St. Hedwig of Silesia

(1174?-1243)

We have a right to expect noble deeds from a member of the nobility. This does not always happen, to say the least. But St. Hedwig (in Polish, Jadwiga) was not only of noble blood, she was outstanding for her noble deeds.

Hedwig was of Bavarian origin, the daughter of the Count of Andechs, and the aunt of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Having received her elementary training as a boarding student at the Monastery of Kitzingen, she was wedded at the age of twelve to the 18-year-old aristocrat Henry, who shortly fell heir to the dukedom of Silesia, an area then and today part of western Poland.

Duke Henry I and Duchess Hedwig proved to be ideally matched. He was an earnest ruler and she an admirable counselor. Through her influence Church life in the duchy was promoted. On her recommendation, for instance, Henry, in one of his first official acts, founded the great Cistercian monastery of Trzebnica (Trebnitz) near Wroclaw (Breslau), the pioneer convent for woman in Silesia. Through her persuasion also, other religious houses were founded or supported, and the new mendicant religious orders, the Dominicans and Franciscans, and other religious communities were encouraged to establish themselves in the country. Henry opened a hospital in Wroclaw; she, a lazaretto for women lepers in Neumarkt.

Nor was this beneficence a mere show. Both Hedwig and Henry were themselves devout Christians. After the birth of their seventh child in 1208, the couple took a solemn vow of continence. After that, she engaged even more actively in penitential practices; and it is said of him that he never shaved thereafter nor wore gold, silver or purple.

Hedwig’s children caused her grief at one point. In 1212, the duke divided his estates between their sons Henry and Conrad. The sons, disappointed at the amount of land, declared war on each other. Despite their mother’s efforts at reconciliation, young Henry defeated Conrad; but the quarrel only further convinced Hedwig of the evils of the world’s way.

Later on, her efforts as a peacemaker were more successful. When her husband, engaged in armed conflict with Duke Conrad of Masovia, was taken captive, she followed him to his place of detention and persuaded him and Conrad to come to terms. The agreement included a pledge to allow two of Hedwig’s granddaughters to marry the sons of the Duke of Masovia.

Henry I died in 1238. All mourned him. But his widow’s eyes were dry. “Would you oppose the will of God?” she asked. “Our lives are His. Our will is whatever He is pleased to ordain, whether our own death or that of our friends.”

After that, Duchess Jadwiga spent even more time than before at the Cistercian monastery of Trzebnica. She followed its rule. She wore the habit of its nuns. But she did not take vows, since that would have deprived her of the right to administer her own property for the benefit of those in need.

A touching and typical story about her solicitude for the poor dates from this period. Hedwig got acquainted with an impoverished old woman who did not know the Our Father, and was too slow of wit, it seems, even to learn it. The duchess took on the task of teaching her the prayer. For ten weeks she worked at it patiently. Indeed, she had the woman sleep in her own room, so that they could spend every waking hour praying it together. Finally this disciple was able to master the Lord’s Prayer.

Jadwiga’s son Henry had succeeded his father as Henry II of Silesia. He held the dukedom only two years, for in 1240 he died in combat against the Tartar invaders. His mother knew of his death three days before the tidings were brought to her. Prophetically, she said to a companion, “He has gone from me like a bird in flight, and I shall never see him again in this life.” When the news broke, it was she who comforted the others. Miracles as well as prophecies were attributed to the Dowager Duchess during her lifetime. Dying at Trzebnica on October 15, 1243, she was canonized in 1267. She has continued to be one of Poland’s favorite saints.

St. Hedwig, it seems to me, represents the ideal wife. She was perfectly complementary to her husband in both private and public life. He was the strong arm of the family; she was its heart.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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