Saint of the Month: St. Elizabeth of Portugal

St. Elizabeth of Portugal was a wife, mother, and queen; as well as a generous philanthropist and a Franciscan tertiary. Elizabeth was born in 1271 to King Peter III of the House of Aragon, and his wife Constance of Sicily. She was born at the royal Aragon Palace at what is now Zaragoza in northern Spain. She was named after her great aunt, [St.] Elizabeth of Hungary.


From her childhood, Elizabeth was very devout, and she received a quality education in the humanities. She prayed the Divine Office each day and voluntarily fasted. When she was twelve, a marriage was arranged for her to King Denis of Portugal, who was nine years older than she. They were married in 1288, when Elizabeth was seventeen. The couple had two children: a daughter, Constance, and a son, Alfonso. As queen, Elizabeth continued her pious ways, but Denis did not share her devout life. In fact, he was callous toward her and indulged in adulterous affairs. Elizabeth suffered her husband’s sinful ways with patience and kindness, praying for his conversion. Denis’s infidelities resulted in several illegitimate children. It was Elizabeth who felt obliged to make sure that the needs of those children were met. With time, Denis did come around to a life of faith and fidelity.


As queen, Elizabeth, always modestly dressed, was able to do much for the needy, which was often frowned upon by members of the royal family. She also assisted her husband in managing the important matters of the Kingdom. In particular, she took an active role in the settling of the Treaty of Alcañices with King Fernando IV of Castile, in which the border between Spain and Portugal was set. Among the many charitable enterprises that she undertook were vast food donations during a famine; providing shelters for travelers; providing dowries for young women who were unable to do so; establishment of orphanages, convents, churches, and chapels; support of hospitals; and housing for unmarried pregnant girls. A tragic war broke out in 1322 – tragic because its origins stemmed from a feud between a father and his son. Alfonso, known as The Infante, or heir to the throne, accused Denis of favoring one of his illegitimate sons over him, placing the future of the kingdom in jeopardy. Despite Elizabeth’s best efforts to keep the peace, the civil war raged on. Denis even had Elizabeth exiled from the royal household for a time, which provided more opportunity for her prayerful, penitential intercession. Finally, in 1323, when Alfonso had been delivered before his father to be put to death, Elizabeth displayed remarkable poise and courage when she rode out to the battlefield on a mule, placing herself between the two warring sides. Acting as a mediator between the two opponents, she managed to reconcile father and son. The illegitimate son was exiled from the kingdom, and Alfonso promised allegiance to his father. In 1325, Denis’s health greatly declined, and Elizabeth herself was his nurse and caregiver, remaining at his bedside until his death later that year.


After the death of Denis, Elizabeth retired to a Poor Clare convent at Coimbra that she herself had founded just a few decades after the death of St. Clare of Assisi. There, she occupied a small cell adjacent to the convent, and took simple vows as a Franciscan tertiary or lay Franciscan. She dedicated the remainder of her life to humble service to the sick and the poor. Elizabeth was a mystic and experienced a clear request from God to have a church built dedicated to the Holy Spirit. She also experienced a vision of her deceased daughter Constance greatly suffering in Purgatory and acted quickly to have Masses offered for her repose. In 1336, with her son King Alfonso IV on the throne, another war had broken out due to a family feud. Alfonso’s daughter was married to the King of Castile, who was mistreating her. Hearing of the conflict, sixty-five-year-old Elizabeth hastened to the site of the battle at Estremoz, Portugal, more than one hundred miles from her cell. Once again, she stepped into the middle of the conflict and negotiated peace between the two warring parties. The emotional and physical stress of this journey robbed her of her strength. She was taken to Estremoz Castle, where she died on July 4, 1336. She had pronounced her final vows on her deathbed.

St. Elizabeth of Portugal lived a model life of detachment from her vast wealth, using her great influence for countless acts of charity and generosity. Her fidelity to her marriage vows despite extremely trying challenges also models faith in the value of sacramental love and intercessory prayer. Her remains were kept at the Poor Clare convent in Coimbra, which had to be relocated to a nearby location due to flooding. She was canonized in 1626. She is usually depicted with an olive branch for her role as a peacemaker, or shown distributing alms to the poor. Known as St. Isabel in Spanish and Portuguese, her feast day is July 4.