This week on Wednesday, November 17th we celebrated the feast of St Elizabeth of Hungary who was born in Pressburg in 1207, a daughter of the King, Andrew III, and his wife Gertrude who was later murdered.
Those were very different times and in infancy, she was betrothed to Louis IV, son of Hermann I, who would eventually become the king of Thuringia. From the age of four, the little Elizabeth was brought up in the court of her future husband.
The marriage took place in 1221 when Louis succeeded his father and produced three children.
Dedicated to the Poor and Prayer
The Queen worked tirelessly to ease the suffering of the poor and infirm, although the expense incurred by her charity work initially angered her husband. He also did not consider it proper work for a Queen.
Once when he took her to task about her activities a basket of roses was changed miraculously into a basket of bread. After witnessing this he was convinced of the worthiness of her kind endeavours and from that time onwards he supported all her activities and joined her when she prayed.
She was also a very contemplative woman and witnesses say that when she was coming from private prayer her face would shine and light emanate from her eyes like the rays of the sun.
Under the spiritual direction of a Franciscan friar, she led a life of prayer, sacrifice, and service of the poor and sick. Seeking to become one with the poor, she wore simple clothing. Daily she would bring food to the hungry who gathered at her gates. She ordered that one of her castles should be converted into a hospital in which she gathered many of the weak and feeble.
In 1227 Louis went on a Crusade with Frederick II and less than three months later fell victim to the plague, dying at Otranto in Italy. Elizabeth was only twenty years of age at this time and had just given birth to her third child and second daughter. She was at first incredulous, then distraught, almost to the point of insanity. Her reaction on hearing the sad tidings was to cry out, “The world and all its joys is now dead to me.” The death of Louis marked the turning point in her life.
Her husband’s family looked upon her as squandering the royal purse and began to mistreat her. This came to a head when her brother-in-law Henry threw her out of the palace. The return of her husband’s allies from the Crusades resulted in her being reinstated since her son was the legal heir to the throne. Some advisors wished her to marry again but she refused. Instead, she decided to change the direction of her life completely.
She moved near to her uncle, the bishop of Eckbert where no longer caring for position or wealth, she became a member of the Third Order of St Francis. The Third Order consists of religious and laymen and women who try to emulate St Francis’ spirit by performing works of teaching, charity, and social service.
Elizabeth lived and worked in a hospital located very close to her modest house. She would occupy herself with menial tasks such as carding and spinning. She even helped in cleaning the homes of the poor and went fishing to help provide them with food.
Her new life lasted only three years; she died at the young age of twenty-four, her life shortened by hard work and penances.
She understood well the lesson Jesus taught when he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper: the Christian must be one who serves the humblest needs of others, even if one serves from an exalted position. Of royal blood, Elizabeth could have lorded it over her subjects. Yet she served them with such a loving and gentle manner that her brief life won for her a special place in the hearts of many.
Her great popularity resulted in her canonization by Pope Gregory IX, only four years after her death. In 1236 her relics were taken to the church of St Elizabeth at Marburg, where they remained as the object of enthusiastic popular pilgrimage until 1539 when they were removed to an unknown place by the Lutheran Philip of Hesse.
St Elizabeth is a true inspiration, especially for all healthcare workers, nurses, and doctors. Her example of selfless charity is a reminder to us all of what is most important. Equally worthy of imitation is her focus on the patients’ needs. Above all, she saw Jesus in the sick and served each individual as if they were Christ.
Elizabeth is generally represented as a Princess graciously giving alms one of the wretched poor, or holding roses in her lap, a reminder of the lovely miracle which won her husband over to her charitable causes.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan