By CAROLE BRESLIN
One of the difficulties of writing about the saints is sifting through various sources, some of which — partly because the era in which they were written — seem to have been embellished quite a bit. At the same time, there are certainly many saints whose lives are surrounded by the most extraordinary events from the time of their birth until even the present time.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary’s birth was announced in faraway Thuringia the very moment it happened. Thuringia, located about 200 miles southwest of what is now Berlin, was ruled by Landgrave (German nobleman) Hermann. His minnesinger (poet/musician), Klingsohr, announced in the summer of 1207 that a girl of uncommon holiness was born to the king of Hungary and would marry Hermann’s son.
By the age of four, little Elizabeth went to Thuringia to be raised with her future husband, Louis. This alliance held many political advantages as the marriage was arranged, but as time passed, Louis and Elizabeth grew in love for each other as well as in holiness.
As with most saints, her exemplary life brought out animosity in others who did not like her goodness. She suffered at their hands, but Louis became ever more attached to her. When the duties of his state required that he travel to other lands, he would always bring back a gift for her, such as gloves or a rosary. Elizabeth also loved Louis, so much so that when he returned from his trips she would rush out to meet him.
In 1221, when Louis became of age and replaced his father as landgrave, the two were married. Louis was 21 years of age and Elizabeth was but 14 years of age. Some of the people of the court tried to convince Louis to send her back to Hungary, claiming she was not worthy to be his bride. He responded, “I would rather cast away a mountain of gold than give her up.”
Her dark features added to her beauty, a beauty that came from deep within because of her holiness, spirit of prayer, generosity to the poor, and modesty in dress. She possessed patience, honesty, loyalty, and wisdom. Her husband’s men trusted her implicitly and the citizens loved her because of her simplicity and openness to their pleas.
Although the couple was deeply in love, their happy marriage lasted only six years. These six years were marked with youthful exuberance and joyful companionship. The couple was blessed with three children during this time. Hermann was born in 1222, dying at the young age of 19, just ten years after the death of his mother. Sophia became duchess of Brabant and the third became Blessed Gertrude of Aldenberg.
Louis recognized the heavenly treasure that he had for a wife. He would never prevent her from doing that which dealt with God. Even though he wanted her to get proper rest and eat well, she would rise in the middle of the night to pray. According to her biographer, her maid was instructed to wake her in the night to keep her vigil of prayer. Once when the maid went to pull the toe of her lady, she yanked on the toe of Louis by mistake. Upon waking, he told the maid to keep the secret and not tell Elizabeth that he knew what she was doing.
In 1225 Elizabeth distributed all of her wealth to the poor who suffered from the famine that hit Germany. Since Louis had been away, his men complained to him of her generosity. Ever faithful to his wife, he did not even examine his store of grain. Instead, he only asked about the relationship she had with the subjects of his realm. When his subjects admitted their love for her, he then replied to his men’s complaints by saying, “They will bring upon us the divine blessings.”
Elizabeth also built a hospital at the foot of the steep incline which led up to the castle of Wartburg. She understood that many of the poor and sick could not climb to the entrance of the castle to beg. Thus she arranged for them to be served at the foot of the hill. Furthermore, she would spend much of her time serving the poor, especially the neglected children who had no parents to care for them.
Her generosity continued as she built another hospital and fed about 900 persons at her gate daily. Prudently, she put to work the downtrodden who were able to assist. It was reported that she allowed a leper to sleep in the same bed as her husband. When the husband rushed in and threw off the bed linens, he recognized the leper to be none other than Jesus Christ Himself.
But the happy couple was soon to experience tragedy in their young lives. In 1227 Louis left to join Emperor Frederick II in Apulia. From there they would leave to fight a crusade. Louis never made it to the Holy Land. He caught the plague and died before departure. Elizabeth wept bitterly.
Henry, the regent for her infant son, then forced her and her children to leave the castle in Wartburg, seizing power for himself. Elizabeth was rescued by her Aunt Matilda who was abbess of Kitzingen. From there, she left with her son and Gertrude, her daughter, to visit her uncle who had given her access to his castle in Pottenstein. She had left Sophia with the nuns in the abbey.
Louis and Elizabeth had promised each other never to marry again so she refused all attempts to arrange a prestigious marriage for her. In 1228 the body of Louis finally arrived back in Thuringia and his burial was arranged. He was buried at the abbey church in Reinhardsbrunn.
Not long after this, Elizabeth formally renounced the world and became a third order Franciscan. Master Conrad became her spiritual director. There are conflicting views on his treatment of Elizabeth. While some say he was much too harsh in his treatment of her, others claim that Elizabeth would have performed even greater penances, made even greater sacrifices, and done even more for the poor and helpless.
Eventually, she left her residence at Marburg and lived in a cottage at Wehrda by the River Lahn. She built a small house nearby where she took care of those in need of hospice care. In the fall of 1231, at the young age of just 24, she fell ill for the final time. She died on November 17, which to this day the Church recognizes as her feast day.
Dear St. Elizabeth, so young, beautiful, and kind, by your intercession grant us the grace to always serve those most in need. Let us not shirk the spiritual and corporal works of mercy which win us graces and also win souls for the heavenly Kingdom. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)