Teens from Christ the King Parish in Trumbull spilled onto the grounds of Vikingsborg, the guest house of the Sisters of St. Birgitta in Darien. They were there for a June picnic to wrap up the year’s youth group activities.
“We could see the water right away,” says Will DeFusco, a junior at Trumbull High School. “It was so different from what I thought it would be. It was secluded and private, and it felt relaxed.”
Relaxation, comfort and peace are exactly what the Sisters hope to give visitors to the grounds of Vikingsborg, one of the quiet treasures of Fairfield County.
“Our charism is prayer, reparation and unity through hospitality,” says Sister Renzy, OSSS, superior of the Convent of St. Birgitta. “It not from any preaching, but just by being here and being natural with people who come.”
The convent and guest house of Vikingsborg, the name given it by its original owners, has been welcoming people with peace and charm for the past 60 years. The Sisters celebrated the 60th anniversary of their founding on May 27, with Bishop Frank J. Caggiano as the celebrant of the Thanksgiving Mass.
In a way, though, the inspiration for Vikingsborg began centuries ago with the birth in 1303 of St. Birgitta of Sweden. A wife and mother of eight, she exerted powerful influence in the Middle Ages, counseling kings and popes while establishing monasteries and convents across Europe. The order she founded offered places of rest along the route of pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. The distinctive Brigittine habit includes a metal crown over the veil, called the “Crown of the Five Holy Wounds.” It has five red stones, one at each joint, in memory of the five wounds of Christ on the Cross.
Although the Brigittine order nearly died out in recent centuries, it was revived by St. Elizabeth Hesselblad, a convert to Catholicism, who was canonized on June 5, 2016. St. Elizabeth had always wanted to open a convent in the United States, where she’d lived as a young woman. Her wish was granted when the Vikingsborg estate, tucked into an inlet on Long Island Sound, was offered to the order by its owner, Marguerite Tjader Harris. The 10-acre property offers woodland walks, gardens and a private dock for boating and swimming.
“Vikingsborg will be a great work for God,” Mother Elizabeth declared of what would be the last foundation of her lifetime. She died on April 24, 1957, a few weeks before a small band of four sisters set sail from Naples to New York.
The hospitality of the Sisters in Darien amply fulfills St. Elizabeth’s vision. “We have all kinds of people come,” says Sister Renzy. Guests are as varied as a yearly retreat group from Colombia University or a collection of local artists. It can be a place for individuals who want to get away for a while, or a setting for retreats. In keeping with the Sisters mission of unity, members of all faiths are welcome.
“Actions speak louder than words,” says Sister Renzy. “By our being here and by our prayer life, they feel peace here. They feel God.”
This summer Sunday, as young voices called encouragement in a badminton game and unskilled hands tried fishing off the dock, the teens fell under Vikingsborg’s welcoming spell. When one of the Sisters joined them, laughing and talking and happily sharing their hamburgers in her distinctive habit, the teens experienced something completely outside their normal Catholic world.
“Many of these kids have never seen a religious Sister,” says Father Terrence Walsh, pastor of Christ the King. “I wanted them to see the convent and have the opportunity to meet the Sisters, but not in an overwhelming way. It’s a beautiful way to learn about these aspects of faith—‘We’re going to a convent and we’re going to have fun!’”
He hopes that, when the group begins its monthly meetings in the fall, this day’ experience may lead to discussion about religious orders. “For now, it was just a great day.”
That is exactly what the Sisters hope for.
“We kayaked around and looked at the houses along the shore,” says Will. “I saw one big white bird with stalky legs land on the far side of the water.” This was a new experience for a teen from inland Trumbull.
Though the charism behind the Sisters’ hospitality was never spoken, the teens sensed it clearly. Thinking about why youth groups like theirs were invited to Vikingsborg, Will came up with an answer that would warm every Sister’s heart: “They probably do it to bring people together.” (For more information on the guest house and convent of St. Birgitta, visit www.birgittines-us.com.)