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Catholic Heroes… St. Elizabeth Hesselblad

May 23, 2019 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

In the movie, The Scarlet and the Black, Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty is remembered for his courageous and ingenious ways of saving Jewish people from execution during World War II. Likewise, Pope Pius XII was remembered by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, as follows: “Jews will always remember what the Catholic Church did for them by order of the Pope during the Second World War.”
Nearly 70 other persons were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Jewish community for all they did to save men, women, and children from persecution during World War II. Among the list is Elizabeth Hesselblad, the only other Swedish person to be canonized besides St. Bridget.
Elizabeth was born on June 4, 1870 in Faglavik, Sweden, about 400 kilometers from Stockholm. Even today it is a very small village with a population of only 5,000 in 2009.
Her parents, August Robert Hesselblad and Cajsa Petesdotter Dag, had Elizabeth baptized in July at the Lutheran Church of Hudene. Elizabeth was the fifth of her parents’ 13 children — nine boys and four girls. Three children died at a very young age.
Although August was a practical, artistic man and Cajsa was an industrious and clever woman, the family barely survived on the income generated by the grocery they owned. Thus, in 1871 the family moved to Falun, about 225 kilometers northwest of Stockholm.
They were faithful and devout Lutherans attending services every Sunday. The Hesselblads were raised to love God and respect all life. They taught their children that God alone provided the ability to accomplish anything.
In 1878 Elizabeth nearly died from diphtheria and scarlet fever. She recovered, but became seriously ill again in 1882. This illness gave her stomach ulcers and internal hemorrhages, leaving her susceptible to recurrences for the rest of her life.
Rather than complaining, she wrote, “God gave me early on the grace to understand that difficulties are sent to be conquered. With God’s help, everything can be overcome, but, without His support, all effort is useless.”
The family’s situation made it necessary for Elizabeth to work, and after two years, she decided to go to America for a better life. On July 9, 1888, she arrived in New York and entered the Roosevelt Hospital nursing school where she cared for workers who were injured during the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
This was not her only exposure to Catholics.
One stormy night Elizabeth braved the elements to summon a priest for a dying Catholic who sought to confess his sins. The priest praised her, saying, “May God bless you, dear little sister, for your attention and zeal . . . you cannot yet understand what a marvelous service you render to so many people. . . . One day you will understand; you will find the way.”
Elizabeth continued to search for a church where she would truly experience Christ. She attended a variety of denominations, but was especially intrigued by the practices of the Catholics, such as the way they frequently genuflected and made the Sign of the Cross. Why did they do all that? She did not appreciate the meaning of these exterior practices.
In 1894 Elizabeth took a vacation and returned to Sweden for the first time in six years. With great sadness, she came back to America, where she then met the Cisneros family. To this family she dedicated her service for the rest of her life.
In 1900 they all traveled to Sweden to visit Elizabeth’s family. After Sweden they went to Brussels, and since the Cisneros family was Catholic and it was the Feast of Corpus Christi, Elizabeth accompanied them in the Corpus Christi procession at St. Gertrude Cathedral.
As the bishop drew near with the monstrance, Elizabeth stepped back since she did not want to offend her friends by remaining standing. She thought, “Before you alone, Lord, I kneel.”
Yet when the monstrance was in front of her, she experienced a great peace and was permeated with the thought, “I am the One you seek,” as she gazed on our Lord. She fell to her knees in her first adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
From that time, Elizabeth became closer and closer to the Catholic Church, despite her biggest hurdle, the Church’s devotion to Mary.
Another obstacle was the sacrifice her dear friend, a daughter of the Cisneros, made when she joined a religious order. Elizabeth could not understand such a dedication causing a separation from the family.
Furthermore, the faults and failings of Catholics disappointed her. Slowly, all these issues were resolved as she learned more about Mary, the love of Jesus as a spouse, and the mercy of God.
Elizabeth began meeting with a Jesuit, Fr. J.G. Hagen, who eventually brought her into the Church at her insistence. When she begged for entrance before she left for Europe, he was reluctant, but she responded adeptly, “My Father, forgive me, but I have fought darkness these twenty years; for many years I have studied the Catholic faith, and have prayed for a strong faith.”
Fr. Hagen subsequently received her into the Church on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1902. At the end of the year, Elizabeth went to Rome and visited the house of St. Bridget. In 1904, in Rome, Elizabeth dedicated herself to promoting the work of St. Bridget.
She applied to the Carmelite Convent in Rome and was accepted on a trial basis because of her poor health. Despite falling gravely ill, she did recover and was allowed to stay. Her family urged her to return to Sweden, but she resisted their pleas.
She petitioned the Holy See to be able to make religious vows under the Rule of the Order which Bridget had founded. That order had a vital presence in Sweden prior to the Reformation. She received special permission for this from Pope Pius X in 1906.
On June 22, 1906, Elizabeth received the Brigittines’ gray habit, making her vows to Fr. Hagen. In 1911, English postulants joined her in Rome and together they opened the first house. On March 4, 1920, Elizabeth became abbess of the Order of the Holy Savior.
Elizabeth returned to Sweden to celebrate St. Bridget’s 550th anniversary of entering eternity. St. Bridget’s relics, brought there from Rome, were venerated.
While there, Elizabeth founded a home for elderly and ailing patients seeking assistance. For the first time in nearly 300 years, religious habits were seen in Sweden.
Elizabeth stopped in Switzerland on her way to Rome to establish a Brigittine convent and soon another was founded in England. In October 1928, when the Carmelites left Rome, Elizabeth and her sisters took over their house.
In 1935, another convent was opened in Vadstena, Sweden. In 1937, two nuns left to begin work in India.
During World War II, Elizabeth’s courage and love for her neighbor led her to rescue Jews from persecution. For example, she saved 12 Jews in Rome by hiding them in a convent until the city was liberated in June of 1944 and she also assisted Italian Communist refugees and Germans and Poles.
She was instrumental in the conversion of Eugenio Zolli, the chief rabbi of Rome, and a Baptist minister, Piero Chuminelli.
In 1956 Elizabeth’s heart began to fail. Just before she died, she blessed her sisters saying, “Go to Heaven with hands full of love and virtues.” She died a holy death on April 24, 1957. Pope John Paul II beatified her on April 9, 2000 and Pope Francis canonized her on June 5, 2016. Elizabeth’s feast day is June 4.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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