Peter Westmore

Joanna Bogle's inspiring book on the Bridgettines

by Joanna Bogle
(Gracewing/Freedom Publishing, 2013, 86pp, $19.95. ISBN: 978-178182-993-6)

Many pilgrims in Rome have visited the church of Santa Brigida in the Piazza Farnese, the Swedish national church in Rome, or stayed in the guest house which the Bridgetine Sisters run for pilgrims in Rome.

The sisters have a very distinctive habit, with a veil covered by an unusual saxon-style white headband and a white cross over the head.

The order was originally established by St Bridget (in Swedish, Santa Birgitta) who had been Queen of Sweden in the 14th century, and it later spread throughout Europe.

After the Reformation, when Sweden became Lutheran, the order declined, although in the late 17th century, it provided the home of the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden, who was forced to renounce the throne after becoming a Catholic.

The order was re-established in Rome in the early 20th century under the direction of Mother Elizabeth Hesselblad, a Swedish convert, and was able to take over the original church and convent in 1930, with the assistance of the Holy See. Among its earliest members were two English women, Sr Riccarda Hambrough and Sr Katherine Flanagan, who played a key role in the expansion of the order.

Within ten years, the Second World War had begun, and the convent became a place of support for people suffering the privations of war.

In 1943, when the Allied invasion of Italy took place, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown, and the Nazis took direct control over Italy, including Rome.

This event placed Italy's Jews in great danger, and at great risk to themselves, convents and monasteries afforded a place of secret refuge to tens of thousands of Italian Jews who faced deportation to concentration camps and death.

The Bridgetine sisters in Rome immediately took in Jewish families who were hidden in the sisters' private rooms. In total, about 60 Jews were hidden there during the war. Although the Nazis conducted a search of the sisters' guest house, the Jewish refugees remained hidden until the Allies liberated Rome late in 1944.

The Bridgetine sisters now have houses in several countries, including Sweden, England and Wales, and Mother Elizabeth was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990.

Joanna Bogle interviewed the sisters and the Jewish families who were saved from death, in writing this book. It is an inspiring story of the triumph of good over evil.

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