NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. (CNS) — When Alice von Hildebrand wasn’t promoting her late husband’s work, the Catholic philosopher, professor and author spent most of her life “reminding women of the privilege of femininity and the gift of motherhood,” said Rachel Bulman, a blogger and popular speaker.
She made the comments in a Jan. 28 appreciation she wrote on the life and work of von Hildebrand, who died peacefully at home in New Rochelle Jan. 14. She was 98.
“Alice invited women to be women, to have their power rooted in their own femininity. She believed that women could be receptive, nurturing, demure, and empathetic while also wielding the dynamism of intellect and culture,” said Bulman in an essay posted on the website www.wordonfire.org.
Bulman, who is a wife, mother of four and a regular contributor to the Word on Fire blog, said she never met von Hildebrand but knew her writing well, including her book “The Privilege of Being a Woman,” a reflection on “woman as a unique, mysterious creation of God and the blessings of traditional femininity.”
“She taught me that women do not need to all but become men in order to be empowered, but that femininity contains and wields a necessary power in and of itself,” Bulman said. “She also continues to inspire me toward a male/female complementarity that simultaneously honors the male and female differentiation while upholding gender equality.”
Bulman’s article on Alice von Hildebrand was among many tributes pouring in after her death. Her funeral Mass was celebrated Jan. 22 at her parish church, Holy Family in New Rochelle.
Alice Marie Jourdain, known as “Lily” to family and friends, was born March 11, 1923, in Brussels, Belgium, the third of Henri and mother Marthe Jourdain’s five children. The family fled to France in May 1940 when the Nazis invaded Belgium. Alice was 17. In June of that year, she and her sister Louloute went to New York to live with an aunt and uncle.
Alice enrolled at Manhattanville College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. But before she finished her degree, she began taking classes at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York that were taught by her future husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German-born Catholic philosopher and religious writer who left a teaching post in Germany to escape the Nazis.
Alice first heard Dietrich speak in 1942 — on “the readiness to change.” “From the first moment he began to speak,” she recalled, “I felt that he was feeding my soul with a food that I had always longed for. He spoke out of a deep recollection, and I drank in every word.”
She became acquainted with Dietrich’s first wife, Margarete (who died in 1957), and became an integral member of the Hildebrands’ circle of friends. Soon after beginning her studies with Dietrich, she began to assist him as his secretary. Over the coming decades, she typed many of his book manuscripts, which he always wrote by hand, and translated a number of his essays into English.
In December 1947, Alice was hired for a three-week substitute position at Hunter College and then was offered a permanent teaching position.
“From the start, she faced opposition from her own colleagues, in part out of professional rivalry — she quickly became one of the most popular professors — and in part because of anti-Catholic sentiment,” according to an obituary from the Hildebrand Project, which she co-founded.
“The latter surprised her, because she never spoke of Catholicism in the classroom. The difficulty was that several of her students began converting to Catholicism,” it said. “She soon realized that it was her defense of the objectivity of truth against the prevailing relativism of the day that prepared the ground for these conversions. ‘If someone finds the truth,’ she would say, ‘he automatically finds God, because God is the truth.'”
She and Dietrich married in July 1959. She often spoke of their unique partnership: complete unity in love of philosophy, music, literature, art “and above all, their Catholic faith,” the Hildebrand Project said.
“They had a great love for the sacrality of the liturgy and the church’s heritage of sacred music. Together they formed an extraordinary partnership in bearing witness to Christian culture and Christian life,” it added.
Dietrich taught philosophy at Fordham from 1942 until his retirement in 1960. He died in 1977.
After his death, Alice wrote “By Grief Refined” about the experience of becoming a widow. She also saw her primary mission as preserving his legacy.
Besides Hunter College, she taught at several other institutions, including the Catechetical Institute of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York; the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, where she served on the board of trustees from 1987 to 1999; the Thomas More Institute in Rome; Ave Maria College in Michigan; and the Notre Dame Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
Alice retired from Hunter College in 1984 and went on the lecture circuit, speaking in 35 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico and in many countries in South America and in Europe.
Throughout her career she received numerous awards and three honorary degrees, including from Franciscan University. In 2013, she was received the Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory.
Among her books are “The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand,” published in 2000, and “Memoirs of a Happy Failure,” a 2014 autobiography. She wrote she wrote numerous essays on the nature of education, reverence, liturgy, marriage and other themes. The website www.alicevonhildebrand.org is devoted to her work.
She made over 80 appearances on EWTN, including two series with the late Father Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, titled “Suffering and What to Do With It” and “Man and Woman: A Divine Invention.”
“One of the most central themes in the lives of Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand was the crucial importance of reverence if man is to order his life properly and fruitfully in this world,” said Father Gerald E. Murray, Holy Family’s pastor, in his homily at Alice’s funeral.