Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad
Mary Elizabeth 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, the family’s poverty obliged Elizabeth to look for work. Two years later, having come up against difficulties in Sweden, she decided to leave for America, in order to help her family financially. Arriving in New York on July 9, 1888, she entered a school for nurses at Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital. She often took care of workers injured on the building site of the future Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, many of whom were Catholic immigrants.
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 15th of 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.
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 March 25, 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 Savior of Saint Bridget and profess vows as a spiritual daughter of the Swedish saint. She worked to restore the Order in Sweden and Italy, especially in Rome. She returned to her homeland in 1923, ministered to the poor, and tried to revitalize the Briggittine Movement there. She acquired St. Bridget’s house, which became the motherhouse for the Order, and during World War II, she saved the Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis by giving them refuge there.
Her last months were marked by physical suffering due to a weakening of the heart. Thanks to deep faith in the value of the redeeming Passion, she wrote, “Suffering is one of the greatest blessings that God can give to a soul.” She never complained, but spoke joyfully of her impending death: “I am at the station, waiting for the train.”
The day before her death, Mother Elizabeth gave her blessing to the sisters and, holding her raised hands in a solemn gesture, looking to the heavens, she murmured, “Go to Heaven with hands full of love and virtues.” She then received the sacraments; her last moments were calm and peaceful. She died on Easter Wednesday, April 24, 1957.
Pope John Paul II proclaimed Mother Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad Blessed on April 9, 2000.