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Saint of the week

The saint who distributed small gifts

St Elizabeth of Portugal (July 4) is buried in a magnificent Gothic sarcophagus in the Convent of Santa Clara in Coimbra

By on Thursday, 26 June 2014

Elizabeth of Aragon, painted by Francisco de Zurbarán

Elizabeth of Aragon, painted by Francisco de Zurbarán

Elizabeth of Aragon, also known as St Elizabeth of Portugal, was queen consort of Portugal and a tertiary of the Franciscan order. She was contracted to marry King Denis of Portugal in 1281 when she was 10 years old. The wedding was celebrated in 1288 when Denis was 26 and Elizabeth was 17.

During her youth, Elizabeth had prayed the Divine Office and attended Mass twice a day. She continued to do this once she was married. She also attended the poor and sick.

She took an active interest in Portuguese politics and was a conciliator during the negotiations over the Treaty of Alcañices, signed by Denis and Sancho IV of Castile in 1297, which fixed the border between the two countries.
Elizabeth bore two children: Afonso and Constance. She served as an intermediary between her husband and her son, who later became king, during the civil war which lasted from 1322 until 1324.

Following her husband’s death in 1325, Elizabeth retired to the monastery of the Poor Clare nuns in Coimbra. She joined the Third Order of St Francis and dedicated herself to the poor and the sick.

When a great famine struck in 1293 she gave the flour from her cellars to the starving children of Coimbra and was also renowned for distributing small gifts, such as paying dowries and was a benefactor of many hospitals. Her peacemaking gifts were called on again in 1336 when Afonso IV marched his troops against King Alfonso XI of Castile. Elizabeth managed to cultivate peace. But as soon as her mission was completed, she suffered a fever and died on July 4 in the castle of Estremoz.

Although Denis’s tomb was elsewhere, Elizabeth was buried in the Convent of Santa Clara in Coimbra in a magnificent Gothic sarcophagus. But it would often flood due to the proximity of the Mondego River.

So her remains were moved by the Poor Clares to the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova. Her body was transferred to the main chapel and it was buried in sarcophagus made of crystal and silver. She was beatified in 1526 and canonised by Pope Urban VIII on May 25 1625.