Book and documentary recount the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the first Franciscan sister of the active life in the Middle Ages. Her work survives in the congregations, like St. Ludovico's Gray Sisters of St. Elizabeth, that bear her name.

Ludovico da Casoria, a 19th-century Franciscan friar, founded dozens of institutions for the poor: for black children redeemed from slavery, orphans, the deaf, the blind and the elderly. This “St. Francis of the nineteenth century,” who Pope Francis will raise to sainthood on November 23, was inspired in one of his greatest efforts by a woman who lived 600 years before him.  When he decided to found a women's congregation to care for orphaned children, he named it after St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

Born in 1207, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, and wife of a German prince, Ludwig, Landgraf of Thuringia, St. Elizabeth, inspired by Francis of Asissi and his followers, was renowned for her charity to the poor. After her husband’s death, she cared for needy sick people in a hospital she founded in Marburg, along with some companions, who along with her became the first Franciscan sisters of the active life.

"St. Elizabeth and her companions. . . were the foundation for all the hospital sisters, Sisters of Charity and orders like Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in later centuries."

Lori Pieper, OFS, Editor and Publisher, Tau Cross Books and Media

Lori Pieper, OFS, a medieval historian and a secular Franciscan, has detailed Elizabeth's work for the poor and its significance in her biography, The Greatest of These is Love: The Life of St Elizabeth of Hungary, just released in a new, revised print edition from Tau Cross Books and Media.

Dr. Pieper, who also wrote and directed the documentary A Woman for Our Time: St. Elizabeth of Hungary (Tau Cross Books  and Media 2011), notes that the future saint was a young wife and mother of barely eighteen when she met the first Franciscans who came to Germany, and helped them establish a friary in Eisenach, on her husband’s domains. She was inspired by them in her love for the poor, whom she began to visit in their homes with food, clothing and other aid. Later she built a hospital at the foot of her home, Wartburg castle, and nursed the poor with her own hands, including children with the most disfiguring diseases.

The book and film describe how Elizabeth was deeply struck by the friars’ love of poverty, and told her ladies-in-waiting that she too wanted to live in rags begging like them someday. Of course, they thought she was joking. But later, her fortunes turned; her husband died of a fever on his way to take part in the Crusades, and his brother, who now ruled Thuringia in his place, didn’t look as kindly on her work for the marginalized as her husband had. Nor did those of her husband’s vassals whose exorbitant taxes levied on the peasants she had criticized; they soon expelled her and her children from her lands.

Elizabeth never looked back. She chose to give herself entirely to God and to the needy. After she was able to make sure her children would be cared for, Elizabeth established a hospital in Marburg, where she and her ladies-in-waiting cared for the sick in old patched habits like St. Francis. They lived on exactly the same footing as the other sisters of peasant birth.

Both the book and the documentary give up-to-now unknown details about Elizabeth's novel religious foundation, her relationship with the Franciscans, and her difficulties in religious life as a "sister in the world," at a time when women like her were looked on with suspicion by many because they didn't stay behind convent walls. Many of the startling new details come from new research and previously overlooked sources.

Dr. Pieper says: “Elizabeth and her companions were among the first of the Third Order Sisters anywhere. Up until that time, women religious had to live in the cloister. St. Clare, Francis’ first female follower, was also cloistered. My research reveals that as an experiment, Pope Gregory IX allowed St. Elizabeth and her companions to live outside the cloister, so they were free to engage in charitable work in the world. They were the foundation for all the hospital sisters, Sisters of Charity and orders like Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in later centuries. In the Middle Ages, a number of groups of women who cared for the poor adopted her name along with the Franciscan habit.  Elizabeth was a natural patron for Fr. Ludovico Casoria to turn when he founded the Suore Elisabettiane Bigie (Gray Sisters of St. Elizabeth).”

In 1862, Fr. Casoria was engaged in rescuing African children from slavery, and founding homes in which to educate them. He was also gathering in the attacconcelli, or orphaned street children of Naples and Casoria, who made their living by begging, and founding group homes for them to live in. To help in his work, he had already formed a men’s religious congregation, known as the Grey Brothers. To undertake the care and education of the girls, he founded the Gray Sisters in 1864, giving them the name of St. Elizabeth, whom he tenderly called “the Seraphic Mother,” just as St. Francis is known as the Seraphic Father.

The sisters are still active today and have houses and insitutions in United States, Ethiopia, India, Panama and the Philippines.

Elizabeth died in 1231, at the age of just 24, and already renowned as a saint. She was canonized in 1235. On Sunday, November 24, 2014, Fr. Ludovico da Casoria will join her in the ranks of those the Church most honors for their holiness. Both will continue to inspire their successors in the work of charity.

The Greatest of These is Love is available in both print and e-book format on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Both the biography and the documentary on St. Elizabeth are available from taucrossbooks.com. Dr. Pieper is happy to give interviews. To contact her or to request review copies, send an e-mail to editor@taucrossbooks.com.

About the Author

Lori Pieper received her BA in the Humanities and MA in History from the University of Northern Iowa and her PhD in Medieval History from Fordham University, where she specialized in hagiography, Italian medieval history and women’s religious history. Her other historical books include St. Elizabeth of Hungary: The Voice of a Medieval Woman and Franciscan Penitent in the Sources for her Life (2007). She has had articles published in many periodicals, including Our Sunday Visitor, The Catholic Digest and L'Osservatore Romano. She has also worked for some years as a professional translator. Since 1990, she has contributed translations of Pope John Paul I’s writings to the journal Humilitas; some of these have appeared in “The Smiling Pope: The Life and Teaching of Pope John Paul I” (Our Sunday Visitor, 2004) and A Passionate Adventure: Living the Catholic Faith Today (Tau Cross Books and Media 2014). A member of the Secular Franciscan Order, she lives and works in the Bronx, New York.

What others have said about The Greatest of these is Love:

"It's been many years since a scholarly work on St. Elizabeth has been published. The book is easy-to-read and presents this 800 year old saint as a dynamic woman who is an example to wives, mothers, teens and all people of prayer and service to the poor. Dr. Pieper combines cutting-edge research, new material never before released with a styel of writing that anyone can understand and absorb. I can't recommend the book highly enough." Fr. Frank Schneider, St. Elizabeth's Church, Melville, NY.