Saint Elizabeth is one of the patron saints of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis. Today is her feast day. What follows is a biography I wrote about her:
Affianced at four, a wife at 14, at 16 a mother, a widow at 20 and a saint at 24, Elizabeth lived several lifetimes from king’s daughter to Third Order saint.
Her fiancé, Louis, son of Duke Hermann of Thuringia, was 11 when he was betrothed to the daughter of King Andrew and Queen Gertrude of Hungary. The four-year-old Elizabeth was then sent to Wartburg to be brought up with her future husband.
When she was 6, her mother was assassinated and her piety grew along with a devotion to Saint John the Evangelist and the Blessed Virgin. No one who asked a favor of her in the name of Saint John was refused.
Growing up with her future husband, Elizabeth and Louis found themselves becoming the best of friends and called each other “my sweet sister” and “dear brother” until their deaths.
When her foster father and protector, Duke Hermann, died when she was nine she found herself abused by Louis’ mother, Sophia, who felt Elizabeth wasn’t good enough for her son. Most of the court took up Duchess Sophia’s cause, and constantly found ways to insult the young girl.
By the time she was 13 and the day of her marriage was drawing closer, Louis’ siblings and mother were at the point of continually pushing him to return Elizabeth’s dowry and send her back to her father in Hungary.
But Louis remained true. When asked if he would break his troth-plight, he pointed to Mount Inselberg, the highest mountain in Thuringia, and said that even if the mountain were made entirely of gold and would be given to him if only he’d return Elizabeth to her father, he would not do so.
“Let them think or say of her what they please,” he said. “I say this, that I love her, and only her, and nothing better than her in this world. I will have my Elizabeth in spite of them all. She is dearer to me for her virtue and goodness than all the kingdoms and riches of the earth.”
Once she was married to Louis and was Duchess of Thuringia, people were quick to sing her praises. Their love and devotion for each other was legendary and they made a striking couple—Louis, tall and fair and Elizabeth, small and dark.
Louis, in fact, was as pious and chaste as his wife, even going so far as to avoid salted and spiced meats and beer and he would only take wine when ill.
During the next six years, Elizabeth gave birth to four children—one son and three daughters—whom she loved most ardently. So much so, in fact, that her confessor reproached her for not being sufficiently detached.
When not tending to her family or spending time in prayer, Elizabeth could be found using her own allowance ministering to the sick, the poor and the needy. Only when necessary did she dress to fit her station otherwise she would be found clothed in the simplest of clothes. Like Saint Francis, she was inspired by the joys of Holy Poverty and later she became known as the Patroness of the Poor.
In 1221, the Franciscans established their first monastery in Eisenach, the capital city of Thuringia. It was through these friars that Elizabeth first heard of the Third Order established by Francis. To be connected to Saint Francis and Saint Clare through both a rule and being remembered daily in their masses struck such a chord that she asked permission of her husband to join the order. He agreed and she became the first tertiary in Germany. And, while her husband was still alive, she was given permission to build an almshouse halfway up the ascent to Wartburg. She visited it daily, often bringing food from her table and even her own plate to help feed the hungry.
In her 17th year, Elizabeth lost her beloved confessor Father Rodinger. He was replaced by Master Conrad, a mendicant priest who treated his new penitent with the utmost severity, using her vow of obedience to him as an excuse to exercise his power over her all in the name of perfecting her character, of course.
Following a famine that occurred while her husband was absent in 1226 (fighting with Emperor Frederick in Italy), Elizabeth opened his granaries and ordered that grain be given without reservation to the poor in accordance with their need. She also baked bread and fed about 900 people daily. She also established more almshouses and hospitals as well as an orphanage.
The following year, Louis left for the Crusades but never made it to Jerusalem. He contracted a fever in Italy and died at the age of 27. If it had not been for her habit of prayer, Elizabeth would have been crushed beneath her grief.
Louis’ brother, Henry, was appointed as regent for her husband’s successor, their 5-year-old son, Hermann. His advisers convinced Henry that Elizabeth was a danger to the financial stability of Thuringia and shortly thereafter, on a cold mid-winter night, she and her children were forced to leave the castle.
The people of Eisenach, many of whom she had personally benefitted, were forbidden to take her in. Elizabeth finally found refuge at the church of the Friars Minor that evening but they were on the road again early the next morning once again seeking alms and lodging. She was chased from place to place and finally ended up in a barn outside a tavern.
A friend agreed to take her children and assured of their safety, Elizabeth began to earn her living by spinning and begging continuing to share what little she had with the even poorer.
Eventually, her Aunt Matilda, Abbess of the Monastery of Kitzingen, heard news of Elizabeth’s plight and dispatched carriages to bring her niece and her niece’s children to the monastery. She lived there briefly until her uncle, the Bishop of Bamberg sent for her. Leaving behind her second daughter, Sophia, at the monastery to be educated, Elizabeth and the remainder of her children left for Bamberg and the Castle of Botenstein.
Much to her dismay, her uncle soon tried to marry her off to Frederick II. She refused and shortly thereafter his fellow crusaders brought her husband’s remains home. Discovering the abuses Elizabeth had suffered during their absence, the men stood for her against Henry and his advisers and Elizabeth was restored to her rightful position in the castle Wartburg. She was now free to return to her practice of ministering to the sick and poor.
Elizabeth lived at Wartburg for about a year before Henry sent her off to administer the city of Marburg. She appointed officials to tend to the temporal affairs of the town, and overwhelmed by the adoration of its citizens, she fled to a deserted cabin where she could tend to her needs in relative peace. Meanwhile, she had a small home built of clay and timber built next to the church of the Friars Minor in Marburg and was soon living there with her four children and faithful servants Guta and Isentrude.
While in Marburg, on Good Friday, Elizabeth had her hair cut off by the Father Guardian of the Friary and was clothed in the holy habit of Francis and Clare—a gray tunic with white cord. From this day onward until her death, Elizabeth dressed in this habit and walked about barefoot. In the same ceremony, Guta, who had been by her side through all her travails, also took the habit and sheared her hair.
When they were old enough, Elizabeth, who had consecrated them to God upon birth, sent her second daughter, Sophia and her third daughter, Gertrude to monasteries to be educated. They both later became abbesses. Her son, Hermann, was poisoned by his uncle Henry when he turned 18 in order that he wouldn’t become the next Duke of Thuringia and her other daughter, also a Sophia, was married to the Duke of Brabant and spent the rest of her life struggling to maintain the rights of her son Henry I.
Master Conrad continued to abuse her. He did not allow her to take on the full vows of poverty beloved by her such as giving away all her property and begging for food. So, she took to spinning wool to make money and always prepared her own meals. Conrad also sent away her companions Guta and Isentrude and sent her the most unpleasant companions he could find.
She did have a hospital built at Marburg and spent many hours there caring for the sick. She also cared for the poor in their homes or brought the sick and needy to her own home to be cared for. Many of these were lepers.
Before her death, Elizabeth counted as her spiritual treasures a worn gray mantle and letter of encouragement sent to her by Saint Francis as well as a letter of commendation and encouragement from Pope Gregory IX.
Shortly after being given a vision of her impending death, Elizabeth contracted an illness and within two weeks she had died, crying eagerly, “the moment has arrived when God summons His friend to the wedding feast. The Bridegroom seeks his spouse. Silence! Silence!”
When she was buried, the birds sang. Saint Bonaventure commented, “These little birds rendered testimony to her purity by speaking of her in their own language at her burial and in singing with such wonderful sweetness over her tomb. He who spake by the mouth of an ass to rebuke the folly of a prophet, could as well proclaim the innocence of a saint by the voice of birds.”
In 1235, Elizabeth was canonized in Perugia, Italy, in the same city and seven years after her beloved Saint Francis.