Spending the Final Years of His Ascetic Life in a Godless Country
* This article about the Athonite Schemamonk Ilya was written by Anastasia Parkhomchik and originally posted at The Catalog of Good Deeds (the official blog of the Catalogue of St. Elisabeth Convent) on March 1, 2023.
The Venerable Ilya of Makeyevka lived a life of imitating Christ, for which the Lord rewarded him with rich spiritual gifts. Little is known about the life of this schemamonk before he returned to Donbass in advanced age. The persecution of the godless authorities forced him to stay in people’s homes. By the power of God’s grace, the Elder healed people, drove away demons, prayed at night and foretold people’s future. When miracles occurred through his prayers, he humbly said, “It was not me who healed you, but God. Thank the Lord! Pray to him, give thanks – and all will be well in your life.”
Blank Spots in Biography
The only authentic information in the biography of the schema monk Ilya relates to the last 19 years of his life, which he spent in Makeyevka. All previous events in the life of St Ilya are known only from a few documents and brief recollections by the Athonite ascetic himself.
Ilya Yakovlevich Ganzha, (the Elder’s secular name) was born in 1837 in Makeyevka (now a city in the Donetsk region). At the age of 15, according to the Elder, he “went in search of holy places” and most likely found them on Mount Athos. It is not known exactly where Fr. Ilya took monastic vows, but once he mentioned that his cell on the Holy Mountain was in a hard-to-reach place where food had to be transported with the help of a rope. The surviving documents show that for many years Schemamonk Ilya lived in the St Elias Skete on Mount Athos, and from there, presumably at the beginning of the 20th century, he moved to the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. Soon the oppression of the Soviet authorities forced the inhabitants of the Kiev Caves to leave the Monastery and disperse throughout the country. In 1927 the 90-year-old elder Ilya returned to his native Makeyevka, where according to his own testimony he was preparing to die. For the first 9 years, the elder lived in the village of Kalinovo not far from the city and attended the Holy Trinity Church. After the church was closed in 1936, the ascetic moved to Makeyevka. Having no accommodation of his own for the entire time, not counting the last two years of his life in Makeyevka, Father Ilya lived in the homes of local believers.
Elder Ilya with a novice
Appearance of the Ascetic
People who knew the elder said that he was slender, well-looking, and always wore a neat, light-coloured cassock. He seemed to be visibly glowing with spiritual beauty. Despite his age and the fact that he used a walking stick, Father Ilya was faster than many young people. One of his eyes seemed to always be closed, although it is not visible in his photographs. The Elder used to say that one eye was enough for looking at this world and always screened the windows of his cell with curtains. His kindness and love for neighbor were heard in his soft gentle voice. He usually addressed everyone as “my dear”, and no one has ever seen him irritated, depressed or despondent.
Likeness to Christ
Wandering and Persecution
Father Ilya’s only possessions were icons and books of Holy Scripture. Not having his own home, the Elder found shelter with pious families in Makeyevka. Some of them were able to provide him with shelter for several years, while others would only receive him for a couple of days. This was caused by severe persecution from the godless authorities, irritated by people, including priests, coming to the Elder from all over Makeyevka and other towns for advice and consolation. When churches were closed, the local priests brought Fr. Ilya communion and helped him with ecclesiastic clothing and spiritual books. The NKVD followed the Elder on his heels, but each time Father Ilya knew of their arrival and moved to another family shortly beforehand. But one day the police came unexpectedly and the Elder had to hide.
It happened in the house of a pious family with the last name Romanov. Noticing through the window a policeman approaching the house, Fr. Ilya hid in a room separated only by a curtain and said, “Simply say nothing about me, and do not worry — he won’t come in here.”
The investigator entered the house and asked, “Where is the monk hiding here?”
Hearing that there was no monk, he did not believe it, and began searching every corner, except the room where the saint was sitting and praying. It seemed as if he was not noticing it. He left with nothing, to the delight of the house owners and the Elder himself.
Schemamonk Elijah is (shown above) hiding in the house of the Romanov family.
People were at risk of imprisonment and even death for hiding a monk, but many believers considered it a great blessing to shelter this great man of prayer and spiritual discernment.
At some point, four nuns became his constant companions: the widow Maria and her daughter Elena, the poor and sick maiden Thekla and the wanderer Pasha. They provided the Elder with shelter, food, care and help in all things.
Prayer at Night
The schemamonk considered prayer to be the most important thing in life and prayed a lot, especially at night, since he was often busy receiving visitors during the day. He also introduced the families that he stayed with to the practice of praying at night. Sometimes people were worried that such vigils would impair their work, but then they quickly realized that praying at night together with the Elder gave them strength rather than fatigue. Every day the Elder read the Gospel, the Psalter and akathist prayers. He also enjoyed singing psalms while relaxing on a bench. He always attended church services when the churches were open and taught others, “On Sundays and holidays, do not sit at home. Go to church and everything will work out.”
Healing and Exorcism
There have been many cases when sick and demon-possessed people were healed through the prayers of the schema monk Ilya. For example, once a general came to him with a young daughter who was almost completely paralyzed. The Elder asked the general to leave the girl with him for a month. Living with the ascetic, she learned to pray and read akathist prayers. After a month’s time, Father Ilya said to her with a reproach: “Look how old I am and still I am walking. You are so young and all you do is lie down. Get up, couch potato”
The girl was confused, but she obeyed and was suddenly able to stand up and walk around. The general arrived and did not know how to thank the Elder, and Father Ilya said, “Thank the Lord! Live in the Orthodox faith and adhere to God.”
One girl from Makeyevka had a bad temper, inherited from her mother. She often mocked people and could easily offend others with her words. One day she was diagnosed with oral cancer. The girl suffered from terrible pain day and night, and the medicine did not help. The Elder was her last hope. When the girl’s mother brought her to Fr. Ilya, he said from the threshold, “Two thorns have come to the healer.”
Both visitors immediately burst into tears. The Schemamonk took pity on them and stood up to pray. After that, he asked for holy water and oil from the lamp. He prayed again and told the sick girl to anoint her mouth crosswise with holy water and oil. Then he sent them off, telling the daughter to go to bed and the mother not to disturb her until she wakes up. The girl slept for about a day and a half, and when she woke up, there was no trace of the disease.
Giving Spiritual Guidance and Exposing Vices
At times the elder had to rebuke people, but he always did so with unfailing love and heartfelt pain for the infirm person.
One day, a beggar knocked on the door of the Elder’s spiritual daughter. She was busy doing laundry at the time and did not want to be distracted. She thought, “He will knock a little and then leave.”
In the evening the woman came to see the Elder, and the first thing he said to her was, “So, the beggar will knock a little and leave? What if it was a saint, guised as a beggar, who came to become your intercessor before the Lord? Do you know the words of Christ? “What you did to one of these little ones, you did to me.” You have sinned before God…”
Once the elder was living in the house owned by the servant of God Evdokia. One night, when she was passing by his room, he said to her, “Stop walking around, Evdokia. In one night you have fornicated, hung yourself and jumped under a train.”
Indeed, that night the woman was tormented by thoughts of her beloved, driving her into the sin of fornication and despondency. Eventually, she even thought that she would kill herself, but she could not decide how. Fortunately, the Elder was able to uncover her thoughts and lift her out of the demon’s net through prayer.
The Lord revealed many things to the schemamonk Ilya about the fate of the people and their city.
At the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, people, attacked by fear for their lives and their children, came to the Elder for a blessing to leave for a safer place. He refused and said, “Do not be afraid – there will be no war in Makeyevka”.
Indeed, in the four years of the war there were no serious battles or destruction in the city, and the people did not starve.
One day, the servant of God Nadezhda brought her fiancée to Father Ilya to receive a blessing for marriage, but the elder did not bless it. The girl began to insist, describing the positive qualities of the young man. Then the ascetic kindly said, “If you really want it, come back in three months.”
They left happy. After three months, the young man died at work, falling under a train.
All believing men, leaving for the war front, first came to the elder. He predicted to many what awaited them in the war. One day a woman came to the Ascetic after receiving a death notice about her husband. She was extremely grieved and did not know how to go on living. Then the Elder confidently said, “Go to Church, pray fervently and take communion every Sunday. Your husband will be back!”
The woman obeyed the Elder and did everything as he told her. After some time, she received a letter from her husband, “I was shell-shocked in battle and lay for 7 days, sprinkled with earth. I was found by the locals and sent to an American hospital, where I was literally brought back to life.”
By the power of prayer, the Saint worked miracles that amazed ordinary people, but for the Elder himself, they seemed to be something natural.
Once, a family invited the Schemamonk to visit for dinner. The conversation dragged on until late in the evening. The family tried to convince Father Ilya to stay overnight, because the road to his house went through a large ravine, which was dangerous to cross even during the day. The Elder assured everyone that he would make it home safely and left. The owner of the house decided to follow him and saw something incredible. Having reached the ravine, the ascetic did not descend into it, but smoothly flew through the air. Soon, the man met the elder again and he could not refrain from asking him, “How was it possible what I saw?”
Father Ilya smiled, shook his finger and said, “It is no good peeking! The Lord showed this to you because of your love for me, but be careful not to tell anyone.“
During World War II, the Elder almost died at the hands of a German soldier. A young German soldier was passing by the house where the Schemamonk lived, and saw him in the backyard. Seeing the Elder, he said something angrily, took out a pistol and shot at the Venerable. He missed, stepped closer and, taking aim, fired a few more times, only to miss again on each attempt.
“Who are you?!” the soldier murmured in fright. Without hearing an answer, he quickly walked away. Such was the amazing power of Elder Ilya’s prayer.
During World War II, the Elder almost died at the hands of a German soldier.
In 1944, with donations from the Elder’s flock, his novices were finally able to buy a small house for him near Makeyevka. Here the schemamonk lived the last two years of his life. From the moment the exact location of the Elder’s residence became known, there was a flood of people coming to see him. He welcomed everyone to the last, as if he knew no fatigue.
Unceasing Prayer for Us
“They will bury me twice,” Elder Ilya prophesied about himself, knowing exactly the day and hour of his death. He also predicted where his four faithful novices would be buried. The schemamonk promised to commemorate those who would pray for him before the Throne of God: “Whoever prays for me on earth will dwell with me.”
At the end of Lent in 1946 Father Ilya said, “Well, my dears, Easter is coming soon. Only this time, I will no longer be with you.” On Holy Wednesday, April 17, at the age of 109, the Venerable reposed in the Lord.
His burial took place on Great and Holy Friday, April 19, with a large gathering of believers. The elder appeared to many of his spiritual children in dreams, saying, “You think I am dead, but I am alive in eternity.”
The body of the deceased elder Ilya
Fifty days after the burial, the Elder’s prophecy came true: someone dug up his grave at night, but the body was not touched. The exact cause of this incident was not established, but the relics of the Elder were found incorrupt and exuded fragrance.
In the kingdom of heaven, Father Ilya remembers everyone who once sheltered him. One of such people, the servant of God Sergius, was on his death bed when he saw Father Ilya in a dream. The Elder said, “Come with me, I have already prepared everything for you.“ After that Sergius saw a beautiful room with a bed, illuminated by a bright white light. Waking up from his dream, the man felt quiet joy, and after a few days he peacefully rested.
Venerable Ilya (Ganja)
On May 8, 2012, Schemamonk Ilya (Ganzha) was canonized by the decision of the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as a locally venerated saint of the Donetsk diocese. Since that day, the relics of the Venerable have been buried in the St. George’s Cathedral in the city of Makeyevka.
St. George's Cathedral in Makeevka, where the relics of the venerable are buried.
The following miraculous occurrence is yet another proof that the saint continues to pray for the people of his native city even after his death. In the midst of the hostilities in 2014, believers noticed that the slippers on the Saint’s relics were covered with a layer of road dust, as if schemamonk Ilya personally went around the city, praying for the suffering. Yet, the relics were always under glass, and the rest of the vestments remained clean. This resembles a similar known miracle with the slippers of St. Spyridon of Trymythus.
The saints of God illuminate the world with amazing light, strengthening us in faith and hope for the Lord’s mercy. We pray to the Venerable Ilya of Makeyevka, asking his holy prayers for peace in the lands of Holy Rus and the salvation of all Orthodox Christians. Venerable Father Ilya, pray to God for us!