Reaching out to the marginalized was and is one of the great charisms of the Bridgettine Order, as evidenced by an event at Rome’s Casa di Santa Brigida on November 14, 2013, when the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Institute gave two medals to the present abbess general of the order, Mother Tekla Famiglietti, in memory of Blessed Mother M. Elisabeth Hesselblad and Servant of God Mother M. Ricarda Beauchamp Hambrough. The medals were in recognition of what the two sisters did for two Jewish families during World War II. Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Dr. Piero Piperno, representing the families, were also in attendance.
During the Nazi occupation, the nuns hid 12 members of two Jewish families in their convent in Rome for many months. In addition to their profound humanity and courage, it was noted that the nuns never exerted any pressure on their Jewish guests to convert, allowing them to live their Jewish faith without any difficulty.
The ceremony presenting the two medals closed a circle of sorts which began in 2005 with the inscription of the name of Mother Hesselblad in the register of the Righteous Among the Nations and which continued this summer with a gala event in Los Angeles honoring the sisters’ heroism.
“Beyond social and religious affiliations, this honorable recognition reflects awareness for the centrality of the person, the high and inescapable value of every human being and his life as a right and duty to defend, promote, and develop,” Abbess Tekla Famiglietti said as she accepted the medals on behalf of the two nuns.
Blessed Mary Elisabeth Hesselblad, a Swede who converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism, is credited with the revitalization of the Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget in 1911. Today the order is present on three continents. In April 2000 she was beatified. During the German occupation of Italy, she was abbess of the religious community she founded at Casa di Santa Brigida in Piazza Farnese in Rome. Mother Ricarda, her assistant, was born in London and in 1914 joined the newly re-established Bridgettine Order. The Pipernos and Seds, Jewish families from Rome, wandered from one place to another to evade the Nazis, finally returning to Rome, where they found refuge in the Convent of St. Bridget.
“Our family was fortunate to find many people who had helped, but none like Blessed Mother Elizabeth and [Mother] Ricarda, who have saved our lives and restored our dignity,” Piero Piperno was quoted as saying in the Italian bishops conference daily Avvenire in September. “For the first time since the promulgation of the racist laws in 1938, we could again feel as human beings.”