studying for a year at the Protestant Theological Seminary in New York. After working in copper mines in Yugoslavia for a time, he returned to Paris where he eked out an existence as a window cleaner and parquet polisher. All in all, his varied and sometimes colourful CV was an excellent preparation for the priesthood!

By the early 1930s, Dimitry felt a definite calling for the priesthood but had no vocation for the monastic life so, according to Orthodox canon law, he needed to get married before ordination. A concerted effort was made by the entire Orthodox community in Paris to find him a wife. Their efforts were crowned with success and, in 1937, he married a fellow RSCM member Tamara and was ordained the same year. In 1939, he became dean of the parish of the Protection of the Mother of God which included Mother Maria Skobtsova's refugee shelter and their lives became inextricably linked.

After the German occupation in 1940, Fr. Dimitry immediately joined in the resistance activities of Orthodox Action, collecting and distributing food parcels and finding hiding places for those fleeing the Nazis; on one occasion he sheltered a whole Jewish family in his bedroom. In addition to his resistance activities, he continued his more normal pastoral duties as a priest, once neatly combining the two by involving a recovering mental patient in his work. She recalls: “He taught me to see other people’s misery, he took me to hospitals and entrusted children to me whose parents were in hiding. Thanks to him I stopped thinking about myself and found my balance in life again.” Another former parishioner recalls the night of Easter in 1942 at the refuge in Rue de Lourmel in the darkest days of the occupation: “Outside there were restrictions, fear, war. In the church, illuminated by the light of candles, our priest, dressed in white, seemed to be carried by the wings of the wind, proclaiming with a radiant face: ‘Christ is risen!’ Our reply ‘He is risen indeed!’ tore apart the darkness.”

To help protect two of the groups most targeted by the Nazis, Fr. Dimitry issued certificates of baptism to converted Jews and Russian émigrés who had no papers. Soon, many Jews started to ask him for baptism just to protect themselves. Although he would not, of course, actually baptize anyone without a genuine commitment to Christ, he was quite willing to issue fraudulent certificates. “I think the good Christ would give me that paper if I were in their place,” he told Mother Maria, “So I must do it.” On another occasion, he said: “These unfortunate ones are my spiritual children. In all times, the Church has been a refuge for those who fell victims to barbarism.” As a practical man, he was also careful to record the names of all the “baptized” in the parish register in case the Gestapo double checked.

Eventually and inevitably, his activities became known and, on February 9th 1943, he was ordered to present himself at Gestapo headquarters. A tremendous amount of evidence had been accumulated against him and the Gestapo officer, Hoffman, was prepared for (perhaps looking forward to) a long interrogation. However, Dimitry somewhat took the wind out of his sails by immediately admitting to all his activities, while being careful not to incriminate anyone else. When he was told he would be released with a caution if he promised not to help Jews again, Dimitry replied, “I can say no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must.” Hoffman punched him and shouted “Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those pigs as being a Christian duty!” Dimitry simply held out the cross he was wearing and said quietly, “Do you know this Jew?” He was interrogated for six more hours, eventually being imprisoned in the camp at Compiegne, together with Mother Maria’s son Yuri and another co-worker, Feodor Pianov.

Life in the internment camp was harsh but not unbearable. Tamara was able to send them books and vestments and Dimitry continued his work as a priest. They created a rough chapel with a handmade crucifix and chalice and hand painted icons and were able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy daily, alternating Orthodox and Catholic services. Yuri wrote in a letter to the Rue de Lourmel community: “Thanks to our daily Eucharist, our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love. Dima (Fr. Dimitri) … is preparing me for the priesthood. God’s will needs to be understood. After all, this attracted me all my life and in the end it was the only thing I was interested in, though my interest was stifled by Parisian life and the illusion that there might be ‘something better’ - as if there could be anything better.”

In December, the three were deported to Buchenwald in Germany and then, in January 1944, Dimitry and Yuri were transferred to Dora, 20 miles away. Dimitry’s health began to deteriorate and, although still only 39, he looked like an old man. He was finding it more and more difficult to work in the harsh conditions and eventually developed a fever which led to pneumonia. He was sent to the “death house” where he died on 10th February. Yuri had been “dispatched for treatment” (a euphemism for sentenced to death) four days earlier. Before he died, he had been able to smuggle out a final letter to the Paris community: “I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share mama’s fate. I promise you I will bear everything with dignity. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer … I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!”

In 1984, Fr. Dimitry and Mother Maria were honoured at the Jewish memorial in Yad Vashem with the title “Righteous Among the Nations”. On 11th February 2004, sixty years after his death, Fr. Dimitry was added to the Synaxarion of saints, along with Mother Maria, Yuri and Ilya Fondaminsky.

For a more detailed biography of Fr. Dimitry see the article by his daughter on


Born in Moscow in 1881, Ilya studied philosophy at Heidelberg and Berlin universities. In 1905, he joined the Socialist-Revolutionary Party and became a member of its Moscow committee. After a crackdown on “subversive groups”, he fled to Paris in 1906 where he remained until returning to Moscow in April 1917 as a member of Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Now under threat from the Bolsheviks, he emigrated again to France in 1919, where he became well known as an intellectual and writer, publishing a variety of religious and philosophical journals. He helped many young writers, including Vladimir Nabokov who called him “a saintly and heroic soul who did more for Russian émigré literature than any other man.” Other friends, however, joked that, as a Jew and a Socialist Revolutionary, his chances of canonization were remote!

Although Jewish, Ilya became more and more interested in the Orthodox Church and became a close friend of Mother Maria. He would give occasional lectures at the Rue de Lourmel refuge and played a major part in the founding of Orthodox Action. He often attended Divine Liturgy but, although drawn more and more towards Orthodoxy, hesitated to be baptized. His reasons were complicated; a sense of “unworthiness” was mixed with feelings of loyalty to his wife, an unbaptized Christian who had died in 1935, all tied up with lingering reluctance to abandon entirely the faith of his fathers. In 1941, Ilya was arrested as a Jew and as a Russian “enemy” and imprisoned at Compiegne. It was in the prison camp, in a makeshift chapel that he was finally baptized and chrismated. He wrote to a friend that he now felt “ready for anything, whether life or death.”

While in the camp, he was hospitalised for treatment for a gastric ulcer and had a good chance of escaping to unoccupied France. However, he decided to stay and share the fate of those who had no choice, especially his “kinsmen according to the flesh.” A friend, the theologian Georgi Fedotov, wrote that “in his last days, he wished to live with the Christians and die with the Jews,” while Mother Maria commented that “it is out of dough like this that saints are made.” Certainly, his quiet courage and moral integrity make Ilya a shining example both of his ancestral faith and of his new Church. He was transferred to Auschwitz, where he died on 19th November 1942. He was declared a saint along with Fr. Dimitry Klepinin, Mother Maria of Paris and Yuri Skobtsov on 11th February 2004.

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