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St Elizabeth Hesselbad

Feast day: 4 June

Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad was born on 4 June 1870, the fifth child of the thirteen born to Lutherans August Robert Hesselblad and Cajsa Petersdotter Dag from Faglavik. She was baptised into the Lutheran church. By 1886 she had to look for work to give financial support to her family. At first she looked for employment in Sweden but in 1888 she  emigrated to America, where she trained as a nurse at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. While there she did home nursing which brought her into contact with the Catholic poor. This led her on the path to conversion. She approached a Jesuit priest, Father Hagen, and asked to be received into the Catholic Church. At first he was reluctant, saying that he had only just met her. However she explained that she had “fought in darkness for twenty years” and that she had studied the Catholic faith. He received her into the Catholic Church on the Feast of the Assumption 1902. At the time she said: “In an instant the love of God was poured over me. I understood that I could respond to that love only through sacrifice and a love prepared to suffer for his glory and for the Church. Without hesitation I offered him my life and my will to follow him on the Way of the Cross.”

Her brother Thur followed her in converting to Catholicism. Elizabeth then made a pilgrimage to Rome where she was confirmed. She visited the house where St Bridget of Sweden had lived in the last half of her life, and this made a deep impression on her. She felt called to dedicate her life to the cause of Christian unity. She made a brief return to New York and went back to Rome in 1904 to be welcomed as a guest in the Carmelite monastery there. She became very ill and received Extreme Unction. Her family urged her to return to Sweden but she refused. Instead she asked to make religious vows under the rule of the congregation which Bridget had founded in  Sweden before it was suppressed by the Reformation. Elizabeth received special permission from Pope Pius X to do this in 1906, and assumed the habit of the Bridgettines, with its distinctive crown of the Five Wounds above the veil. She was professed by Father Hagen in 1906 on the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

Elizabeth attempted to revive interest in the order and its founder both in Sweden and Rome. Her proposal to establish a monastery of the congregation on the site where St Bridget had lived received no volunteers from the monasteries still extant. Having failed in this goal she decided to dedicate herself and three others to the care of the sick. They would also have as their mission the conversion of the Scandinavian people.

She returned to her homeland Sweden in 1923, where she was able to establish a community in Djursholm while she worked nursing the sick poor. The new congregation was established also in England in 1931, after she had received the approval of the Pope. That same year Elizabeth obtained the House of St Bridget in Rome for her new community. A foundation was made in India in 1937, which drew many new members. Canonical approval was given in 1940. She was also able to open a convent near the original site at Vadstena.

Elizabeth became known as "the second Bridget". Having performed many charitable works on behalf of the poor and those that suffered due to racial laws, she also promoted a movement for peace involving Christians and non-Christians. She also saved Jewish lives by hiding them in her convent in Rome.

On 23 April 1957, her health having been in decline for some time, Elizabeth gave her blessing to the sisters and held her raised hands in a solemn gesture in which she murmured these words: “Go to Heaven with hands full of love and virtues.” She received the sacraments and died on 24 April 1957. She was canonised by Pope Francis in 2016. She was also honoured as “Righteous Among Nations” in 2004, an award given to non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. She would be delighted to learn that the convent at Vadstena was refounded in 1963 as a Brigettine convent of the original branch of the congregation. She would also rejoice in the fact that in 1991 - the sixth centennial of St Bridget - Pope John Paul II and two Lutheran bishops prayed together before the burial place of St Peter in Rome as an ecumenical gesture.

St Elizabeth Hesselbad, pray for us.