This summer, Pope Francis canonized St. Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad (1870-1957)—a Swedish convert to the faith, and only the second saint named from Sweden in history.
Saint Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad was a convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism. She was the fifth of thirteen children, whose family moved frequently due to difficult economic times. She was raised in the Reformed Church of Sweden. At the age of 18, she emigrated to New York to earn money for her family. First she studied nursing at Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital. She worked with the sick and aged as a nurse in home care for the Catholics of New York City. Because of her acquaintance with so many Catholics, her interest in the Church grew, and she came to view it as the place where one could be closest to Christ. In 1902 she converted to Catholicism and received conditional baptism by Giovani Hagen, a Jesuit priest.
Later that year she sailed to Rome where she received her Confirmation. She returned briefly to New York, but then returned to Rome to enter religious life. Mother Mary Elizabeth decided on the Carmelite House of Saint Bridget of Sweden, and in 1906 she received permission to take the habit of the Brigittines (the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of Saint Bridget.) It wasn't her intention to found a new order originally. She only intended to revive the ancient order in the same house where Bridget had lived and died. Her dream was to take the Brigittine Sisters back to Sweden once more and let the order take root wherever God led it. She wanted to spread the true spirit of Christian unity and service to others, as it had been spread by the ancient Order of Saint Bridget. She worked to restore the order in Italy as well, especially in Rome. In 1923 she returned to Sweden where she ministered to the poor and tried to revitalize the Brigittine movement there. In 1937 she was successful in establishing Brigittine foundations in India.
The communities founded by Mother Elizabeth under a central authority without papal enclosure, and her insistence that they are an integral part of the ancient Order of the Most Holy Saviour, gave rise to much criticism and sometimes to controversy. But after thirty years of continuous trials and persevering through difficulties of all kinds, her order was canonically approved and on July 7, 1940, recognized by the Church. Today, her order consists of fifty houses spread over three continents, whose work is the charism given to them by St. Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad.
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Maria Pilar, a Brigittine nun from Spain, told the Catholic News Agency on June 5 that the canonization of their foundress is not only a recognition of her sanctity, but also gives publicity to “the example of a person who lived for God and sought the truth since she was a child—she was Lutheran and sought the truth as a young girl.”
St. Maria Elizabeth “was called to offer a lot in the ecumenism of the Church, so that all religions would be one in Christ, not just in Spain,” she said, and prayed on behalf of her order that the Church would be “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.”
Similarly, Ulf Silverling, a layman from Stockholm, said the canonization means a lot to the local Catholic community in Sweden since “normally the Catholic Church is described as some exotic experience from immigrants.”
However, “this is a Swedish saint, and it's the second Swedish saint officially in history. She's a follower of St. Bridgette, who was also Swedish, so it's a restoration of the Catholic history in Sweden, actually.”
With nearly 300 people in his group alone, including non-Catholics such as Lutherans, Pentecostals and one Syrian Orthodox priest, Silverling said the event also serves as a strength for the faith of immigrants, who live “in one of the most secularized countries in the world.”
Pope St. John Paul II beatified Mother Maria Elizabeth in 2000. This humble yet great Sister, transfused the treasures of her spirit, her faith and her love to the Institute she founded, with the sole intention of making it a humble instrument for the spreading of the Kingdom of God on earth.