On Sunday, June 5, Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad—a Swedish-born Lutheran who converted to Catholicism—will be canonized. At the beginning of the last century she founded, or rather re-founded, a congregation of nuns, the Order of the Holy Savior of St. Bridget, to encourage the return of the Church of Sweden to communion with the Apostolic See. She has also been recognized for her work hiding dozens of Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
In an encounter with the current postulator of Blessed Mary Elizabeth’s cause, the Reverend Mother Maria Paula Barriga Mondragón, this author was told the dramatic story of the miracle that led to the canonization of Mother Hesselblad, who died in 1957 at the age of 86. I was asked to keep the story confidential because it was awaiting approval from the competent ecclesiastical authorities. But now that the approval has arrived, this truly remarkable story can be told.
In November 2007, Msgr. Oscar Sánchez Barba, at the time postulator for sainthood causes for the Bridgettine order, was asked by the Bridgettines in Havana to examine an alleged miracle obtained through the intercession of Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad. A child, Carlos Miguel Valdés Rodríguez, born in Santa Clara, Cuba, was believed to have been healed of a brain tumor through Mother Hesselblad’s intercession.
According to Mother Paula, when Carlos Miguel was two, he began suffering from headaches, vomiting, insomnia, and other problems. Examinations diagnosed the presence a tumor in the child’s cerebellum. Two surgeries resulted in no substantial improvements in Carlos Miguel’s condition, on the contrary, there were neurological complications which crippled him. The overall prognosis was unfavorable. Carlos Miguel suffered for months, with continual transfers from one hospital to another in attempts to solve his worsening neurological and physical symptoms.
According to Mother Paula, Mother Kochuvelikakathe Martin, who was then the superior of the Bridgettines in Havana, was mainly responsible for the invocation of Blessed Mary Elizabeth, after Sister Martin becoming aware of Carlos Miguel’s serious health situation.
The bishop of Santa Clara, Arturo González Amador, assisted Carlos Miguel’s family in finding adequate medical care for the boy. He recalls the circumstances of the request for Blessed Mary Elizabeth’s intercession:
On 18 July 2005 for the first time, to my knowledge, the intercession of [Blessed Mary Elizabeth] was invoked, and it was for the providence of God. When I was about to depart from Havana for Santa Clara with the child in a serious state, accompanied by his parents, I received a call from the religious of the Order of the Most Holy Savior of St. Bridget, who implored me to make a stopover at their home. I explained that I was with a very sick child and I could not stop, [even though] they wanted me to be there just for a moment. Once I arrived in the convent of the Bridgettines, I was the only one to get out of the car, whereas the parents of the child remained in the van with him, together with a seminarian and the driver who kept the vehicle engine idle with the air-conditioning on for the child’s relief. … Sister Martin told me about the Blessed Mother Maria Isabel [Mary Elizabeth], whom I already knew of, and asked me if it was possible to beseech her intercession for the child and touch him with a bone relic of the Blessed. However, I insisted that it should be short. We received the consent of his parents, and the sister and all recited the prayer of the Blessed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory [Be], and rubbed the bone relic on the child’s body, then giving it for his parents to repeat the gesture. We resumed the journey to Santa Clara immediately. His parents had kept with them the bone relic that Sister Martin had handed over to them.
The healing of little Carlos Miguel, according to Mother Paula, began immediately after the imposition of the relic of Blessed Mary Elizabeth, as the child was taken from the Bridgettine convent to the house of his maternal grandparents. During the trip, he started to move his limbs in a way impossible for him to accomplish before. Carlos Miguel’s mother, Eraisy Rodríguez Hernández, recounted:
On the return trip we prayed the Rosary and at a certain moment of the trip I could see that the child bent the elbow of his little arm. I had the impression that everything was commencing to change positively and this increased our faith and our hope.
Soon the child could walk without assistance and was able to get up and down stairs. He had no relapses and within a few days fully recovered his neurological and physical functions, to the great astonishment of the medical staff who were taking care of him.
For Mother Paula, the connection between the invocation of Blessed Mary Elizabeth and Carlos Miguel’s healing is clear.
An enquiry into the healing, which was considered miraculous, was undertaken by the Diocese of Santa Clara in February 2014. In April 2015, the medical council of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, after examining the diocese’s enquiry, recognized that the healing was swift, complete, and lasting, and inexplicable in light of current medical science.
On December 14, 2015, Pope Francis authorized the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate the decree on the miracle, clearing the way for Blessed Mary Elizabeth’s canonization. On March 15, 2016, the Holy Father set the date for the canonization: June 5, 2016.
The successful sainthood cause for Mother Hesselblad was the work of many, and is in particular the result of the tireless apostolic zeal of the current abbess of the Bridgettine order, Mother Tekla Famiglietti. Under her direction the congregation has experienced phenomenal growth, currently consisting of some 50 houses with 600 nuns worldwide.