Impressions of Rome: Piazza Farnese and Santa Brigida

Considered one of Rome’s most beautiful squares, Piazza Farnese is right next to Campo de’ Fiori, another attractive Roman piazza. The vast and open Piazza Farnese was the result of demolishing medieval buildings to make room for the enormous 16th century Palazzo (Palace) Farnese.

Alessando Farnese was a cardinal who later became Pope Paul III. As cardinal, he oversaw the building of the palazzo that still bears his name, finished in the mid-1500’s. The renowned artist Michelangelo was called to complete the structure, so it is considered a very important Roman building, especially inside. Since 1636 the Palazzo Farnese has housed the French embassy and the residence of the French ambassador to Italy.

Today it is easy to be distracted by the metal barricades outside the Palazzo Farnese, as well as the heavily armed guards, trucks and police posted there, and lose sight of the impressive palazzo itself, albeit covered with heavily barred grates over the lower windows. The barricades, barred- windows and police protection are against intrusions and terrorists, of course.

When passing through the piazza and near the Palazzo Farnese, I remind myself to be careful not to trip and fall, causing the guards to think perhaps that I am a potential threat and then no doubt pelted by multiple machine guns before any questions are asked. See how one’s mind can wander in Rome? It can almost be Calvin and Hobbs-like!

Also in the Piazza Farnese, and more the subject of this posting, is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Bridgettine Order of sisters. Their building is on a more modest scale in comparison with the Palazzo Farnese and the relatively simple white-colored convent is a more interesting structure than the fairly dark and ominous Palazzo Farnese, to me, at least.

The Bridgettine sisters’ four-story building is clearly a religious structure with a simple bell tower, statues of Saints Bridget and Catherine of Sweden near the top of the façade and a pleasant entryway. It seems to beckon “come in,” while the grim Palazzo Farnese seems to be saying, “stay out.” Come and see what you think.

The convent of “Santa Brigida,” as it is called, is dedicated to Saint Bridget of Sweden, who lived from 1303 to 1373. She was a mystic, founder of a religious order and a saint. Today the Generalate or headquarters of the main branch of the Bridgettine sisters is based at their Piazza Farnese house in Rome.

In addition to the Catholic sisters there, the Swedish National (Lutheran) Church uses part of the convent building for regular church services for Lutherans living in or visiting the Eternal City. The Lutherans and Catholics of Sweden have a long-standing friendship, exemplified at the Santa Brigida convent at Piazza Farnese.

Every Sunday and Thursday Lutherans use the crypt chapel of Saint Catherine of Sweden, who was one of Saint Bridget’s children and first abbess of the Bridgettine Order. The crypt chapel, formally dedicated in 1972, seats about one hundred persons. A Lutheran priest friend from Finland, Father Taneli, at present a student in Rome, regularly ministers to Scandinavian Lutherans who come for services at Santa Brigida.

The largest branch of the female Bridgettine Order has occupied the Piazza Farnese convent since 1930. This branch was founded by Saint Elizabeth Hasselblad, a nurse, who began the Order of semi-contemplative Bridgettine sisters on September 8, 1911. Hasselblad was born in Sweden in 1870 and died in Rome in 1957. She was later beatified and on June 5, 2016, canonized in Saint Peter’s Square by Pope Francis.

In addition to her founding an Order of Catholic sisters, Elizabeth Hasselblad worked for ecumenical relations with other Christians and for her efforts at saving the lives of Jews during World War II was recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Jewish people.

The building now housing the convent of the Bridgettine sisters in Rome was completed in 1531 and restored in the 18th century. After passing through various hands it became the home to the Bridgittines in 1930 under Mother Elizabeth Hasselblad. The most recent previous occupants, until 1930, had been Carmelite nuns.

The main church at the convent is open each day and the Bridgettines chant the Divine Office and celebrate Holy Mass there. Priests residing nearby are their chaplains. The faithful are always welcome to attend the daily Divine Office, Mass and evening Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. About thirty Bridgettines live there at present.

The sisters also operate a Bread and Breakfast/Retreat House in the building. You may wish to stay there on your next visit to Rome. It is certainly a centralized location, close to the major sights of Rome, including the Vatican, just a few blocks away, down the peaceful Via Giulia.

Saint Bridget of Sweden was a resident in the building for the last nineteen years of her life and the rooms she and her daughter Catherine occupied can be visited at certain hours. Some of the art work in the rooms was done by the Jewish artist Edouard Brandon. The hours for visiting the rooms of Saint Bridget are posted on the door of the convent church.

After the death of Saint Bridget, the house at Piazza Farnese (at that time still part of Piazza Campo de’ Fiori), was given to the Bridgettine Order’s mother house at Vadstena, Sweden, and was used as a hospice for Scandinavian pilgrims and clergy visiting Rome.

In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation brought change. The convent became a refuge for Swedish Catholics who refused conversion to the state religion, among whom was Johannes Magnus (1488-1544), last Catholic Archbishop of Sweden until modern times.

The chapel of Saint Richard Reynolds is also in the convent building at Piazza Farnese. Reynolds was a Bridgettine monk who was martyred in 1535, considered the most important martyr of the Order, which from the beginning included monks as well as nuns.

The more formal and correct title of the Bridgettines is: “The Order of the Most Holy Savior,” with the initials “O.Ss.S” being used after members’ names. Founded in 1344, they follow the Rule of Saint Augustine (recall he was baptized by Saint Ambrose!), and in addition to a life of prayer and penance, they usually offer hospitality at their convents.

Originally each monastery of nuns had a smaller community of monks nearby, to be chaplains to the nuns, though both monks and nuns were under the governance of the Abbess. They were often called “double monasteries,” but were never “co-ed” monasteries. In other words, there were always two separate communities near each other, never simply one composed of both men and women. In the course of the centuries the Bridgettine monks died out.

The only monastery of Bridgettine monks in the world today is in Amity, Oregon, the United States, in the Willamette valley, organized in the late 20th century. These monks of Saint Bridget are famous as confectioners of fine fudge.

A distinctive feature of the Bridgettine sisters’ dark grey habit and black veil is the white-band “crown” the nuns wear over the veil in honor of the Five Holy Wounds of Jesus. The crown has five red stones on it to recall the five wounds of the Savior on the Cross. To some the white-band crown resembles a modified modern bicycle helmet, but of course the former long pre-dates any sportswear!

Briggettine monks wear a grey habit almost identical in style to the Benedictine habit, consisting of a long tunic, belt and hooded scapular. They Birgettine habit also has a red emblem of the Passion of Christ on the scapular.

The current abbess of the Roman-based Bridgettines is Mother Fabia Kattakayan, from India, where they have monasteries and many vocations.

The original founder of the Order of the Most Holy Savior, Saint Bridget of Sweden, is recognized as one of the six major patrons of Europe, along with Saints Benedict, Cyril and Methodius, Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). A certainly praise-worthy “Cloud of Witnesses” in our Catholic Church.

When I got to my “permanent” quarters at Sant’Ambrogio I found a paper-print icon nicely mounted on wood of the six patron saints of Europe mentioned in the previous paragraph. The icon was tucked away and almost hidden in the sacristy of our house chapel. I brought it to my cell and hung it on the wall where myriads of extra keys previously had been. The keys are now tucked away, not needed very often. The icon daily inspires me, though.