Sr. Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad, a Swedish nun who harbored Jews in her convent during WWII, was canonized a saint by Pope Francis on Sunday, June 5th. And what an incredible life she had!
Hesselblad was born in 1870 to a Lutheran family as the 5th of 18 children in Sweden. As a teenager, she moved to the United States and worked as a nurse in New York City. This brought her into close contact with the Catholic faith for the first time since many of her poor patients were Catholic.
After years of study and prayer, she finally decided to join the Catholic Church in 1902. But when she first approached a priest, he was skeptical she was ready. “My father, forgive me,” she replied, “but I have fought in darkness for twenty years; for many years I have studied the Catholic faith and have prayed for a strong faith… I now possess this faith, and I am ready to submit to an examination on all the points of doctrine.”
After further conversation, the priest admitted she was ready and received her into the Church three days later on the Feast of the Assumption.
“In an instant the love of God was poured over me,” she later reflected about her conversion. “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 is to follow Him on the Way of the Cross.”
Inspired by the life of St. Bridget of Sweden, Hesselblad founded a new religious order for women dedicated to serving the sick. Her first house was in her homeland of Sweden, but it quickly spread: during her lifetime her order opened houses in England, India, and Italy.
During WWII, she used those houses as safe havens for Jews and others targeted by Nazis for violence and killing. She also dedicated her life to ecumenism and fighting racism – and her work bore fruit: she personally contributed to the conversion of a baptist minister and Jewish rabbi in Rome.
While on her deathbed in 1957, her parting words to her sisters were “Go to Heaven with hands full of love and virtues.”
Amazingly, some of those she saved during WWII are still alive today to see her canonized. “She saved our lives,” 87-year-old Piero Piperno, one of the Jews Hesselblad saved, told Radio Free Europe, “but above all, in those dark times, she recognized the dignity of our religion.”
She was honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations by by Israel’s Yad Vashem in 2004, and in 2015 one of her convents was declared a “House of Life” by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.