Today we celebrate the feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Her name always brings a smile to my face because I fondly remember reading a book about her to my daughters when they were young. Saint Elizabeth’s Three Crowns tells the story of a little girl, a princess, being sent away in 1211 to her betrothed future husband at just 4 years of age. She lived an amazing life of holiness and virtue, and we could understand her elevation to sainthood. My girls and I, however, could not get over a little child being sent away at such a young age.
Elizabeth’s father, King Andrew of Hungary desired union with the kingdom of Thuringia. Thus, Elizabeth was betrothed to Prince Louis (also referred to as Ludwig) of Thuringia, and they married when she was 13 years old. In spite of the secular world surrounding her, Elizabeth grew up with a great love for God and an unusual piousness. All along the way, Elizabeth endured the nastiness of the women around her. Although her mother-in-law was kindly and loving to Elizabeth, her sisters-in-law were mean. The women of the court mocked her and gossiped about her because of her love for God and the poor.
In spite of being arranged, the marriage was a happy one. Louis and Elizabeth were devoted to each other and had 3 children together, their oldest, Hermann, dying young. Louis protected Elizabeth’s faith, supporting her works of charity and penance and praying with her in her nighttime vigils. It is said that one time Louis stopped Elizabeth as she delivered bread to the poor to see what she held under her mantle. When she opened her it, the bread she had been carrying had changed to roses!!!
Scorn followed her, but she cared little for the opinion of others. Only Jesus’ opinion mattered to her. She took His teachings to heart and lived them out.
The followers of St. Francis of Assisi made their first settlement in Germany in 1221, and Elizabeth was greatly inspired by their work. The first German Franciscan brother, Brother Rodeger, became her spiritual teacher, instructing her in the ways of Francis, which greatly appealed to her. With Elizabeth’s help, the Franciscan monastery of Eisenach was founded in 1225. Although she wanted to embrace the Franciscan life, Brother Rodeger admonished her not to do so, but to observe the virtues according to her state in life.
A servant of Emperor Frederick II, Louis was often away from the castle, so Elizabeth was left to run the show. Flood, famine, and pestilence invaded the lives of the people of Thuringia in 1226 while Louis was away. Elizabeth moved into action, distributing alms to the needy across the kingdom. It is said that she cared for about 900 poor daily. At the foot of the mountain on which her stately home, Wartburg Castle, rested, she built a hospital to care for the sick whom she tended to herself, something royalty just didn’t do.
The following year, 1227, Louis went on a crusade to the Holy Land with the emperor and died from disease along the way. Elizabeth found out just after she gave birth to her third child. After Louis died, she sold all that she had and took on the Third Order of St. Francis and counted herself among the first Franciscan Tertiaries in Germany.
Just one year later, in 1228 she built the Franciscan hospital at Marburg. When she completed it, she dedicated herself to the care of the sick and especially the sickest among them. She labored there for 3 more years until her death at 24 in 1231. Shortly after her death miracles occurred at her grave and hospital, especially physical healings. Only four years later on Pentecost, 1235, the “greatest woman of the German Middle Ages” was canonized by Pope Gregory IX. A few months later, in Marburg, the cornerstone was laid of the church which bears her name.
Saint Elizabeth’s life witnesses to what God does when human beings rely on Him. Taken from her home; living among strangers; mocked for her beliefs; separated from her husband; losing a child; assuming responsibility for a kingdom – all daunting tasks, let alone for a teenage girl. I call to mind the Lord’s words to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2Cor12:9) That same grace is sufficient for us. Whatever sits before us as a daunting task should be placed in the arms of Jesus. We know our weakness. He does, too. Let Him transform those burdens with His strength, His love, and His power, so that we can turn them into something beautiful for God.
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, pray for us! Anne