St. Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad
Patron: Bridgettines, Nun, Nursing
Birth: June 4, 1870
Death: April 24, 1957
Beatified: April 9, 2000, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City by Pope John Paul II
Canonized: June 5, 2016, Saint Peter's Square, Vatican City by Pope Francis
The Servant of God was born in the little village of Faglavik, in the province of Alvsborg, on the 4 June 1870, the fifth of thirteen children born to Augusto Roberto Hesselblad and Cajsa Pettesdotter Dag. The following month she was baptized and received into the Reformed Church of Sweden in her parish in Hundene. Her childhood was lived out in various places, since economic difficulties forced the family to move on several occasions.
In 1886, in order to make a living and to support her family, she went to work first of all in Karlosborg and then in the United States of America. She went to nursing school at the Roosevelt hospital in New York and dedicated herself to home care of the sick. This meant that she continually had to make many sacrifices, which did not do her health any good, but certainly helped her soul to flourish. The contact she had with so many sick catholics and her thirst for truth helped to keep alive in her heart her search for the true flock of Christ. Through prayer, personal study and a deep daughterly devotion to the Mother of the Redeemer, she was decisively led to the Catholic Church and, on the 15 August 1902, in the Convent of the Visitation in Washington, she received conditional baptism from Fr. Giovani Giorgio Hagen, S.J., who also became her spiritual director. Looking back on that moment of grace, she wrote, "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." Two days later she was nourished by the Eucharist, and then she left for Europe.
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In Rome she received the Sacrament of Confirmation and she clearly perceived that she was to dedicate herself to the unity of Christians. She also visited the church and house of Saint Bridget of Sweden (+ 1373), and came away with a deep and lasting impression: "It is in this place that I want you to serve me." She returned to the United States but, her poor health notwithstanding, she left everything and on 25 March 1904 she settled in Rome at the Casa di Santa Brigida, receiving a wonderful welcome from the Carmelite Nuns who lived there. In silence and in prayer she made great progress in her knowledge and love of Christ, fostered devotion to Saint Bridget and Saint Catherine of Sweden, and nourished a growing concern for her people and the Church. In 1906 Pope Saint Pius X allowed her to take the habit of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of Saint Bridget and profess vows as a spiritual daughter of the Swedish saint. In the years that followed she strove to bring back to Rome the Order of the Most Holy Saviour, and to that end she visited the few existing Brigettine monasteries in Europe, an experience that brought joys, disappointments and no concrete help. Her dream of bringing to birth a Brigettine community in Rome that was made up of members coming from monasteries of ancient observance, was not realized. However Divine Providence, in ways that were quite unexpected, enabled a new branch to grow from the ancient Brigettine trunk. In fact, on the 9 November 1911, the Servant of God welcomed three young English postulants and refounded the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of Saint Bridget, whose particular mission was to pray and work, especially for the unity of Scandinavian Christians with the Catholic Church.
In 1931 she experienced the great joy of receiving the Holy See's permission to have permanent use of the church and house of Saint Bridget in Rome. These became the centre of activity for the Order which, driven on by its missionary zeal, also established foundations in India (1937). During and after the Second World War, the Servant of God performed great works of charity on behalf of the poor and those who suffered because of racial laws; she promoted a movement for peace that involved catholics and non-catholics; she multiplied her ecumenical endeavours and for many people who belonged to other religions or other christian confessions, she was part of their journey towards the Catholic Church.
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From the very beginning of her Foundation she was particularly attentive to the formation of her spiritual daughters, for whom she was both a mother and a guide. She implored them to live in close union with God, to have a fervent desire to be conformed to our Divine Saviour, to possess a great love for the Church and the Roman Pontiff, and to pray constantly that there be only one flock and one shepherd, adding, "This is the prime goal of our vocation." She also devoted herself to fostering a unity of spirit within the Order. "The Lord has called us from different nations," she wrote, "but we must be united with one heart and one soul. In the divine Heart of Jesus we will always meet one another and there we seek our strength to face the difficulties of life. May we be strengthened to practice the beautiful virtues of charity, humility and patience. Then our religious life will be the antechamber to Heaven." On other occasions she said, "Our religious houses must be formed after the example of Nazareth: prayer, work, sacrifice. The human heart can aspire to nothing greater."
Throughout her life she remained faithful to what she had written in 1904: "Dear Lord, I do not ask to see the path. In darkness, in anguish and in fear, I will hang on tightly to your hand and I will close my eyes, so that you know how much trust I place in you, Spouse of my soul." Hope in God and in His providence supported her in every moment, especially in times of testing, solitude and the cross. She put the things of Heaven before the things of earth, God's will before her own, the good of her neighbour before her own benefit.
Contemplating the infinite love of the Son of God, who sacrificed Himself for our salvation, she fed the flame of love in her heart, as manifested by the goodness of her works. Repeatedly to her daughters she said, "We must nourish a great love for God and our neighbors; a strong love, an ardent love, a love that burns away imperfections, a love that gently bears an act of impatience, or a bitter word, a love that lets an inadvertence or act of neglect pass without comment, a love that lends itself readily to an act of charity." The Servant of God was like a garden in which the sun of charity brought to bloom the flowers of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. She was filled with care and concern for her Sisters, for the poor, the sick, the persecuted Jewish people, for priests, for the children to whom she taught Christian doctrine, for her family and for the people of Sweden and Rome. She was a humble Sister and most obliging to all who sought her help. She always felt a sense of duty and great joy in sharing with others the gifts she had received from the Lord, and this she did with gentleness, graciousness and simplicity. She was prudent in her work for the Kingdom of God, in her speaking, acting, advising and correcting. She had great respect for the religious freedom of non-christians and non-catholics, whom she received gladly under her roof. She practiced justice towards God and neighbour, temperance, self-control, reserve, detachment from the honours and things of the world, humility, chastity, obedience, fortitude in tribulation, perseverance in her praise and service of God, faithfulness to her religious consecration.
She walked with God, clinging to the cross of Christ, who was her companion from the days of her youth. "For me," she said, "the way of the Cross has been the most beautiful of all because on this path I have met and known my Lord and Saviour." Unremittingly her physical suffering went hand in hand with her moral suffering. The cross became particularly heavy and painful during the final years of her life, when the Holy See prepared the Canonical Visit of her Order as her health got progressively worse. In prayer and peaceful submission to God's will she prepared herself for the final meeting with the Divine Spouse, who called her to Himself in the early hours of 24 April 1957.
The reputation for holiness which surrounded her in life increased after her death, and almost immediately the Vicariate of Rome began the cause for Beatification.
Biography Provided By: The Vatican
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