St. Bridget of Sweden was the gem of pre-Reformation Sweden. Of the ruling class and a mother of eight, she had a second career as a mystic, foundress, and a reforming spirit. In this second career, spent in Rome, she worked with St. Catherine of Siena to bring the popes back from France to the Eternal City, meanwhile establishing the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, a double monastic foundation in which both the male and the female Brigittine members were ruled by the mother superior. Their first abbey was set up at Vadstena, Sweden. Vadstena became both a cultural and a devotional center, where the Swedes flocked for centuries to venerate her relics and those of her daughter, St. Catherine of Sweden, the first abbess of Vadstena.
All that changed with the Protestant Reformation. The Swedish rulers adopted Lutheranism for their country, and the Order of the Most Holy Saviour was banished from the kingdom. The men’s section of the order gradually disappeared, and only four independent houses of Brigittine nuns outside of Sweden today remain.
It was a tragic loss. Fortunately the women’s branch was reestablished in 1911, and in 1923 it once more set up a Catholic house in Sweden. This restoration was accomplished by the superhuman effort of a second Swedish woman, Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad, a convert to Catholicism. Because of her long residence and conversion in the United States, her story is of special interest to American Catholics.
Mary Elizabeth was born at Faglavik, Sweden, on June 4, 1870, the fifth child of devout Lutheran parents. Early interested in matters religious, Elizabeth often asked herself why there were so many Christian churches when Christ had prayed for “one fold”. “Often I prayed,” she wrote much later on, “that the Lord guide me into this one fold.”
In the mid-1880s her father went bankrupt. Elizabeth, now 16, got a job as a housemaid to help support the family. Two years later she emigrated to America and enrolled as a nursing student in New York’s Roosevelt Hospital. She proved to be a very conscientious nurse, respectful of the spiritual as well as the physical needs of her patients. Now for the first time she came into contact with Catholics. When assigned to take care of a nun in a convent, she became interested in Catholic belief, and started to study it. This marked a turning point in her search for the “one fold”.
In 1900 Nurse Elizabeth and two Catholic friends were visiting Brussels, Belgium, on the Eucharistic feast of Corpus Christi. As the trio stood among the crowd watching the public Eucharistic procession, a remarkable thing happened. When the priest who bore the Blessed Sacrament passed in front of her with the monstrance, Elizabeth had a distinct sense of the Real Presence. In her heart she heard the words of Jesus himself, “I am He whom you seek.” Now, for the first time, she adored the Eucharist with conviction. After that there was no turning back. On August 15, 1902, in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Hesselblad was received into the Catholic Church.
With Elizabeth’s conversion came the dream of restoring Sweden to its Catholic heritage, and with that dream came the conviction that the revival of St. Bridget’s religious order should be a means. That this would be no easy task was clear to her when she announced her conversion to her own family. During her next trip home, when the family said grace at table, Mary Elizabeth blessed herself. The family was shocked by her act and her announcement, and her mother took her aside and begged her in anguish to tell nobody else such shameful news.
St. Bridget had begun to plan her foundation in Rome. Nurse Hesselblad followed the same course. In March 1904, she asked the Carmelite nuns who occupied Bridget’s former convent on Piazza Farnese to allow her to become a Carmelite postulant, hoping to transfer to the revived Brigittines when it came time for taking vows. But at that moment her health became so fragile that her life was despaired of. She survived, however, and two years later was admitted to the Carmelite novitiate. Pope St. Pius X encouraged her, and on the feast of the Sacred Heart in 1906 he permitted her to be clothed in the picturesque habit of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, and to take Brigittine vows.
Hesselblad spent 1908-1911 visiting the four remaining houses of the ancient order. Although these little communities chose to remain independent, they were able to acquaint her with the Brigittine rule and customs. They were lonely and pain-ridden years; but in 1911, having attracted two postulants, she reestablished the Brigittine order in Rome. After a dozen more years of hard work, she was able to set up her first modest convent at Djursholm in Sweden. Sometime later she opened a second convent in Vadstena itself, the locale of St. Bridget’s original monastery.
But Sweden would not be reconverted easily. It had passed from sectarianism into secularism. Only in 1953 was the Catholic diocese of Stockholm, which covers the whole country, established. In the year 2000, that diocese reported only 164,000 Catholics, including many immigrants from Europe and Asia in the nation’s total population of eight million. The presence of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour since 1933, however, was surely a factor in the growth that had been achieved since 1923.
Mother Elizabeth Hesselblad’s vision was not restricted to Sweden alone. She was a Catholic pioneer in the modern ecumenical movement, and her 300 nuns were to pray and work for the realization of the “one fold” across the globe. Sweden still has only two Brigittine convents. The majority of the total 36 houses are elsewhere: 16 across Europe; one in the United States; four in Mexico; 13 in India; 13 in the Philippines. Rome continued to be the central location for the mother house. During World War II Mother Elizabeth was able to give shelter in her little Roman convent to Jews and anti-Fascist politicians. After the same war she could collect funds and gifts to ship to the needy in her home country. Delighted in 1945 by the foundation in Rome of the ecumenical “Unitas Association”, she invited it to use her mother house, St. Bridget’s ancient headquarters, as its center; and she was happy to collaborate with its founder, the French theologian, Fr. Charles Boyer, S.J.
Mother Hesselblad did not long survive the war. When her chronic illness finally overcame her on April 24, 1957, it could have been said of her truthfully that she gave her life for Christian unity.
Some five decades before her death, when she was a nursing student in New York, she had accidentally been locked up overnight in the morgue of Roosevelt Hospital. Reconciling herself easily to this chilly imprisonment, she decided to make the rounds of the bodies there and pray for each deceased person. One of the bodies, she discovered, seemed warmer than the others. Sensing that this young man might still be alive, she covered his body as best she could, with part of her own warm clothing, and prayed for him with double fervor. When the morgue was opened in the morning they found nurse Hesselblad beside the gurney of a revived young man. Elizabeth did not call his survival a miracle, but it symbolized her future career, to restore people to the life of faith. Pope John Paul II declared her and four others “blessed” on April 9, 2000, in the second beatification ceremony of the Year of the Great Jubilee 2000. He rightly praised this second St. Bridget as a pioneer of Catholic ecumenism.
–Father Robert F. McNamara