St. Elizabeth and the 700-year-old vow that we keep

By Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent

SOMERSET, Mass. — Centuries before the Fourth of July came to commemorate our nation’s independence, it marked the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Portugal, one of the most extraordinary women in history — although too few people, even among Catholics, are acquainted with her.

Yet as Catholics in the Diocese of Fall River, we are acquainted with religious feasts or festivals, which are a part of our devotion no matter our cultural heritage. 

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According to a history posted online in memory of Father Raul M. Lagoa, the former pastor of St. John of God Parish in Somerset, the original Holy Ghost Feast was held during the reign of Queen Elizabeth of Portugal, who lived from 1271 to 1336. 

Known as a peacemaker, St. Elizabeth was devoted to the Holy Spirit and built a church dedicated to the Holy Ghost in Lisbon. There are many stories of the queen’s piety and service, but the dearest to the Portuguese people of the Azores is the one explaining their devotion to Queen Elizabeth and the Holy Ghost.

During the 13th century the Azores suffered from many violent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the most seriously hit was the island of Pico. The people could not survive the drought, crop failures, and famine that now plagued them, so they gathered together in prayer to the Holy Ghost for help. 

On the morning of Pentecost Sunday, there was a great rising sun, and the people saw in the sunrise a ship coming into the Port of Fayal. This ship was laden with the necessities of life, and food was distributed among the people of the various islands. Their prayers had been answered.

When the queen heard of this providence, she organized a solemn procession in honor of the Holy Ghost. Accompanied by her maids, she carried her crown through the streets of Lisbon to the cathedral, where she left it on the altar as an offering of thanksgiving for the favors the Holy Ghost had given her people. 

In addition, she began a tradition of feeding the poor at Pentecost. Each year she chose 12 people to whom she gave a new suit of clothing and personally served them a meal at her table. 

Consequently, the people of the Azores vowed that they and their children and their children’s children would commemorate the day by giving thanks to Queen Elizabeth for the sacrifice she made.

Since then, many Portuguese churches have displayed replicas of her eight-sided crown in remembrance of her goodness and God’s grace. She was canonized by Pope Urban VIII in 1625 in recognition of the miracles that were attributed to her pious life.

The feast of the Holy Ghost or Festa do Espirito Santo is a universal celebration throughout the Portuguese-speaking world, especially in the Azores, Portugal, Brazil and among the many immigrant communities of New England and California.

This summer throughout the diocese parishes will hold their annual feasts, including the parishioners of St. John of God Parish who will host their festival on July 18, 19 and 20. 

The Holy Ghost is symbolized by a crown and a dove, and there is always food associated with the feast, culminating with a procession in which bread, meat and wine are distributed among the poor.

But who is this woman who has endeared herself to centuries of generations of Catholics?

The daughter of King Peter III of Aragon and Queen Constance, Elizabeth was born in Saragossa, Spain, around 1271 and grew up in a family of six brothers and sisters.

“Her childhood days were regularly divided between her studies, her sewing, her prayers — kneeling, she accompanied her chaplain at the Divine Office on a daily basis — and recreation,” according to a history on the EWTN website. “She was deemed a great beauty, very early in life.”

Her parents weighed the political advantages of a matrimonial alliance with King Denis of Portugal, and Elizabeth became his wife, by proxy, when she was 12 years old. A year-and-a-half later, she arrived in Portugal to start her new life as wife and queen.

Her husband allowed her liberty in her religious devotion and esteemed her piety but did not imitate it. The couple had two children, Alfonso, who later succeeded his father, and a daughter Constance. The king also fathered seven children with several other women, and Elizabeth took them into her care and tutored them as well.

“God made me queen so that I may serve others,” St. Elizabeth said, her Christian faith guiding every part of her life.

“She gave orders to have pilgrims and poor strangers provided with lodging and necessaries, and made it her business to seek out and relieve persons who were reduced to necessity,” according to “Butler’s Lives of the Saints.” “She provided Marriage dowries for girls and founded in different parts of the kingdom charitable establishments, particularly a hospital in Coimbra, a house for penitent women at Torres Novas, and a refuge for foundlings.”

Jealous of his half-brothers, Alfonso led a revolt against his own father. Riding out between opposing forces, Elizabeth reconciled them. She also averted war between Ferdinand IV of Castile, and his cousin, and between the prince and her own brother, James II of Aragon. 

After her husband died in 1325, Elizabeth professed in the third order of St. Francis and lived in a house which she built near to her convent of Poor Clares, where she led a life of great simplicity dedicated to prayer and care for the poor.

Elizabeth died on July 4, 1336 at Estremoz, where she had gone on an errand of reconciliation between her children in spite of her age and the great heat. She was buried in the church of her monastery of  Poor Clares at Coimbra.

“We ought not to forget her, and God has ensured this in the land she blessed, where her body remains incorrupt,” according to the EWTN history. “Reposing in the Church of St. Clare, her elaborate coffin has been opened several times through the centuries, and as recently as 1912. The teams of examiners, invariably composed of doctors and Church officials, consistently reported that St. Elizabeth remains intact, as beautiful and serene as if she merely slept.” 

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