Did the new century produce an increase in religious fervor? Or was it the new millennium that prompted the avalanche of theological frenzy in the form of books like The Da Vinci Code and an abundance of New Age gurus, red Kabbalah strings and spiritual self-help books? Maybe our hunt for the grail simply is a wild goose chase, while a deeper spirituality — our inner grail perhaps — is eluding us?

Could it be that a small group of Catholic sisters hold the key?

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Welcome to the sometimes eerie, often beautiful but always fascinating world of cloistered life in the 21st century. Stunning and elegant, Vikingsborg spreads out on the Long Island Sound like the Connecticut mansion it is. With an enormous, sloping garden attached, it’s nothing short of breathtaking. But a closer look shows Vikingsborg to be not just another mansion, but a Catholic convent, home to the sisters of Saint Birgitta.

Birgitta is, as any Swedish school child will tell you, Sweden’s only saint. Squeezed in time between the Vikings and the Reformation, Birgitta stands as a most impressive remnant of Sweden’s days as a Catholic country.

Visiting the Birgittines will remind anyone just what a great imprint she left.
Since Catholicism even today is seen as a bit exotic in the Scandinavian countries, the very notion of young women locked up behind the high walls of a convent seems spooky if not downright wrong. It’s a thought that takes some getting used to. A long time ago, it might have been a way to escape an unwanted marriage, or the only route for a woman with intellectual aspirations. But why become a nun today?

The 10 women living at Vikingsborg at the time of our visit are Indian, Mexican and Italian, and range in age from 28 to 87. They all look the same as they quickly brush by: a gray habit, a long black veil topped by a white crown with five red dots signifying the five wounds of Christ. It's an outfit which commands respect; you don’t easily joke around with a group of nuns in flowing veils. Nevertheless, the absence of the hints by which we normally read each other — clothes, profession, marital status — makes understanding a person difficult.

A few visits later, faces gradually appear under the veils as their different personalities emerge. I learn about Sister Gina’s struggles as she learns to play the piano. I learn that Sister Christina cheered on her Italian team during the latest World Cup in Soccer, and that Sister Agnes has a talent for imitating animals. I learn that all of them think of funny anecdotes to tell each other, and that there’s a lot of laughter in a convent.

A calling from God
A bed, a shelf for books and clothes, a small table, chair and a wash basin — these are the things each sister has in her room. The day begins when the bell tolls at 5:45 a.m. Matin in the chapel is at 6:10, mass at 7:30, Midday Prayer at 11:45, Adoration, Rosary and Vespers at 4 p.m., Night Prayer at 9:00 and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at 9:30. In between, there’s the Guest House to keep up, food to cook, plants to tend and floors to scrub.

Mother Eunice, Vikingsborg’s mother superior and the Darien convent's sister in charge, has beautiful, soft eyes and lively features. Swift in mind and body, she gracefully pours my tea into a delicate cup as she explains the charisma of the Birgittine Order. Each religious order has its own charisma, and that of the Birgittines is: Prayer, Adoration, Reparation, and Ecumenical activities. The charisma is what makes an order stand out and helps attract prospective sisters to it.

"When I was younger I didn’t know what I wanted. I thought I’d have a great career and travel the world," Mother Eunice says. "But when God calls, you get this inner feeling. I prayed, 'Lord show me my vocation.' And then I saw this habit in a dream. When a Birgittine sister visited my parish in India, I recognized it immediately."

The Birgittine Order is semi-cloistered, meaning it is contemplative and active, with emphasis on prayer life. And it’s this aspect of the order that interests most of the sisters. Sister Agnes from Mexico was 14 when she became an aspirant. Her mother had died and her older sisters were married.

"My father never thought I’d persevere!" she says with a big smile. "But I was attracted to this life of prayer since I was very young."

Sister Sarah studied political science for three years while trying to suppress a desire for monastic life.

"There was a burning in my heart, a great desire to be the spouse of Christ. My parents asked me to first finish my studies. But I didn’t even wait for my diploma to arrive! My aunt was a Birgittine sister and I was just waiting for someone to ask me to join. When I entered the convent, my family was weeping."

She says she feels God’s unique love for her, and calls life with her new family enriching. "All of us have the same aim here. And you know Christ said: 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.'"

Sister Gina, the youngest in an Indian family with seven children, explains that it was her widowed father who suggested she’d become a nun. "First I stayed with the Carmelites at a boarding school. Then the Birgittines came to our parish, and the priest told them about me. I was 18 when I felt I wanted to become a nun. My father and my brother brought me to the convent after my summer vacation. I thought 'Let me just try it.' My father kept saying 'If you’re not happy, you don’t have to stay,' but I was happy, I am happy, this is such a close-knit family. I get peace and tranquility."

Sweden awaits another saint
Mother Elisabeth gave Jews a hiding place during WWII, was good friends with Ingrid Bergman and plays a crucial role in the Birgittine’s storyline. Yet few people have heard of Mother Elisabeth, whose life had all the makings of a Hollywood epic with poverty, struggles and glory.

Mother Eunice points out a rather severe-looking portrait, but a photo from Mother Elisabeth’s youth reveals a lovely girl with pretty eyes, round cheeks and an air of heart-breaking innocence. To understand her, it’s necessary to take a closer look at St. Birgitta. One of the most powerful females of her time, Birgitta was a visionary who also had a finger in many political affairs in Sweden as well as in Rome.

She was a pious child, married at an early age and gave birth to eight children. It wasn’t until Birgitta was widowed that the full force of her vocation became clear. She believed Christ himself appeared to her, she wrote about her visions and journeyed to Rome where she struggled to get the Papacy to return to from Avignon (which Pope Gregorius XI finally did in 1377).

Birgitta founded a new religious congregation, the Birgittines, with a monastery in Vadstena, Sweden. Through her good works she made herself loved in Rome, where she died in 1373. In 1391 she was canonized. It could’ve ended there — and almost did for the Reformation dealt a serious blow to the Birgittines. The Vadstena convent was dissolved and its nuns fled to Poland.

The Birgittine Order was in hibernation when along came Mother Elisabeth. Born Maria Elisabeth Hasselblad in 1870 into a Lutheran household in a village in Västergötland, Sweden, she immigrated to the U.S. alone at age 16 hoping to economically aid her family. In New York, she became a nurse and worked at Roosevelt Hospital. Maria Hasselblad surely felt lonely and scared in her new country; always something of a seeker, she converted to Catholicism in 1902. Two years later she moved to Rome, severely sick and prepared to die. Instead she managed to fulfill her dream of breathing life into Birgitta’s order.

More on Mother Elisabeth's canonization announced by Pope Francis on December 17, 2015: Canonizing another Swedish saint

Despite poor health, extreme adversities and setbacks, Hasselblad continued with exceptional will power, completely absorbed with her goal to re-establish the Birgittines, which finally was carried out in 1911. The Holy See gave her permission to use Casa di Brigida on Piazza Farnese (the house in which St. Birgitta lived and died), and Hasselblad made it a center of activity for her newfound order.

During WWII, Hasselblad performed charity work on behalf of the poor and those who suffered because of racial laws; she was proclaimed Righteous Among the Nations, an award granted by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. A friend of Hasselblad, Marguerite Tjäder Harris, donated her childhood home, Vikingsborg, in Darien, Connecticut to Hasselblad’s work ... and thus the first Birgittine sisters moved to Mother Elisabeth’s adopted country in 1957. In April that same year, Mother Elisabeth died.

Mother Elisabeth is now on her way to becoming a saint — Sweden's second saint in more than 600 years. Pope John Paul II beatified her in 2000; her canonization is pending with Pope Francis. Her branch of Birgittines exists today in Sweden, England, Switzerland, Mexico, the Philippines, India and the U.S.

A prayer for the world
On this visit, the skies over Vikingsborg are suddenly overcast in spite of what started as a sunny day. Sure enough, rain starts to patter against the huge windows, accompanied by thunder and lightning. Sister Gina runs to close the open glass doors, as the sisters begin to prepare for Vespers.

Sister Fabiola and I have been talking. When I comment that most sisters come from poor countries, she nods. "God manifests himself in simple hearts. People with money think they have power. But what can they bring with them when they die? We who are poor know the One who will help us. Look, what do you really need in life? You need food, clothes, shelter and medicine should you get sick. What else do you need?"

She draws a circle with her finger on the table. "You come to realize that you are all alone in this world, and that we are all the same, in the same boat, whichever religion we belong to … God is the same, and we have the same problems. We fall and we get up. We have to always try to get up. We must persevere."

And if you thought life surrounded by like-minded believers guarantees a solid faith, think again.

"You suppose just because I put my foot in here I change? Oh no! Every day is a struggle and one must ask the Lord for help. Help to love, help to be patient, help to strive a bit more. Help to see the presence of God in the small things. You breathe — that’s because of God! There’s a story about a man who can’t leave his house because he has no shoes. At last he steps out anyway and sees that there are people who have no feet. We must be grateful for what we have."

By living their lives as sisters, Mother Eunice explains, they are praying for the world, and they are keenly aware of what’s going on. "We watch the news," she says.

Sister Fabiola was 30 years old when she became a sister. I ask if she never wanted to get married and have a family. "Maybe. I grew up on a farm in Guadalajara, Mexico. I taught catechism nearby. I had a few boyfriends, but little by little I felt the desire to give myself to God. That’s my way of helping the world — by constant prayer."

We sit in silence for a while, until the muffled crackling of the sisters' habits can be heard as they walk toward the chapel for Vespers. I sit in the back and watch them move their bodies as they recite Holy Mary.

Maybe it’s impossible for most of us to get off the treadmill of our urban existence, but we can get a good dose of spirituality, pure and soaring, just by visiting Vikingsborg. With its soothing surroundings and intangible peacefulness, Vikingsborg will do wonders for your spirits, no matter your religious beliefs. And the wisdom, beauty and grace of the sisters won’t leave anyone untouched.

Eva Stenskär, Amanda Robison and Henrik Olund contributed to this story
For more info, see www.birgittines-us.com

Photography: Henrik Olund

Steps to sisterhood
A young woman who feels the desire to become a nun goes through several steps. First she lives with the sisters for a while to get to know them and the kind of life they lead. After a short period she is asked to join as a postulant (Latin for "seeker" or "asker"). She is received into the family of sisters at a ceremony where only the nuns are present, and remains a postulant for eight months during which she wears her own clothes (no jeans please). At the end of this period, she can become a novice. If the community feels she is suitable for the vocation, she is given the habit, but with a white rather than black veil (symbolizing she is not yet bound by any vows). She also receives a new name.

The novitiate is for two years, and if all goes well the novice herself asks to make temporary vows. The community again makes the final decision and the novice makes a three-year vow in the church with her family, friends and nuns present. It is then that the novice gets an extra name that means something special to her, like Sister Mary Angelica of the Most Holy Trinity, for example. The extra name is indicative of something she has discovered as her unique vocation. As she makes these vows, she also changes her white veil for a black one. Again, if all goes well and the sisters feel she is well suited, she can renew her temporary vows.

Finally, after eight years, the sister asks for her life-long vows, the Solemn Vows. If the community is positive, the Bishop is called to come and receive these vows during a beautiful High Mass with the sister’s entire family, friends and relatives present. The sister is given a gold ring with an engraving of Christ on it. The characteristic Birgittine crown, which symbolizes Christ’s crown of thorns with his five wounds, finally completes her outfit.