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Saint Olga of Kyiv

The following story appeared in the June 24 Idaho Catholic Register.

By Emily Woodham

Staff Writer

The stories of the piety of the widowed queen, St. Olga of Kyiv (Ukraine), are similar to stories of other royal saints: She used her wealth and influence to build churches, to feed the poor and to spread the Gospel. However, what made Olga’s holy life so remarkable was its stark contrast to her life before her conversion.

The most reliable stories about Olga come from the “Primary Chronicle of Kyivan Rus,” a collection of oral stories written in the 12th century. However, with the current war in Ukraine, debate over the details has become more prominent. This story of St. Olga follows the more traditional interpretations of the chronicle.

Because of battles with the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century, tribes in eastern Europe asked Scandinavian Vikings, known as “the Rus,” for help. Kyiv (sometimes spelled, “Kiev”) became the seat of Viking rule for the Kyivan Rus Empire. This empire included modern Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia.

Olga was from the city of Pskov, in modern northwestern Russia. It is unknown if she was born there, but it is believed that she was of Viking nobility. Her date of birth is also unknown because the dates of the Chronicle do not line up with other documented historical dates. However, many historians suggest that she was born in about 925. She was 15 when she was given in marriage to Igor, the Viking king who inherited the Kyivan Rus empire.

In 945, Igor went to a Slavic tribe northwest of Kyiv, called the Drevlians, to demand hefty taxes. Not wanting war, the Drevlians gave all that was asked of them. However, on his way back to Kyiv, Igor decided he wanted more money from the Drevlians. Not known for his wisdom, he returned to the tribe and demanded they increase their tribute. They rebelled and murdered Igor by tearing apart his body.

Because their only son, Sviatoslav, was 3, Olga became “Queen Regent,” a title given royalty until the successor to the throne is old enough to rule. The prince of the Drevlians, Prince Mal, saw an opportunity to marry Olga and take over the Kyivan Rus Empire. He assumed that she would be afraid and unwilling to rule such a vast and dangerous empire on her own. He believed she would welcome him as her next husband to rule for her and that after marrying her, he could simply get rid of her son.

Prince Mal sent 20 chieftains to present his offer of marriage to Olga. She was incensed by the brazen request, but hid her feelings. She received the chieftains into her court with flattery. She insisted that the men should return to their boat and that during the next morning her subjects would carry them in their boat through the city streets, assuring all deference to Prince Mal’s wishes. Thinking Olga was sincere, the chieftains did as she wished.

Through the night, Olga had her people secretly dig a large trench. When daylight broke, the Drevlian chieftains were lifted up in their boat and were paraded through the city, as the people shouted their approval. When they arrived at court, the boat was placed in the trench. To the Drevlians’ horror, they realized they had been betrayed. Olga gave the order, and they were buried alive.

Olga continued scheme after scheme against the Drevlians until she completely crushed the tribe. Soon, word spread of her cunning wisdom. Although she was ruthless to her enemies, she was a just ruler over her people. She centralized and organized the government and made the nobility more accountable for their actions.

In the 950s, she traveled to Constantinople and met with the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine VII (913-959). Seeing an opportunity to peacefully take the Kyivan Rus Empire, Constantine proposed marriage. She graciously refused, pointing out to him that she was still a pagan. So, Constantine taught her the faith and became her godfather. Constantine proposed to her again, but she declined, asserting that in the Church she could not marry her godfather. Instead of becoming angry that he had been duped by her, he was impressed by how shrewd she was. Because of their new relationship, their empires remained at peace.

Although Olga’s motivation to be baptized may have been to safeguard her power, the grace at her baptism was transformative. She became sincerely devout, with a fervent love for Jesus and the Church. (Her conversion was before the Great Schism in 1054, which divided Byzantines from Catholics. This is sometimes a point of contention in current commentary, but it is clear that the Church was undivided during her lifetime. This means that Olga, like all Christians at that time, was Catholic.)

She returned to Kyiv with a heart to bring the Gospel to her people, especially to her son, Sviatoslav. However, he scorned Olga’s new faith, saying that she was foolish. He refused to consider Christianity, afraid of what others would think of him if he converted. However, even though he did not convert, he agreed not to persecute Christians when he became king.

Olga refused to recant or deny her faith despite Sviatoslav’s disdain for Christianity. She was just and honest in affairs of state, serving the poor and building churches. She appealed to the Frankish king (who was later named Holy Roman Emperor), Otto the Great (936-973), to send missionaries to Kyiv. To her dismay, the missionaries were not successful. However, her faithfulness and virtues made an impressive witness to all who knew her, especially her grandchildren.

Olga died on July 11, 969. Her grandson, Vladimir I, took the throne in 980. About 10 years later, and still when the Church was united, he converted to Christianity. The Gospel took hold throughout the Kyivan Rus empire.

St. Olga is the patron saint of converts and widows. She is especially revered in Ukraine. Her feast day is July 11.

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