Born into nobility nearly 800 years ago, St. Elizabeth of Hungary was inspired by God to use her royal position, as a princess by birth and countess by marriage, to help the poor. Instead of ignoring the destitute, she went out looking for the most impoverished, humbling herself to benefit the sick and starving. Elizabeth saw the face of Jesus in the beggar, the leper, the homeless, and devoted her life in the service of such people.
Helping and serving were not enough for Elizabeth; she wanted to know the holy poverty and suffering of Our Lord. She believed that only through evangelical poverty, by living with the poorest of the poor, could she truly imitate Christ. But detaching herself from the trappings of royalty was not easy.
Born a Princess
Elizabeth was born in 1207 to King Andrew II and Queen Gertrude in Pressburg, Hungary. Shortly after her birth, her parents promised Elizabeth in marriage to Louis, son of Hermann I, landgrave of Thüringen, Germany.
A landgrave was a powerful German ruler, and Hermann had dominion over much of central Germany. The marriage implied assistance and military cooperation between Hungary and Thüringen.
At age 4, Elizabeth, with a large dowry, was sent to live with Hermann and his family at Wartburg Castle in Thüringen. There she would be raised and educated as the future wife of a landgrave. Louis was 11 years old when Elizabeth arrived. His mother was Sophia of Bavaria, and he had four younger siblings.
In 1217, Hermann I died, and at age 16 Louis began to rule Thüringen. When he was 21 and Elizabeth was 14, they were married. It was a marriage of mutual devotion and produced three children.
Louis was frequently away on business. During those times Elizabeth began giving her life to God and caring for the needy. Misery, despair and sickness were rampant among the nearby peasants, and Elizabeth, even as a teenager, found ways to ease their suffering.
She used the castle stores to feed hundreds of people, paid their debts and gave clothes to anyone in need. She traveled the nearby villages looking for the sickest, especially those with leprosy, and gave them special attention.
Once she brought a leper to Wartburg Castle, where she used her husband’s bed to care for the man. Legend says that when Louis came home and into his bedroom, he saw the figure of the crucified Christ instead of the leper.
Elizabeth was often at odds with other family members because she frequently gave away goods and food belonging to the castle. In 1225 a widespread famine began in Germany. While Wartburg Castle had ample grain and foodstuff, the local people were starving. Much to the anger of other castle residents, Elizabeth began giving the grain away.
She sold personal possessions, jewels and royal garments, using the money to help feed the poor. That same year she funded the building of a 28-bed hospital near Wartburg, where she tended the sick, the crippled, the disabled, anyone needing help. Her works of mercy, humility and love of Jesus became widely known.
A Life of Piety
Throughout her short life Elizabeth was attracted to a life of piety. Once, while attending Mass, the young countess fell prostrate before the crucifix, took off her crown and laid it at the foot of the crucified Christ. Although chastised by others, she believed she couldn’t come before Jesus wearing her regal crown when He wore a crown of thorns.
Elizabeth prayed constantly. In fact, while living in the royal household, she had a servant wake her every night so she could pray. Many times, she had that same servant whip her in an act of mortification.
According to one account, once, while she was praying, her clothes caught on fire. But she was so engrossed in her communion with the Lord that she wasn’t aware of the flames. A servant put out the fire, and Elizabeth was unhurt.
Louis shared his wife’s holiness and compassion for others. Only once, according to legend, did he interfere with her charity. To pacify complaints of the royal court, he forbade her to give away supplies belonging to the castle.
Soon a poor woman came seeking food for her family. Elizabeth immediately produced a covered basket of food and was about to give it to the woman when Louis appeared. He reluctantly asked to see the basket but, when lifting the cover, he found it filled with roses. He never again questioned Elizabeth.
In 1227, preparing to participate in a crusade to the Holy Lands, Louis contracted a disease and died. Elizabeth, crushed by her husband’s death, vowed to live forever a life of chastity.
During the winter following Louis’ death, Elizabeth moved out of Wartburg Castle. While the reason for this departure is unclear, it may have been because Henry Rasp, Louis’ brother and landgrave at that time, would not allow Elizabeth to con-tinue using the castle’s treasury to help the poor. She was even denied use of her own dowry and any inheritance if she intended to use that money for charitable activities.
Staying in the castle thus meant she would be unable to follow the dictates of her conscience. So Elizabeth left, choosing to join the poor people of Thüringen. She willingly deprived herself of her possessions, giving up the clean, comfortable surroundings of the castle to live in poverty.
Life Outside the Castle
Ironically, fearing the landgrave’s wrath, the local people would not take her in. Rejected by the very people she had fed and clothed, and because of her uncertain future, Elizabeth sent her children away to live with others. Now, with no husband and no children, Elizabeth immersed herself in an austere existence, even begging door to door, and she committed her life to serving others.
Before his death, Louis had appointed a priest, Conrad of Marburg, as Elizabeth’s spiritual adviser and confessor. Conrad was a favorite of Pope Gregory IX because of his success in eliminating heretics from the Church. Conrad’s methods were often eccentric — even brutal — and, in attempting to break the will of Elizabeth, he treated her harshly.
The priest eventually drove away all her friends, would not allow her to give alms without his permission, disapproved her request to join a convent and prevented her from begging. Conrad demanded that she live a life of holy perfection, requiring that she own nothing and control nothing, and that she strip herself of everything that could separate her from God. Elizabeth willingly submitted to this extreme lifestyle.
On Good Friday 1228, Elizabeth was allowed to join the Third Order of Franciscans, who were (and still are) committed to poverty, penance and love of God. Elizabeth joined them seeking to detach herself further from all earthly goods except to the extent those goods could help others.
Also in 1228 she built a hospital in Marburg, Germany, using funds eventually received from her dowry and inheritance. Any excess money went to the poor. Although encouraged by family members to return to her life of royalty, she refused to do so.
Elizabeth spent her final years living in a hut, spinning wool for her own subsistence and serving God through serving the sick in the Marburg hospital. There was no disgrace in her lifestyle, but rather a special dignity, because nothing came between her and God.
She had attained true poverty. She had stripped herself of all possessions in favor of assisting the less fortunate and had chosen to live in a way that mirrored the teachings of Christ.
Not yet 24 years old, Elizabeth died of poor health on Nov. 17, 1231. Her inspiring holiness, generosity and indefatigable devotion to the sick and poor were recognized by Pope Gregory IX when he named her a saint on May 28, 1235.
Elizabeth is the patron of many in need, including hospital and nursing-home patients, widows, charities, homeless people and people in exile. Her feast day is Nov. 17.
D.D. Emmons writes from O’Fallon, Ill.