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Remembering Elizabeth of Hungary

Elizabeth of Hungaryby Karris Golden

Katie Luther. Elizabeth of Hungary. You.

All are bold women with ties to the Lutheran tradition and the power to make a lasting impact on the world around them, Susan Kosche Vallem says.

“Individuals have to get involved; we have to do something,” explains Vallem, a clinical social worker based in Waverly, Iowa. “Each of us can do something right where we live, because there are local needs.”

While many are familiar with Katie Luther’s legacy, the contributions of her predecessor, Elizabeth of Hungary, aren’t as widely known.

Vallem discovered Elizabeth of Hungary while doing research for courses she taught at Wartburg College in Waverly. She wanted to make connections to the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, Germany. She wondered: If many of Europe’s ancient castles and manor houses once provided care for the sick and needy, did the Wartburg have such a history?

“Indeed it did,” Vallem said. “In my research, I became acquainted with St. Elizabeth.”

Over the years, she has continued studying Elizabeth. She’s even traveled to the Wartburg several times; to Elizabeth’s birthplace in Bratislava, Slovakia (then Hungary); and to Elizabeth Church in Marburg, Germany, where Elizabeth died at age 24.

Vallem, throughout her career, has advocated for the rights of children, women and those with mental illnesses. She has counseled disaster relief victims. She also helped to create a comprehensive resource on ELCA advocacy and service programs. In all, she has seen the influence of Elizabeth of Hungary.

“Her life exemplifies a tradition of servant leadership,” Vallem said. “In her, we can see ties to what it is that the ELCA does in response to issues of poverty, hunger justice, illness, civil rights and other issues.”

Some details remain unknown, but Vallem sketched a biography that helps explain why Elizabeth is still celebrated with an annual Christian feast day on Nov. 17.

Born in 1207, Elizabeth was the daughter of Gertrude of Andechs-Meran and King Andrew II of Hungary. Her birth was predicted by Klingsor, a wizard, during the Minstrels’ War at the Wartburg Castle.

The princess was first betrothed to Hermann and then to Ludwig IV, sons of a landgrave in the region of Thuringia and lord of Wartburg Castle. At age 4, Elizabeth was sent to live at the Wartburg, a custom that acquainted her with the family and its ways.

“In 1211, the Wartburg was a prominent place in Germany,” Vallem explained. “It was headed by an intellectually gifted family and became the meeting place of poets and patrons. Topics of all kinds were freely and openly discussed. Elizabeth took part in these discussions and became well educated. Elizabeth was deeply religious as well. It was also said that, while exceptionally devout, she was very strong-willed. Elizabeth demonstrated an early concern for the poor, and her friend, Gunda, described how Elizabeth played with poor children in her young years and gave them alms.” 

After the death of the landgrave and Hermann soon after, Elizabeth eventually married Ludwig II when she was 14 and ascended to the throne of Thuringia. While she was disliked by her mother-in-law and courtiers, according to Vallem’s research, biographers called Elizabeth’s relationship with Ludwig “an idyll of enthralling fondness, of mystic ardor.”

This affection is likely why Ludwig supported his wife’s devotion to the poor, Vallem said. Elizabeth had become interested in the teachings of Francis of Assisi and took a Franciscan brother as her spiritual mentor. Word of the young noblewoman reached Francis, and it is said the monk spoke often of her.

“Legend has it that St. Francis willed his cloak to her when he died,” Vallem said. “The young queen carried on St. Francis’ concern for charity. Daily, she donned dowdy clothes as she tended the sick and needy—behavior that further isolated her from her in-laws and the court.”

The queen was derided for flouting court conventions. According to Vallem’s research, after returning from hours of charity work, Elizabeth would quickly change into royal robes so she could preside over court banquets.

Today Elizabeth of Hungary is remembered for her charitable works, with dozens of hospitals throughout the world bearing her name. She is also associated with more than 150 miracles, most of which involve healing children.

Perhaps the most famous is the Miracle of the Roses. Elizabeth had established a hospice for the poor in a converted building at the foot of the castle hill. She smuggled bread out of the castle kitchen to feed the needy, which was forbidden. Often she’d encounter courtiers or her in-laws while carrying bread down the hill to the hospice. In those instances, she would quickly hide the food inside her robes. Once—when compelled to open her robe for inspection—legend has it that the bread turned to roses.

Elizabeth was eventually widowed and lost her position at court. Refusing to return to her father’s home, she put on rags and moved to Marburg, Germany, where she dedicated herself to the Franciscan ideal of poverty.

“In every beggar and ailing person, she saw Jesus himself,” Vallem said.

Karris Golden is a writer and speaker from northeast Iowa. She has written “On Faith,” a weekly column for The Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, since January 1999 without interruption.

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