On November 17, we celebrate the memory of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary or Thuringia (1207–1231), a Franciscan laywoman who is venerated today as patroness of Secular Franciscans and of the many congregations of women and men following the Franciscan Third Order Regular Rule.
Elizabeth was born in Hungary in 1207, probably in the castle of Sárospatak, a daughter of King Andrew II. She did not see much of her native land because she was sent away at age four to be raised with her future husband, the heir to the sovereign county of Thuringia, at the Wartburg Castle, near Eisenach, Germany. Their marriage was celebrated in 1221 when Elizabeth was 14.
The Wartburg Castle outside Eisenach, Germany, where Elizabeth spent most of her life., later became famous as the place where, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German.
From her youth, Elizabeth was committed to prayer and works of charity on behalf of the poor, and when the Franciscan friars arrived in Eisenach in the early 1220s, she was drawn to their spirituality. She established a hospice for the sick poor below the Wartburg in which she herself came to nurse the patients; she also helped construct a residence for the friars in Eisenach in 1225.
This scene of Elizabeth bathing a poor sick man is from the main altar of St. Elizabeth Cathedral in Košice, Slovakia (second half of the fifteenth century).
Contrary to popular legend, her loving husband, the Landgrave Ludwig, was quite supportive of her efforts. However, he died in 1227 shortly after departing on a Crusade, leaving Elizabeth a widow with three young children. Elizabeth was devastated: “The world with all its joys is now dead to me.”
The following year Elizabeth publicly “gave herself to the things that our Savior had counseled in the Gospel” in the Franciscan church in Eisenach. She sold her belongings and devoted herself to the care of the sick poor in a hospital dedicated to Saint Francis that she established in Marburg, Germany. Elizabeth died there at the age of only 24; devotion to her spread rapidly and she was canonized in 1235.
St. Elizabeth Church, in Marburg, Germany, was built between 1235 and 1340 as a pilgrimage church to house the saint’s remains.
Over the years, many people, especially Franciscans, have looked to Elizabeth as an inspiration. Her name became one of the most popular for girls in Western Europe. Many groups of women, especially in Germany and the Low Countries, banded together locally to found hospitals and other works of charity dedicated in her name, eventually forming religious congregations under her patronage. Today we celebrate with them this rich heritage.
The precious reliquary in St. Elizabeth Church in Marburg, originally housed the saint’s remains. In 1539, her descendent, Landgrave Philip of Hesse, who had become a Protestant, to discourage pilgrimages to her shrine, removed her relics and buried them in the woods. Some of these were later recovered.
Let us love our neighbors as ourselves . . . Let us have charity and humility and give alms because it washes the stains of our sins from our souls. For although people lose everything they leave behind in this world, they, nevertheless carry with them the rewards of charity and the alms they have given, for which they will receive a reward and a fitting repayment from the Lord. (Admonition and Exhortation, 30, often known as “The Letter to the Faithful”)
How could I bear a crown of gold when the Lord bears a crown of thorns—and bears it for me. (Saint Elizabeth of Hungary)
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.