Elizabeth Hesselblad was a Swedish nurse and nun who transformed her convent into a sanctuary for persecuted Jews during World War II, saving dozens of lives.
Born to a Lutheran family in Sweden in 1870, Elizabeth Hesselblad was the fifth of thirteen children. As a young woman, she moved to the United States for economic opportunity. Elizabeth trained as a nurse and served a population of poor immigrants, many of whom where Catholic. It was her first introduction to the Catholic faith, and she was deeply inspired. She converted to Catholicism, describing the experience as “In an instant the love of God was poured over me.” Elizabeth returned to her home country and became a nun. Inspired by the life of St. Bridget of Sweden, she established a new religious order known as the Bridgettine Sisters. Dedicated to caring for the sick, Elizabeth opened a Bridgettine convent where patients without money were treated with compassion and dignity.
Charismatic and passionate, Elizabeth inspired many others with her faith and good works. She served as Mother Superior to many other nuns who joined her religious order, and affiliated convents were established in England, Italy and India.
During World War II, Elizabeth was horrified at the persecution of European Jews, and resolved to do whatever she could to save them. All of the convents she’d created became sanctuaries for Jewish refugees.
Elizabeth herself settled in Rome, where she served as Mother Superior at the convent there. She personally hid multiple Jewish families, including twelve members of the Piperno-Sed families whom she hid from Dec 1943 until the city’s liberation on June 4, 1944. Years later 87-year-old Piero Piperno remembered, “She saved our lives, but above all, in those dark times, she recognized the dignity of our religion.” It is estimated that at least sixty Jews, and other refugees from German racial oppression, were saved by Elizabeth and other nuns in the religious order she created.
After the war, Elizabeth continued her work helping the poor and sick. She was also known for promoting interfaith dialogue and respect between Catholics and Protestants, and between Christians and non-Christians.
Elizabeth’s righteousness was recognized by Pope John Paul II, who proclaimed her to be a Venerable Servant of God in 1999. She was beatified the next year, and in 2015 Pope Francis canonized her as a saint. Elizabeth became the first Swede to be sainted since St. Bridget over 600 years earlier. She is known as St. Maria Elizabeth.
Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem honored as Elizabeth Hesselblad as Righteous Among the Nations in 2004. She was praised for never trying to convert the Jews she rescued but, “rather insisting that they say their Hebrew prayers and fulfill other obligations of their religion.” In 2015 one of Elizabeth’s convents was declared a “House of Life” by the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.
Elizabeth died in Rome in 1957 at age 87. Her final words to her sister nuns were, “Go to Heaven with hands full of love and virtues.”
For her exceptional righteousness and bravery in saving Jews, we honor St. Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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