Saint of the Month: St. Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad

St. Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad was a convert, religious sister and a foundress. Mary Elizabeth was born in 1870 in the village of Faglavik, Sweden. She was the fifth of thirteen children born to Augusto Hesselblad and his wife Cajsa and she went by the name Elizabeth. She was baptized into the Reformed Lutheran Church of Sweden, where her family participated. The family struggled to make ends meet and had to move several times, finding work wherever they could. Elizabeth suffered from digestive problems starting when she was a child and suffered with this all her life. As a teen, she worked odd jobs to help the family. She completed her education at eighteen and sought to help her family by seeking work in the United States. She studied nursing in New York City and had a special interest in working as a home care nurse. Many of the patients Elizabeth cared for were Catholic, which exposed her to many Catholic devotions and practices, especially concerning the sick and dying. She often went out, regardless of weather or her own bad health, to summon a priest to bring the Sacraments to a dying patient.


Elizabeth had a heart that searched for Truth. She was troubled by the divisions among Christians, which she knew was contrary to the dying wish of Christ, as He ardently expressed the night before His death. She spent much time in prayer and eagerly studied Church history. She became close friends with members of a prominent Catholic family and traveled through Europe with them.  There, she encountered a Corpus Christi procession, which prompted her to kneel in adoration as she recognized Christ’s Presence. These experiences brought her to a decision to become Catholic. While visiting Washington D.C., she met with a priest, requesting to become Catholic. He was so impressed with her knowledge of the tenets of the Faith, he gave her a conditional Baptism in the monastery chapel, August 15, 1902. This type of baptism is given when it is unknown whether a person has been validly baptized. Elizabeth received her First Holy Communion and left for Rome, resolved to dedicating her life to the service of God.


In Rome, Elizabeth was Confirmed, and began to discern how she could contribute to the reunifying of Christians. She visited the home of the Swedish fourteenth century mystic, St. Bridget of Sweden. St. Bridget had lived much of her life in Rome, and her home had recently become a convent for some Carmelite nuns. While there, Elizabeth felt a call from Christ that she was to serve Him there. She returned to the United States only long enough to leave everything from her previous life behind. The Carmelites at Rome welcomed her in 1904, despite her health problems, which became worse, but she made great spiritual progress with them. She studied the remarkable life of her countrywoman, St. Bridget. She was grieved that the Order Bridget had founded had been lost for centuries in her home country. By 1906, Elizabeth knew that she had a “call within a call” to bring the Order of the Brigittines back from near extinction. She requested of the Holy See that she be allowed to profess her religious vows according to the Rule of the Brigittines, and permission was granted. She took the traditional habit of the Order, distinctive by its bands across the head in the shape of a cross and made her vows in June of that year.

Pursuing the goal of vivifying the Order in Rome under the original Rule, Elizabeth visited the few existing Brigittine monasteries, but found no support for her intentions. She therefore set out to create a new branch of the Order with special emphasis on caring for the sick and praying for Sweden to once again be a Catholic country. In 1911, she was joined by three young British postulants and the new congregation was born, the Order of the Most Holy Savior of St. Bridget. In 1931, Elizabeth received permission of the Holy See to occupy the home of St. Bridget in Rome for the use of her congregation, which had obtained approval. The Order grew enough that she was able to establish a convent in Sweden, and later, in England and India. During World War II, Elizabeth worked tirelessly for poor people and victims of racial discrimination. She gathered an ecumenical group to work toward establishing peace. Many converted to the Catholic Church due to her witness. She personally arranged for the protection of endangered Jews, a very dangerous undertaking. Her physical suffering increased over the years, and she died, surrounded by her Brigittine sisters, April 24, 1957, at age eighty-six.

St. Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad was an early developer of ecumenism through evangelical witness. She had a strong motherly care for the spiritual formation of her Brigittine sisters, through a strong Eucharistic and Marian spirituality. She devoted her entire adult life to fervent prayer for one flock with one Shepherd and for care of the sick poor. She has been honored as a Righteous Among the Nations for her work on behalf endangered Jews during World War II. She was canonized in 2016 and her feast day is her birthday, June 4.