With many personalities who lived long ago, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.
But Elizabeth of Hungary, who died in 1231 and is commemorated on November 19 as patron saint of hospitals, nurses, and the homeless, remains human eight centuries after her death thanks to the central and very modern concern of her life: compassionate care for the poor, ill and dying.
Had she not been sainted by the Catholic church, she would still be remembered for that compassion, along with her courage and a great sense of humour.
Elizabeth’s concerns were not shared by most of her social milieu. But she followed in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi, who went from playboy to caregiver of the sick. In fact, she demonstrated her compassion for the poor and sick even as a child.
As an adult, Elizabeth broke many more rules of what a woman and a princess was and was not supposed to do.
Born in 1207 to King Andrew II of Hungary, Elizabeth was married at fourteen to Count Ludwig IV of Thuringia in a political union turned love match.
Ludwig supported her efforts to help the poor and sick, the sole member of his family to approve her sale of her jewels to buy food and beds for her patients. When Ludwig died in 1227, Elizabeth made sure their children were settled, then spent her fortune and what remained of her short life building hospices, in which she worked as nurse, orderly, and counselor.
In a grueling atmosphere of poverty and suffering, she kept everyone smiling. She often told the women who assisted her, “We must make people happy.”
Elizabeth died at 24, but left a legacy remembered today in hospices named for her and above all in her joyful creed of ensuring comfort and happiness for those most in need of them.
By Grant Menzies, Victoria Hospice Communications