St. Elizabeth of Hungary

(1207-1231)

A devout romance: That is the best description of St. Elizabeth’s life.

Daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, she was formally espoused to Hermann, the little son of Hermann, Landgrave (Count) of Thuringia, Germany. She was only four, but these child-espousals for political purposes were customary among the royalty. Soon after, little Elizabeth was taken to the Wartburg, Landgrave Hermann’s splendid castle in Thuringia, to be raised with her future husband. Hermann, Jr., died in 1216. No matter. The princess was now engaged by a new contract to the count’s younger son, Ludwig, who was seven years older than his new fiancée.

However contrived, the match proved ideal. The two children grew up very fond of each other. Elizabeth showed early signs of being both religious and caring. When Ludwig succeeded his deceased father in 1221, he married the princess. He was 21, she was 14.

Ludwig and Elizabeth were and remained a happy couple. He encouraged her prayer-life and her charities to the poor. Once when he was out of the country, she gave not only her own belongings but the whole grain-stock of the castle to the famine-stricken of the vicinity. When the young count returned home, some castle officials accused her to him of wastefulness. “Has she sold any of my territory?” asked Ludwig. “No,” they answered. “As for her charities,” he rejoined, “they will bring upon us the divine blessings. We shall not want as long as we let her relieve the poor as she does.”

So Landgravine Elizabeth continued her good works. She set up two local hospitals, and often took care of the patients personally. She provided for orphans out of her own funds. Each day she fed 900 persons at the castle gate, and also provided for the hungry elsewhere in the landgraviate. But she was a sensible benefactress. When the poor were able to work she kept them from idleness by getting them jobs. Indeed, she was so able as an executive that when her husband had to go to Italy in 1226, she managed his affairs so well that he gave her high praise.

Elizabeth bore Ludwig three children. Hermann died young; Sophia became Duchess of Brabant. Gertrude entered the convent. But Ludwig never saw Gertrude. In 1227 he “took the cross,” setting out for the Holy Land on a crusade. Unfortunately, he died of plague in southern Italy. When Elizabeth heard the news she was beside herself with grief. “The world is dead to me,” she cried, “and all that was joyous in the world!”

In the sequel, the widow was harshly excluded from the Wartburg. Her uncle wanted her to remarry, but she and Ludwig had agreed that they would remain celibate after each other’s death.

Elizabeth had meanwhile become acquainted with the members of a new religious order, the Franciscans, whose poverty and charity attracted her. After her late husband’s remains were brought home for burial in 1228, she joined the Third Order Secular of the Franciscans. When she had provided for her children, she built a small house near Marburg, and opened a hospice for the sick and aged poor, herself living as poor as the guests. Master Conrad of Marburg, her spiritual director, sought to develop her into a saint. He demanded excessive penances, but she accepted his directives with cheerful good humor.

When she died on November 17, 1231, she was still only 23. Many miracles were wrought at her tomb in Marburg, so she was canonized in 1235, and her burial place became one of the most popular shrines in Europe. Her relics were scattered during the German Reformation, but the Franciscans still honor her as the patron saint of their Third Order Secular.

Fiancée, wife, mother, grieving widow, princess and tertiary, St. Elizabeth of Hungary left behind her the sweet fragrance of a selfless Christian life.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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