Alice von Hildebrand: Reflecting on a Life of Teaching, Scholarship, and Prayer

With her memoirs due out later this summer, the prolific writer and scholar looks back over decades of service to the Gospel and to truth.

Pope Francis recently recognized Alice von Hildebrand as a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory in recognition of her lifetime of work on behalf of the Church.  She is originally from Brussels, Belgium, and came to the United States in 1940, as World War II began ravaging Europe.

Unable to find employment at a Catholic college, she began a 37-year career teaching philosophy at Hunter College, a public university in New York, beginning in 1947.  She married Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) in 1959, two years after the death of his first wife.  Since her husband’s death in 1977, she has devoted her time and energy to promoting his work.  She is a prolific writer and gifted public speaker, eloquently sharing the message of the Gospel with Catholic audiences throughout the world.

Later this summer, Mrs. von Hildebrand will release her memoirs, Alice von Hildebrand: Memoirs of a Happy Failure (Saint Benedict Press). She recently spoke to CWR.

CWR: In your memoirs, you go into detail about your 37 years of teaching at Hunter College, and the trouble you experienced in its anti-Christian environment.

Alice von Hildebrand: Yes. I was a perfectly harmless little foreign girl, teaching in a secular university, and I experienced much persecution. I began writing my experiences after I left Hunter, because I wanted my memory to be exact.

I had first applied for jobs teaching at Catholic colleges. They would not hire me because I was a woman. The same thing, incidentally, happened to Edith Stein in Germany. She couldn’t find a university job because she was a woman.

There was an opening at Hunter College. They needed someone to fill in for a professor who was going to be out for two weeks. Having never taught college before, I began on December 8, 1947.  At the end of the two weeks, I thought I was going to get a pink slip, but was allowed to stay on.

I became an adjunct, but after many years of teaching I received no promotion, and no medical coverage. After 11 years I became an instructor, but at the lowest possible salary on the scale.

One day I received a terse note telling me to report to the dean’s office. I went, and found 17 other professors who spent the next two hours questioning me about my teaching. They said I was injecting my religious ideas into the classroom. When I left, I was totally exhausted. I had not experienced such exhaustion in all my years teaching.

Remarkably, I was given tenure, with nine professors voting for and eight voting against. I bumped into a friend at that time who asked me, “Do you believe in miracles?” I said, “Yes, I do.” He replied, “Well, your receiving tenure was nothing short of a miracle.”

Not everyone was happy I was tenured. Several rabbis protested. People warned me not to mention religion or truth in the classroom. Other teachers who had never even met me warned their students about taking my classes. In my memoirs I go into great detail about this. Everything I say can be proven.

CWR: You were popular with your students.

Von Hildebrand: Yes. My classes were always full.

Now it was during my time at Hunter that the idea developed that everyone should be the same. The faculty restroom, for example, was considered undemocratic. As part of this new viewpoint, students were allowed to pass judgment on their teachers. We were given student evaluations after they had taken our classes.

When I was evaluated by my students, they gave me the highest approval rating in my department. In fact, with 25,000 students evaluating about 700 professors who taught at the school, I was given the highest marks overall. It led to me being given a special award when I retired from Hunter in 1984. The president of Hunter, Donna Shalala [later President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services] presented me the award at Madison Square Garden.

Why did I have such amazing success? I was successful because I was the only person in the department, if not the whole college, who stood for the objectivity of truth. When I taught, through much suffering and prayer, I was able to awaken in my students a longing for truth.

Last year, it was my great privilege to receive three letters from former students of mine who are now in their 70s. I did not even remember them. They each had converted to Roman Catholicism. One was my student in 1952, and something I had said in the classroom had planted a seed that led to his conversion. I could not believe it, as I thought I was such an abominable teacher at the beginning.

In my memoirs I include five such stories of conversions as a result of my classroom teaching. I remember telling my husband about one many years ago. He was touched by it. He began sobbing.

CWR: What was your Catholic upbringing in Belgium like in the 1920s and 30s?

Von Hildebrand: The country was very Catholic, and my family was very involved with the Church. My grandfather, in fact, was a very prominent Catholic in Belgium. He was the founder of a publication that Cardinal Silvio Oddi [1910-2001] once called the most Catholic newspaper in Europe.

I was blessed to go to the best Catholic schools, and was able to visit many magnificent churches in Brussels. The churches had such magnificent religious paintings; I learned much about the Faith by contemplating them.

I had access to the best Catholic textbooks as a child. I’d come home with a 450-page volume in small print and I knew the whole thing. I became a daily communicant as a teenager.

The country was as Catholic as it could be and I received a superb Catholic education.

CWR: Earlier this year, the Belgium King Philippe signed into law a bill that allows sick children to request and receive euthanasia. In polls, the majority of Belgians supported the law. What has happened to the Catholic environment there?

Von Hildebrand: I can only tell you that Belgium has apostasized from A to Z. I haven’t been there for 20 years. It would bring me to tears. I had a niece there that was given assisted suicide and afterward given a Catholic funeral Mass. If I were to go back, I would just shed tears from morning to night.

CWR: You have spoken often on the role of women, and have been a critic of modern feminism. What advice would you offer parents of girls about raising their daughters to be good Catholic women?

Von Hildebrand: I’ll tell you my secret. It is incredibly important for parents to make their daughters realize what a great privilege it is to be a woman. There is a sacredness of the female body, for in it, God creates human life.

The husband plays a crucial, yet modest role. He gives the semen to the body of his wife.  When the egg is fecundated, something amazing happens. God touches the body of the woman, and gives the life within her a soul. It is a personal connection between God and the woman. She must be conscious of this mystery, and understand its sacredness. And, possessing this sacredness, she should be properly veiled.  This is something that has been destroyed in our society: look at how many women are dressed today!

I would also remind girls that the most perfect creature God ever created is a woman, the Blessed Virgin. But this is not something that should make us proud, but humble.

CWR: And, it’s important for men to show respect for the women in their lives.

Von Hildebrand: Yes. I make a point of mentioning my father in my memoirs. He was a humble man, shy and reserved. He was a holy man, but some would consider him a failure. He never made any money.

But, I am forever grateful that he taught me the proper attitude men should have towards women. He recognized that there is a sacredness in women. And, he knew of the crucial importance of how a man treats his wife.

CWR: You have spoken and written about your preference for the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Could you explain?

Von Hildebrand: Well, first of all, as my husband said from day one, the New Mass is valid. But, it is impoverished. The Tridentine Mass is more God-centered.

Now I’m getting very old, and I’m finding it hard to concentrate at Mass. However, when I attend the Tridentine Mass, I think, this is the Mass that St. Therese of Lisieux, Don Bosco, St. Francis of Assisi and so many other great saints attended. It gives me wings and carries me.

The Novus Ordo is a rupture from the liturgical tradition of the Church. It is valid, but it is not as noble as the old rite.

I met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger three times in private audiences before he became pope, in 1984, 1985, and 1991. Every time I begged him for his support for the Tridentine Mass. And, in 2007, I had a private audience with him as pope. I again requested his support for the Tridentine Mass. With a sweet smile, he said, “Very soon, indeed very soon.” And, a short time later, he granted an indult allowing priests to say the Tridentine Mass [the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum].

CWR: Do you believe the Church will return greater use of the traditional liturgy?

Von Hildebrand: I’m no prophet, but I pray for it.

CWR: We look forward to the release of your memoirs.

Von Hildebrand: Thank you. I think you’ll find it an interesting book with some amazing stories.

About Jim Graves 134 Articles

Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.