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The saint who established the Bridgettine monasteries

The Vision of St Bridget depicted in a manuscript from 1530

One of six patron saints of Europe and the most celebrated of Sweden’s saints, Bridget was the daughter of a wealthy landowner and related to the royal family. Born in 1303 and married at 13, six of her eight children survived infancy – an unusually lucky family life at a time when most children did not reach their fifth birthday.

However, in 1344, three years after they had gone on pilgrimage together to Santiago de Compostela, her husband Ulf died, after which Bridget, who had always been known for her works of charity, devoted her life to caring for the poor and sick, joining the Third Order of St Francis.

Her most important legacy was the establishment of the Bridgettines, double monasteries under which the nuns were strictly enclosed, emphasising scholarship and study, but the monks were preachers and itinerant missionaries.

Among her children was St Catherine of Vadstena, who led the Bridgittine convent her mother had founded, and who was canonised in 1484. Bridget’s granddaughter Ingegerd Knutsdotter was then abbess, after which members of the order were known as “Bridget’s spiritual children”.

The order had a huge impact on encouraging literature and European culture in Sweden and Norway, pacifying a country that had until the 11th century been fierce and pagan. By 1515 there were 27 Bridgittine houses, half of them in Scandinavia, and such was the respect in which they were held that it took 70 years before the Lutherans suppressed them in Sweden. In England Richard Reynolds, a monk of the Syon Abbey Bridgittine monastery, became one of the first martyrs of England in 1535.

Bridget’s famous prayer, known as the Fifteen Os, was also tremendously popular in England, and was said to have been inspired after she prayed to know how many blows Jesus Christ suffered during the Passion. He came to her and told her to recite 15 Our Fathers and 15 Hail Marys “with the following Prayers, which I Myself shall teach you, for an entire year”.

She travelled to Rome during the plague year of 1350 to receive authorisation of the Pope for the order, although the Holy Father was at that time in Avignon, and it was another 20 years that the rule was confirmed. She remained in Rome until her death in 1373, and, though she was hugely popular with the poor, she spent much of the time in conflict with those who were abusing the Church’s power. Pope Boniface IX canonised her in 1393, while in 1999 Blessed John Paul II named her as patron saint of Europe.

Although the value of her revelations were sometimes in doubt, the late pope wrote in the letter Spes Aedificandi: “Yet there is no doubt that the Church, which recognised Bridget;’s holiness without ever pronouncing on her individual revelations, has accepted the overall authenticity of her interior experience.”