St Bridget of Sweden
St Bridget of Sweden (or Birgitta in Swedish) is best known as the foundress of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour and the author of the "Revelations of St Bridget".
She was born at Finsta in Sweden in 1303. From childhood the Lord granted her special graces, visions and an extraordinary understanding of divine realities. At a very early age she had a vision of the crucified Jesus in all the tragedy of his Passion, and she felt in her soul a profound devotion to the Saviour. This devotion would later become a precious heritage of the Bridgettine Order, as expressed in its motto "Amor Meus Crucifixus Est".
Bridget married at the age of thirteen out of obedience to her parents, though she would rather have entered monastic life. She was the mother of eight children whom she raised with exemplary care in the Christian faith. She travelled as a pilgrim to many shrines together with her husband who, upon returning from a visit to Santiago de Compostela entered the Cistercians of Alvastra in Sweden, where he lived for two years before his death.
Remaining at Alvastra following her husband's death, Bridget joined the Franciscan Third Order, and while remaining in the world she devoted herself to a more ascetic life through the practice of penance, a life of poverty and zealous work in helping the poor, the needy and the infirm. Assiduously devoted to prayer, she had numerous visions of the Saviour, who asked her to establish a new monastic Order and to travel to Rome in order to await the return of the Pope from Avignon. For the fulfilment of this latter intention she offered constant prayers, practised mortifications and made urgent appeals to the Pope to return to his See in Rome.
Bridget moved to Rome in the company of a small group of priests and friends in 1349. Her virtuous life was an example to all, and she made many penitential pilgrimages. The last of these, which she made at an advanced age, was to the Holy Land, after she had seen the return of the Pope to Rome. A prophetess of God, she vehemently denounced the excesses she saw around her. The house where she lived in Piazza Farnese, which became the Mother house of the new Order, are a place of pilgrimage and prayer, especially for visitors from Scandinavia. A chapel is set aside for ecumenical services with Lutherans.
Bridget wrote many works in which she recounted her own mystical experiences. She died on 23 July 1373, on the same table she used for writing and for taking her frugal meals with the poor. The aspects of Mary's life upon which Saint Bridget carefully meditated are her Immaculate Conception, her sufferings at the foot of the Cross and the mystery of Nazareth, where the Blessed Virgin is present as "Mother and Teacher of all". Bridget was canonised on 7 October 1391.
In many ways her life can be seen as a model for the religious life, as well as a model of a strong mother in married life. She is an example to all women and all Christians. With her great love for Christ and the Church she became a fearless tutor for the Church and secular leaders of her day.
On 1 October 1999 Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Bridget, Patron of Europe. Her daughter, St. Catherine, became the first Abbess of the Bridgettine Monastery in Sweden.
Early Bridgettine Foundations
The first monastery of the Order that St Bridget founded, in 1369, which became the Mother house of the old order, was in Vadstena, situated on Lake Vättern, in Sweden. From here the Order expanded within Sweden and spread to many countries in Europe, down to Southern Italy, numbering around 40 monasteries. However, as a result of the Reformation, then the Thirty Year's War and the French Revolution, and general secularisation, most of the old institutions in time ceased to exist.
Four independent abbeys from the old medieval branch still remain today. Originally each monastery had both nuns as well as brothers in two separate convents beside each other ('double monasteries'). Since the 1850's only nuns are left in the old Order.
The four remaining monasteries are:
- Maria Refugie (Mary's Refuge) in Uden, The Netherlands, founded in 1435. From here also a monastery was founded in Weert in 1843.
- Syon Abbey in England, founded in 1415.
- Birgittakloster in Altomünster in Germany.
The abbey of Pax Mariae (Peace of Mary) in Vadstena,
Sweden, founded in 1369.
The nuns of the Mother house in Vadstena fled Sweden in 1595 after a Reformation law was passed forbidding Catholicism in all its forms under pain of death. They fled to Gdansk [Danzig]. In 1963 a few nuns of the old Order from Uden came back to Vadstena, where they now live as an independent Abbey, in a convent opposite the original Abbey Church (now Lutheran) which still contains the mortal remains of St Bridget.
Spanish Bridgettines of the 17th Century
Another branch of the Order was founded in the 17th century in Spain by a remarkable Spanish lady, Marina de Escobar, herself a visionary like St Bridget, who was led by the Lord to establish a branch of the Order adapted to Spanish circumstances, and departing from some aspects of the Bridgettine rule, e.g. having a brown habit rather than grey. This branch has monasteries in Spain, Mexico, and more recently Venezuela and Peru.
New Order of St Bridget
In 1911 a new branch came into being through the young Swedish woman, Blessed Elisabeth Hesselblad,
whose was beatified in 2000. She was able to assume the possession of thehouse in Rome, where Saint Bridget stayed for many years. It is today the Mother House of the new branch of the Order, where Mother Tekla is currently the Abbess General. Blessed Mother Elisabeth was able to fulfill her dream of bringing the Birgittines back to Sweden. The new order had its first house in Djursholm, Stockholm, in 1923. Between the years 1935 and 1963 there was also a rest home and guesthouse in Vadstena, and since 1968 a convent has flourished in Falun. There are now more than 40 convents around the world.
Finally mention should be made of a community of brothers in the USA, The Bridgettine Monks. They have been in existence since 1976, are contemplative, and earn their living by making confectionery. Their monastery is The Priory of Our Lady of Consolation, Amity, Oregon.