Who is St. Elizabeth of Hungary?
She was born into a life of riches and privilege but lived a life of simplicity, generosity and great faith.
Elizabeth was born in Hungary in 1207, the daughter of Alexander II, King of Hungary. At the age of four she was sent to the Thuringian court, so she would be familiar with the local language and culture of the court of the Landgrave of Thuringia, to whose infant son Ludwig (Louis) she was betrothed. As she grew in age, so did her piety. In 1221, at the age of 14, she married Ludwig IV of Thuringia despite the objections of his family who disapproved of Elizabeth’s simplicity and pious nature. Shortly thereafter, Ludwig was appointed regent of Meissen and the East Mark and soon became employed as a soldier and diplomat by Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II.
While her husband was away for missions under Frederick II, Elizabeth took charge of local affairs and distributed alms in all parts of her husband’s territory. Elizabeth treated the poor with respect and encouraged those who were able-bodied to find ways to support themselves. Her husband, Ludwig, was himself a religious man who took pride in his wife’s kindness and generosity. He was supportive of her charitable and pious activities, allowing her to give much more than was customary to the poor and suffering and institutions that cared for them, as well as to religious orders and church institutions whose work she admired.
Indeed, she and Ludwig welcomed the new Franciscan order to their territory. Both, Ludwig and Elizabeth were greatly inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It is to be remember that they lived at a time when the combined disasters of climate, war, pestilence, and poverty caused great suffering. Elizabeth became devoted to helping those who had nowhere to turn.
To take care of those who were both sick and destitute, she had a small twenty-eight bed hospital built below the Wartburg castle. Her personal touch was evident there: she visited the patients daily to attend to their needs. At the same time, she aided hundreds of poor people daily through giving food and other supplies. At one point she gave away the royal family’s store of corn to feed 900 poor people.
It was with her financial aid and spiritual support that the Franciscans in 1225 founded a monastery in Eisenach. Her husband chose for her confessor and spiritual director a severe and rigorous priest, Conrad of Marburg, whom Ludwig held in high esteem.
On September 11, 1227 , soon after giving birth to their third child, the 20-year old Elizabeth received the terrible news that her husband, Louis, who was en route to join the Sixth Crusade, died of a fever in Otranto, Italy. It is said she exclaimed in grief: “Now all worldly joy and honor are gone for me!”
After Ludwig’s death, Elizabeth was poorly treated by her in-laws and her family. She had vowed to remain single on the death of her husband, and kept her vow despite intense pressure from her own family. Indeed, a maternal uncle, Eckbert, Bishop of Bamberg, held her for a time under a form of house arrest, trying unsuccessfully to convince her to apply for a dispensation and to marry again for political purposes. Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s immediate problem on the death of her husband was that she was no longer the Landgravine of Thuringia. Consequently, she no longer had access to the same material resources to continue her charitable activities. To make matters worse, her brother-in-law, Henry Raspe, who became the Regent for her son, was a man of more conventional expectations than her late husband and did not support at all her charitable work.
It is not clear what occurred next, but it seems that Elizabeth decided she was morally compelled to give up her place in the Wartburg Castle where she had spent many happy days with her husband. She felt called to live the life of a poor woman, seeking shelter from whomever would give it, or when she could not, living like one of the homeless poor. Soon her children had to return to , Wartburg castle and she was left alone with just a couple of loyal maids-in-waiting. After much trouble, and despite his reluctance, she was able to reach Master Conrad in his own city of Marburg and was able to convince him that she was called to serve the poor and to live like one of them.
So it was that on Good Friday, 1228, in the Franciscan house at Eisenach, Elizabeth formally renounced the world; and she received from Conrad the dress of the Third Order of St. Francis. It is said that Conrad treated Elizabeth with all the severity of his nature, for which he had a considerable reputation. Nevertheless, Elizabeth never lost her gentle spirit; through this, she was led to new levels of sanctity and charity; and, after her death, he was very active in her canonization.
In the summer of 1228 she built the Franciscan hospital at Marburg out of her own resources, which her brother-in-law finally sent her. Meanwhile, she lived in a simple, poor hut. Upon the hospital’s completion, Elizabeth devoted herself entirely to the care of the sick, especially to those afflicted with debilitating and disfiguring diseases.
In the autumn of 1231, although apparently in good health, and only twenty-four years of age, she predicted her death to Master Conrad; and within a few weeks, on November 17, 1231, she would die of an infectious disease, perhaps contracted from one of her beloved poor. Very soon after her death miracles began to take place at the site of her grave in the church of the hospital – especially miracles of healing.
On the feast of Pentecost, May 28, 1235, the solemn ceremony of canonization of the “greatest woman of the German Middle Ages” was celebrated by Pope Gregory IX at Perugia, Italy. In August of 1235, the corner-stone of the beautiful Gothic church of St. Elizabeth was laid at Marburg; and on May 1, 1236, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, attended the taking-up of the body of Saint Elizabeth. Finally, in 1249, her remains were placed in the choir of the church of St. Elizabeth. Pilgrimages to the grave of St. Elizabeth soon increased and were so numerous that at times they nearly rivaled those to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
However, in 1539 Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, who had become a Protestant, put an end to the pilgrimages. He took over the church, which belonged to the Teutonic Order; and he forcibly removed the relics of the Saint and all that was sacred to Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the German people to this day honor the “dear St. Elizabeth”, as she is called.
Among the many stories and legends told about St. Elizabeth, it is said that one day Elizabeth was stopped as she attempted to sneak food out of the royal pantry to take to the poor. When confronted, Elizabeth opened her cloak and – where once was bread – white and red roses fell to the ground. For this reason she is often shown with flowers falling from her cloak [for example, her statue which was previously over the front entrance to our church and is now in the Sanctuary].
To this day St. Elizabeth is respected and honored as a great Christian woman, an example of faith, humility and service to those in need. May her life and prayers assist us all to live a dedicated Christian life, following the example of Christ who had a special love for the poor.
St. Elizabeth’s feast day is November 17; and she is considered the patron saint of bakers, of the falsely accused, of the homeless, of nursing services, of tertiaries, widows, and young brides. Her symbols are alms, flowers, bread, the poor, and a pitcher.
ART: The Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary by Edmund Blair Leighton (1852 – 1922); St. Elizabeth of Hungary spinning Wool for the Poor (c. 1895) by Marianne Stokes (1855 – 1927); St. Elizabeth of Hungary Stained Glass Window by F. X. Zettler
St. Elizabeth of Hungary Prayers
Almighty God, by whose grace your servant Elizabeth of Hungary recognized and honored Jesus in the poor of this world: Grant that we, following her example, may with love and gladness serve those in any need or trouble. In the name and for the sake of and through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
Dear Saint Elizabeth, you were always poor in spirit, most generous toward the poor, faithful to your husband, and fully consecrated to your Divine Bridegroom. Grant your help to widows and keep them faithful to their heavenly Lord. Teach them how to cope with their loss and to make use of their time in the service of God. Amen.