During our summer message series, Wonder Women: Female Heroes of the Bible, we highlight saints who exemplify the qualities of our biblical heroine for the week. This week’s heroine is Esther. Listen to her complete story on the messages page of our website. Her companion saint is St. Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad.
In John 15:13, we learn that, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Our courageous saint this week took that behest one step further — laying down her life, not for her friends, but for the people who were most dangerous to help in her lifetime: Jewish people under Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Saint Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad was born a Protestant in Sweden in 1870. She needed to help support her family, and with no job prospects in Sweden, she found herself in New York City at the age of 18, where she discovered a passion for nursing. At the Roosevelt Hospital, she began home nursing, and had several devout Catholics as patients. These patients inspired Elizabeth to explore the faith, and she began to pray.
A few years later, she felt ready to enter the Church, was baptized, received her first Communion two days after that, and then promptly left America for Europe. She made a pilgrimage to Rome, where she was confirmed, and visited the House of Saint Brigid of Sweden. There, she felt deeply called to dedicate her life to the work of Christian unity, and after a brief trip back to the United States, entered a Carmelite monastery in Italy.
The strong-willed, determined spirit she had shown in entering the Church continued to serve her. She petitioned the Holy See to be allowed to take religious vows under the ancient Rule of the Order of Saint Brigid, eventually gaining special permission needed for this from Pope Pius X.
As a new Brigittine nun, she attempted to revive interest in the order, and in Saint Brigid, in both Italy and Sweden, but was met with little success. Again, this did not deter her, and eventually her little order grew, and received official papal approval in June 1940. Driven by her commitment to Christian unity, Elizabeth felt that she also had an obligation to facilitate interreligious dialogue and perform charitable works towards those who suffered due to racial and cultural discrimination laws.
Horrified by the persecution of Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis, she hid at least twelve people in her convent in Rome during the Nazi occupation of Italy. While they hid under her roof, Elizabeth did not discourage them from practicing their faith nor did she attempt to convert them. Rather, she built a makeshift synagogue right there for them in her Catholic, Brigittine convent. After the fall of the Nazis, Elizabeth was recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem (a Jewish organization dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust), for her courage in assisting the Jewish people.
Like the courageous Queen Esther, Elizabeth risked her life to save people with less autonomy than her, and reminds us every day, that a hero is courageous.
--Claire Kosewic, Parishioner
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