Convent of St. Birgitta celebrates canonization and 60 years in Darien

At the convent — Sisters Eunice and Fabiola, Mother Renzy, and Sisters Ermenegilda, Floriana and Gina. — all photos courtesy Marie Whita O’Reilly

On a glorious day of sunshine and blue skies, Pope Francis canonized Father Stanislaus of Jesus and Mary, and Mother Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad.  Faithful from all corners of the globe filled St. Peter’s Square and prayed as one, birds swooped and soared above the splendid Basilica, its façade crowned with statues of Christ and His Apostles.  Sunday, June 5, 2016, was a day to rejoice: the Church had given us the gift of two new saints.

At Saturday’s Vigil Mass, Cardinal Angelo Comastri described Elizabeth Hesselblad’s life as a romanzo and indeed her extraordinary trajectory from Swedish immigrant to sainthood reads like a novel.  

It may also be described as a saga for its inspiration began centuries ago with the birth, in 1303, of the great St. Birgitta of Sweden.  This “Mystic Star of the North,” a wife and mother of eight, exerted powerful influence in the Middle Ages counseling and chastising kings and even Popes while establishing the Rule for monasteries and convents that would spread across Europe in her name.  After the Reformation, the Brigittine Order of the Most Holy Savior was banished from Scandinavia and over the centuries it all but died out.  Though the light of the great “Star” faded it never disappeared; it was rekindled by her compatriot, Elizabeth Hesselblad, who believed she was called by God to restore the ancient Order.  Because of the heroic endeavors of this new saint, to date there are fifty-five Brigittine Convents in 16 countries across three continents.

Elizabeth Hesselblad was born into a Lutheran family in Foglavik, Sweden, in 1870.  From infancy, she seemed destined for greatness.  As a newborn, her mother asked the nurse why she had placed her infant daughter on the cold hearthstone.  “This child needs to be hardened in time.  She will have to go through great trials in her life,” the old nurse replied.  Her prophecy proved true.

Devout from an early age, Elizabeth pondered why there were so many religious denominations in Sweden; this led to an abiding quest to find the “one true fold.”  In recurring childhood dreams or visions she saw the House where St. Birgitta had lived in Rome.  

Twenty years later it was to become her convent cell.

Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad

At the age of 18,  she immigrated to the United States to support her large, struggling family.  She trained as a nurse in New York’s Roosevelt Hospital caring for the sick and the poor and eventually became its director.  Many of her patients were Irish Catholics and included workers injured during the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  Their staunch faith impressed her despite an innate skepticism of Catholicism and its rituals.  

Two Catholic sisters, Marie and Emma Cisneros, befriended the young nurse and persuaded her to join them on a trip to Europe.  In Brussels, as the monstrance passed before her during a Corpus Christi Procession, she fell unexpectedly to her knees and heard a voice saying “I am He Whom thou seekest.”   The experience was the beginning of an arduous spiritual journey that would lead to her conversion.  In 1902, she was baptized into the Church at Georgetown University by the Rev. J.G. Hagen, a distinguished Jesuit astronomer who became her spiritual advisor.  The Jesuit Order would play an important role in her mission.

Another journey with the Cisneros introduced Elizabeth to Rome.  While making their way to the Vatican, she suddenly turned pale and stood bolt upright in the cab.  There, before her in Piazza Farnese, was the house of her visions where St. Birgitta had lived and died.  Instantly, she jumped from the cab, entered the church and again fell to her knees in prayer.

The House, at the time, belonged to an enclosed Order of Carmelite nuns where entry was so restricted that her first meeting with the Mother Superior was through a grille.  She had little or no knowledge for Elizabeth about any remaining Brigittine Convents.  While there, Elizabeth experienced an extraordinary magnetism to the place and a voice that repeatedly insisted, “It is here that you must serve.”

On her return to New York, Elizabeth no longer found satisfaction in her hospital duties yet she worked tirelessly often compromising her own fragile health.  Her Notes of that time tell of repeated callings: “Go back to St. Birgitta’s House.”  She feared these “locutions” may have been delusional but eventually believed they came from God and successfully petitioned the Carmelites to join their community.

As she prepared to set sail for Italy, her health took a dangerous turn with the recurrence of severe intestinal hemorrhaging, a condition that began in childhood and continued throughout her life.  Her doctors believed, and not for the first time, that she did not have long to live.   Nevertheless, in 1904, she revived sufficiently to undertake the long journey accompanied by her youngest brother, Sven Ture.  

It was expected she would die in Rome.

Her debilitating health continued during her novitiate; moreover, she suffered a deep spiritual conflict as the time for first vows approached.  Instead of taking the robes of the Carmelites, Elizabeth requested the grey Brigittine habit with its white crown and five crimson dots symbolizing the wounds of Christ.  Providentially, at this time, Father Hagen was transferred from Washington to head the Vatican Observatory; he believed in her dedication to St. Birgitta and appealed to Pope Pius X on her behalf.  The Pontiff granted her unusual request and later remarked, “Poor child of St. Birgitta, all alone in Rome in the House of St. Birgitta.”

After her profession, Sister Elizabeth felt a divine imperative to revive the Brigittine Order.  She began by corresponding with the few remaining convents in England, Germany, Holland, and Spain which, though separated, still followed the Rule of St. Birgitta.  Despite chronic ill health, she visited each one hoping these communities might send Sisters to Rome for her new foundation.  Her efforts proved fruitless.  

By the time Sister Elizabeth returned from her visitations, the sympathetic Prioress, Mother Hedvig, had died.  Her stern successor forbade Sister Elizabeth to enter the clausura and restricted her to a small apartment on the Via Monserrato side of the House.  That same year a priest from Syon Abbey, the Brigittine Convent in England, brought her two young postulants and Sister Elizabeth became Mother Elizabeth of the fledgling Order.  Before long, however, they were ordered to find accommodations elsewhere.  Gradually, more postulants joined her and, eventually, a permanent home was established on Via delle Isole.   

Rome was spared the ravages of the First World War but not the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in Avezzano in 1915.  The tragedy changed the direction of Mother Elizabeth’s ministry; she took in orphaned children while reaching out to the sick and the poor in their new neighborhood.  

House of St. Birgitta in Piazza Farnese, Rome. Statues of St. Birgitta and her daughter, St. Catherine of Sweden

By 1920 Canonical Approbation confirmed the renewal of the Brigittine Order of the Most Holy Savior established upon the old foundation.  The historic revitalization was under way.  Mother Elizabeth had long hoped to regain St. Birgitta’s House in Piazza Farnese and, in discussions with the Carmelites, understood that the only way to reclaim it was to enable them to purchase another property.  “If you had a million lire,” the Procurator advised, “They would leave at once.”  To which Mother Elizabeth replied, “God has the million and we will leave the matter in His hands.”

As the 550th anniversary of Saint Birgitta’s death approached, in July 1923, the Swedish people showed a renewed interest in their Patron Saint.  High Church Lutherans and the Protestant Societas Sancta Birgittae invited Mother Elizabeth to attend ceremonies at the saint’s original church in Vadstena.  Overjoyed to return to her homeland to celebrate the historic event and visit her family, Mother Elizabeth also quietly seized the moment to establish a Rest Home in Djursholm outside Stockholm.  Because of considerable prejudice against Catholics, she emphasized their mission of hospitality to all nationalities and faiths thereby avoiding any controversy.  The foundation was a monumental achievement for the Church as well as for the Order: the Brigittine Sisters had returned to Sweden after an absence of four hundred years.

Before returning to Rome, Mother Elizabeth stopped in Lugano where, at the request of local bishop, she opened a Retreat House.  This third convent was followed by the offer of a house outside London by her longtime friend Marie Cisneros Potter.  Meanwhile momentum was building in Rome over the fate of the House of St. Birgitta. With assistance from the Vatican, a new home was found for the Carmelites.  At last, the Brigittines regained their Mother House and Scandinavian pilgrims once more enjoyed a hospice in Rome as they had in the Middle Ages.  

By 1935, Mother Elizabeth believed it was time to build a foundation close to St. Birgitta’s original Blue Church in the old monastic town of Vadstena.  The press there acclaimed the historic significance of a Swedish convert bringing the Brigittines back to their earliest roots.

Darien statue of St. Elizabeth — replica of statue in Rome

During World War II, Rome, like the rest of Italy, suffered great privation and hardship from all fronts.  The Sisters often had to take shelter in the crypt and at great peril, took in Jews and refugees; Mother Elizabeth created a makeshift synagogue within their walls and courageously faced down a Nazi officer who demanded to search the cloister.  The House also became a distribution center for food and clothing during the war years; a video of the time, shows the Sisters greeting the actress, Ingrid Bergman, who was involved in their humanitarian effort.

Mother Elizabeth had always wanted to open a convent in the United States where she had lived as a young woman and made friendships that changed her life.  In a sequence of amazing coincidences, an estate on Long Island Sound was offered to the Order.  As though pre-ordained, the  Darien “Summer Cottage” already bore the name “Vikingsborg.”  It had belonged to Richard Tjader, a fellow Swede who immigrated to New York the same year as Mother Elizabeth.  The Tjaders were Baptist missionaries and when her father died, Marguerite Tjader Harris, wanted the house to continue as a spiritual center.  While visiting her childhood nanny, who had retired to Sweden, Mrs. Harris stayed at the Convent in Djursholm.  Impressed by the Brigittines’ unique charism of prayer, hospitality and ecumenism, she traveled to Rome to donate her home to the Order.  Later, she too became a convert to Catholicism.

Pope Francis making his way through the crowds after the ceremony.

“Vikingsborg” will be a great work for God,” Mother Elizabeth declared of what was, at the time, the eighth and last foundation of her lifetime.  She was then in her eighties and though she never visited this new convent, she was actively involved in plans to transform the music room into a chapel.  She died on April 24,  a few weeks before a small band of four sisters set sail from Naples to New York.  The Convent in Darien  opened on May 29, 1957.

Humble, unassuming and deeply prayerful, Mother Elizabeth also displayed extraordinary energy, courage and vision that enabled her to revive the Brigittine Order.  She sublimated extreme physical suffering into prayer and spiritual power; such was her devotion to St. Birgitta that she declared, “If you open the veins in my arm you won’t find my blood but the blood of St. Birgitta.”  

Toward the end of her life, she received many accolades and recognition for her remarkable achievements and good works.  She was awarded the Service Cross of the Order of Malta and also Sweden’s highest honor, Commander of the Order of the North Star.  For sheltering Jews during the war, Yad Vasher numbered her Righteous Among Nations at the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance in Jerusalem.  

An apostle for unity, peace and ecumenism, St. Elizabeth’s message is timeless: “The Lord has called us from different nations but we must be united with one heart and one soul.”