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St Brigid of Sweden

We in Ireland are proud of our two famous Patron Saints, Patrick and of course Brigid, who is also known as “the Mary of the Gaels”. Until quite recently, I am ashamed to admit, I did not know that there is another saint of the same name, Brigid of Sweden. We celebrate her Feast Day on July 23rd.

Brigid was born in 1303, the daughter of Berger Presson, the rich governor of Upland, and his second wife, Ingelbard Bengstotter.  Her father used his riches generously and worked for the just and fair treatment of all people. His was an example she would faithfully follow.   When she was twelve her mother died, and she was raised by an aunt at Aspenas.

As was the custom of the times she was married two years later to a Swedish prince, Ulf Gugmarsson.  For twenty-eight years she oversaw the houses on his estates. She became known for her works of charity, particularly towards unwed mothers and their children. The marriage was a happy one and produced eight children of her own, one of whom, Catherine, was destined to become a saint, like her mother.

Courtier and Pilgrim

In 1335, Brigid was summoned to court to be the principal lady-in-waiting to Queen Blanche, wife of King Magnus II.   It was here that she began to experience supernatural revelations and tried to reform what she saw as the lax sexual morals of the royal duo.  Although the king and queen respected her, they didn’t change their lifestyles and the courtiers gossiped about her.

In 1340 after the death of her youngest son, Brigid made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Olaf in Norway and then went to the shrine of St James at Compostela in Spain. Her husband died in 1344 when they were visiting the Cistercian monastery at Alvostra and Brigid remained there for some time afterward experiencing many spiritual graces in visions and revelations.

Founded a Monastery

Having recovered from her husband’s death, and now clearer about what she should do, she founded a monastery in 1346 at Vadstena on Lake Vattern for sixty nuns and twenty-five monks, who lived in separate enclosures but shared the same church.

All superfluous income was given to the poor; luxurious buildings were forbidden, but all the inmates could have as many books for study as they wished.  In temporal matters the abbess was supreme but in spiritual ones the monks.

In founding the monastery of Wadstena, Sweden, and the Order of the Most Holy Trinity, the Brigittines, Brigid established the intellectual center of the nation in that era.

Moves to Rome

In 1349, Brigid went to Rome to obtain approval for her Order, as well as the jubilee indulgence of 1350.   There she found a city in a sorry condition.  In addition to the ancient Roman ruins and the ruins of earlier Christianity, there was a new scene of devastation caused by an earthquake in 1348 and signs of the Black Death.

Worse, two feuding families the Colonni and the Orsini kept the city which the popes had abandoned, in a state of constant civil turmoil.  All the Papal States had become the fiefdoms of petty warlords.  Violence, crime, simony, nepotism, and a general sense of decay all contributed to Brigid’s decision to remain, in the hope of inaugurating reforms.

Taking up residence in a cardinal’s palace but living according to the austere Brigittine rule she had written, she continued to receive messages from saints and angels.  Pope Urban V approved the constitutions of the Brigittines in 1370.

Last Efforts, Death and Canonization

Brigid never returned to Sweden but spent the rest of her life visiting shrines and serving the poor and the sick.

She tried to dissuade King Magnus from a so-called crusade against the pagans of Estonia and Latvia; like other visionaries, she also warned Pope Clement VI to return to Rome from Avignon and to make peace between England and France.   Threats of punishment for persistent wrongdoing feature fairly prominently in her writings.

During a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, her son Charles came down with a fever and died.  Brigid continued her pilgrimage and returned to Rome where she died in 1372.  She died there I on July 23, 1373, and her remains were transferred to Wadstena by St Catherine, her daughter.  She was canonized in 1391 and was made patroness of Sweden.

Pope Saint John Paul II named her co-patron saint of all Europe along with St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein).

“Blessed may you be, my Lord Jesus Christ.  You redeemed our souls with your precious blood and most holy death, and in your mercy, you led them from exile back to eternal life.”

(St Brigid of Sweden)

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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