(1207 -1231)
Today’s saint, Elizabeth, has been honored in our community through the name of one of our local hospitals.
Elizabeth’s father was Andrew II, the rich and powerful King of Hungary. To reinforce political ties, he had married the German Countess Gertrude of Andechs-Meran, sister of St Hedwig who was wife to the Duke of Silesia. Elizabeth, together with her sister and three brothers, spent only the first four years of her childhood at the Hungarian court.
She liked playing, music and dancing; she recited her prayers faithfully and already showed special attention to the poor, whom she helped with a kind word or an affectionate gesture.
Elizabeth’s father arranged for her to become a Princess of Thuringia. The landgrave, or count, of this region was one of the richest and most influential sovereigns in Europe at the beginning of the 13th century and his castle was a center of culture.
Elizabeth left her homeland with a rich dowry and a large entourage, including her personal ladies-in-waiting, two of whom were to remain faithful friends to the very end. It is they who left us the precious information on the childhood and life of the saint.
Ludwig, the landgrave’s son, was betrothed to the Hungarian princess in the Fortress of Wartburg. Despite the fact that political reasons had determined their betrothal, a sincere love developed between the two young people and upon his father’s death when Ludwig was 18 years old, he began to reign over Thuringia.
Elizabeth, however, became the object of critical whispers because her behavior was incongruous with court life. perhaps for this her marriage celebrations with Ludwig were far from sumptuous and a part of the funds destined for the banquet was donated to the poor. Elizabeth saw the contradictions between the faith professed and Christian practice. She could not bear compromise.
Once, on entering a church on the Feast of the Assumption, she took off her crown, laid it before the crucifix and, covering her face and lied prostrate on the ground. When her mother-in-law reprimanded her for this gesture, Elizabeth answered: “How can I, a wretched creature, continue to wear a crown of earthly dignity, when I see my King Jesus Christ crowned with thorns?”
Elizabeth’s maids said, “She did not eat any food before ascertaining that it came from her husband’s property or legitimate possessions. While she abstained from goods procured illegally, she also did her utmost to provide compensation to those who had suffered violence.”
Elizabeth diligently practiced works of mercy: she would give food and drink to those who knocked at her door, she procured clothing, paid debts, cared for the sick and buried the dead. Coming down from her castle, she often visited the homes of the poor with her ladies-in-waiting, bringing them bread, meat, flour, and other food. She distributed the food personally and attentively checked the clothing and mattresses of the poor.
This behavior was reported to her husband, who not only was not displeased but answered her accusers, “So long as she does not sell the castle, I am happy with her!”.
Elizabeth’s marriage was profoundly happy: she helped her husband to raise his human qualities to a supernatural level and he, in exchange, stood up for his wife’s generosity to the poor and for her religious practices. Increasingly admired for his wife’s great faith, Ludwig said to her, referring to her attention to the poor: “Dear Elizabeth, it is Christ whom you have cleansed, nourished and cared for.”
A clear witness to how faith and love of God and neighbor strengthen family life and deepen ever more the matrimonial union.
When Ludwig IV joined the crusade of the Emperor Frederick II, he reminded his wife that this was traditional for the sovereigns of Thuringia. Elizabeth answered him: “Far be it from me to detain you. I have given my whole self to God and now I must also give you.”
Fever decimated the troops and Ludwig fell ill and died in Otranto, before embarking, in September 1227. He was 27 years old. When Elizabeth learned the news, she was so sorrowful that she withdrew in solitude; but then, strengthened by prayer and comforted by the hope of seeing him again in Heaven, she began to attend to the affairs of the kingdom.
Her brother-in-law usurped the government of Thuringia, declaring himself to be the true heir of Ludwig and accused Elizabeth of being a pious woman incapable of ruling. The young widow, with three children, was banished from the Castle of Wartburg and went in search of a place of refuge.
Only two of her ladies remained close to her. They accompanied her and entrusted the three children to the care of Ludwig’s friends. Wandering through the villages, Elizabeth worked wherever she was welcomed, looked after the sick, spun thread and cooked.
A few relatives who had stayed faithful to her and viewed her brother-in-law’s rule as illegal, restored Elizabeth’s reputation. So it was that at the beginning of 1228, Elizabeth received sufficient income to withdraw to the family’s castle in Marburg, where her spiritual director, Fra Conrad of the Friars Minor, also lived.
He later reported to Pope Gregory IX: “On Good Friday in 1228, having placed her hands on the altar in the chapel of her city, Eisenach, to which she had welcomed the Friars Minor, in the presence of several friars and relatives, Elizabeth renounced her own will and all the vanities of the world. She also wanted to resign all her possessions, but I dissuaded her out of love for the poor. Shortly afterwards she built a hospital, gathered the sick and invalids and served at her own table the most wretched and deprived. When I reprimanded her for these things, Elizabeth answered that she received from the poor special grace and humility”
Elizabeth spent her last three years in the hospital she founded, serving the sick and tending to the dying. She always tried to carry out the humblest services and repugnant tasks. She became what we might call a consecrated woman in the world and, with other friends clothed in grey habits, formed a religious community. It is not by chance that she is the Patroness of the Third Order Regular of St Francis and of the Franciscan Secular Order.
In November 1231 she was stricken with a high fever. When the news of her illness spread, may people flocked to see her. After about 10 days, she asked for the doors to be closed so that she might be alone with God.
During the night of Nov. 17, she fell asleep gently in the Lord. The testimonies of her holiness were so many and such that after only four years Pope Gregory ix canonized her and, that same year, the beautiful church built in her honor at Marburg was consecrated.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini