Swedish nun Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad canonised for saving Jews in WWII

A photo of Elizabeth Hesselblad. Credit: Yad Vashem.

A Roman Catholic nun who sheltered Jewish lives during the Second World War has achieved sainthood.

Pope Francis canonised Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad on June 5, 2016 in Saint Peter’s Square. She is also the first Swedish person to be canonised in more than 600 years. The news comes just weeks before Pope Francis visits Auschwitz.

Born in Fåglavik, a village in the southwest of Sweden in 1870, Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad was the fifth of thirteen children. Raised in the Lutheran tradition, she sought an education abroad to support her family, after years of economic insecurity.

Hesselblad would go to study nursing at the Roosevelt hospital in New York. Her interactions with the poor brought on the path to Catholicism. On February 15, 1902,  Fr. Giovani Giorgio Hagen delivered her conditional baptism. Hagen would continue to play a role in Hesselblad’s spiritual life.

The call of the religious life and duty brought her to Rome a few years later.

Hesselblad sheltered twelve Jewish members of the Piperno-Sed families by hiding them in the convent in Rome where she served as mother superior during WWII.

During the Nazis occupation of southern and central Italy, Rome’s Jewish population were approximately 12,000. Deportations of Rome’s Jews began in October 1943. In quick succession, the Nazis had sent 1,800 Roman Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz. The Piperno-Sed families had left the capital and avoided deportation.

In their search for safety, friends recommended of the Monastery of Salvatore di Santa Brigida, where Hesselblad resided. They were accepted into the monastery on December 5, 1943.

In January 1944, Hesselblad questioned one of the family members about why they took refuge in the monastery. Upon learning the truth, the nuns took special care to protect the families. Hesselblad used her position and connections to secure extra clothing and food provisions.

Hesselblad insisted that the families ‘fulfill their religious obligations’. This act of tolerance restored a sense of religious dignity. A kindness between faiths that went against the grain. And came twenty years before Vatican efforts to repair Catholic-Jewish relations.

The families enjoyed the safety of the monastery until Rome’s liberation on June 4, 1944. Hesselblad died of natural causes in 1957 at the age 87 and was beatified in 2000 by John Paul II.

When John Paull II beatified her on April 9, 2000, he said “The promise of Jesus is wonderfully fulfilled also in the life of Mary Elisabeth Hesselblad. Like her fellow countrywoman, St Bridget, she too acquired a deep understanding of the wisdom of the Cross through prayer and in the events of her own life.”

During a ceremony last year to honour Hesselblad, Piero Piperno, who was 15-years-old, said “But there are always – – some prophets and Mother Elizabeth was one, anticipating what was to come. She saved our lives, but above all, in those dark times, she has restored the dignity of our religion.”

Israel’s Yad Vashem museum named Hesselblad a Righteous Among the Nations in 2004. This is an award given to non-Jews who saved Jewish lives in the Holocaust.

Pope Francis will visit to Sweden later this year to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.