The Church of St. Elisabeth sits in a lovely little square in the 4th District of Vienna, Austria. It’s three blocks from the gorgeous Belvedere Palace and Museum, and right around the corner from a good friend’s apartment. On a cold and dank February Sunday morning, I decided to venture out and see what was happenin’ at St. Elisabeth’s, she being my patron Saint after all. My name is Bettina, a derivation of Elisabeth, and although in Europe, especially in the German-speaking areas, this is a well-known and common name (the most famous Bettina for me is the poet and contemporary of Goethe, Bettina von Arnim. I also mention her, because her uncle was Franz Brentano, priest, and professor of Philosophy in Vienna, and the connections come full circle…), in America, this name has garnered me much attention, even ridicule throughout my life. Ah, the cruelty of children. There was an entire summer in grade school, where a classmate called me “Butt” for months. But thankfully, working menial retail jobs where I had to wear a name tag, I experienced more than enough compliments and oohs and ahhs to make up for that summer. When saying my name to people over the years in America, I have gotten, “Oh, Petunia, that’s interesting,” to “Latina! Nice.” Or, the best, from my drill Sergeant in Basic Training: “Bettina!! Isn’t that a black name?!” So now I like to explain how Bettina in the German-speaking world (and I was named after an actual German woman named Bettina), does mean little Elisabeth. Now we all know a bit about me, and why I shall begin my blog with a post about St. Elisabeth’s Church.
Though not raised Catholic, I find myself drawn more to Catholic Churches than other denominations, and have learned a lot about Christianity through the names of all the churches I encounter, all named after Saints. And there are so many Saints! Over 10,000, depending on who’s counting. Starting with St. Elisabeth is easy because she was the mother of John the Baptist, cousin of Mary and thus Auntie to JC Himself. Oh, and she is amongst other things most famous for becoming pregnant at an advanced age (meaning there’s still hope for me at age 38, ahem). She is also revered in Islam as a pious woman, to top it off.
From the booklet I purchased in the church I discover that this church is dedicated to an Elisabeth—obviously— but not the first one that I had in mind. The patron saint meant here is St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231). She was the Princess of Hungary and known for a miracle of roses and immense charity. As to the architecture, the book tells me “the neo-gothic brick-built church…can be glimpsed from Karlsplatz. The 74-meter high bell tower, set above the main facade, is one of the highest church steeples in Vienna and rises above a three-aisle nave with a slightly protruding transept and a south-pointing polygon-shaped choir. The red brick construction is accentuated with highlights of ashlar (such as buttresses, door and window frames).” This spot had been recommended for the building of a Roman Catholic church twice before but it wasn’t until a decree from the Ministry of Education in 1857 that the church was ordered to be built and funded by the Religious Fund Trust, and the Wieden District petitioned to dedicate the new church to St. Elisabeth, in memory of the recovery from a lung infection of the immensely popular Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as Sisi. The pamphlet explains further that the front portal, reached via seven steps, is divided by a middle pillar—a typical characteristic of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. Above is the statue of St. Elisabeth of Thüringen (1207-1231), the church’s patron, and featured on the altar painting of the High altar. How many Elisabeth’s can we associate with this place now?
The congregation and Parish seemed quite busy and full, despite the cold pews and lack of heating, there were at least 35 people attending, and I had seen a group of children being taken to a children’s activity in the community building (called a presbytery) in the square nearby before mass. The community flier presents a wide variety of activities, from men’s groups to children’s Fasching (Carnival) celebrations. My favorite was finding a little mini pamphlet called “Kirche im Kleinen: So feiern wir gemeinsam die Heilige Messe” or “Miniature Church: This is how we celebrate the Holy Mass” published by the St. Boniface Association in the back literature table, which tells you how mass is celebrated, and what is happening at each step. A very helpful guide for us outsiders.
The priest spoke German with a slight Eastern European accent, and his sermon was about loving your neighbor, and how much more difficult it is than we think because Jesus didn’t mean just your nice neighbor, the one you like, who is just like you, but strangers too—even the refugees, oh my—and that’s what it means to be Christian, to walk the talk. I left Mass feeling uplifted and interested in expanding my miniature understanding of the church. The stained glass windows I found quite beautiful, but the only thing it says about them in the booklet is that the oldest ones are from 1908, and the newest were replaced in 1950 by generous donations from congregants.