While Dr. Alice von Hildebrand is best known for promoting the work of her late husband, Dietrich—the eminent anti-Nazi philosopher who barely escaped death under Hitler—her personal story, as revealed in a new autobiography, Memoirs of a Happy Failure, is very powerful in itself.
Growing up in Belgium, at a time when the country was deeply Catholic, Alice Jourdain (as she was then known) was blessed to be educated by the Canonesses of St. Augustine, a renowned order in Brussels. She immersed herself in the arts, and hoped to receive a degree as a pianist, but in her second year of training, that dream came to a crashing halt.
After the Nazi invasion of Belgium in the spring of 1940, when Alice was only seventeen, she and her sister left for New York, to stay with their aunt and uncle, in hopes of obtaining safety. But the overseas journey was harrowing.
Our vessel, the SS Washington, had been intercepted by a German U-boat. We had been given one hour to board our lifeboats and put out to sea. Our ship would then be torpedoed.
As the passengers frantically tried to abandon ship, Alice looked out into the fog-covered Atlantic, and was overcome by emotion:
I was convinced I was about to die and that soon I would be facing God. . . . With a clarity and a precision that approached the supernatural, all of a sudden, in a single flash, I relived everything I had ever done, failed to do, thought, imagined, and felt. . . . This experience had such an impact on me that I believe I went from youth to maturity in a few brief instants. I had the clear sense that I had ‘touched eternity,’ where time vanishes and everything is present.
Alice survived the ordeal—the Germans finally let the civilian vessel pass—but the belief that God had saved her life, for a purpose, never left her.
The two sisters arrived in New York in June of 1940. Alice’s aunt and uncle were very domineering and pressured her to be a librarian or secretary, but Alice was finally allowed to study philosophy, and to begin a new career.
In 1942, one of Alice’s teachers at Manhattanville college, the German émigré Balduin Schwarz, encouraged her to attend a lecture by Dietrich von Hildebrand, then teaching at Fordham, who had also fled Hitler’s Germany. Dietrich’s talk was on “the readiness to change,” the opening theme of his greatest book, Transformation in Christ. “From the first moment he began to speak,” writes Alice, “I felt that he was feeding my soul with a food I had always longed for.” It was Dietrich’s love for beauty, and above all, for truth, which inspired her.
After obtaining her BA and MA, Alice attended courses under Dietrich at Fordham, where she eventually earned her PhD in philosophy. She would soon become his assistant, and—in 1959—his wife.
When Alice began searching for a position at a Catholic college or university, she was shocked to find them unreceptive. “It is not the policy of Catholic colleges to appoint women to teach philosophy,” she was told. Fortunately, through the intervention of a kindly priest, she was able to obtain a substitute position at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York.
Alice soon endured another shock in the classroom: the fierce hostility she faced for challenging relativism. “It was always the same refrain,” she writes, “to claim that truth is objective is to introduce the germ of totalitarianism. Each man has the right to choose his own truth.”
Gradually, without mentioning religion, but by drawing upon the Natural Law, Plato and Aristotle, Alice countered this “dictatorship of relativism” with strong and eloquent arguments, recounted in her book. Eventually, she impressed her students. By the end of her first semester, one of them sent her a private note: “When I entered your classroom, I had kicked out religion. Now, I shall go back to Church.” Similar messages followed; many students were converting.
Alice’s popularity on campus spread, but when news got out about the conversions, there was an uproar. Alice’s academic colleagues—with a few noble exceptions—weren’t about to allow a “Catholic zealot,” to proselytize in the classroom.
Trying to gather evidence against her, they sent spies into her classroom, only to find a first-rate professional, teaching her topics exactly as the Hunter curriculum required.
Her rivals then took desperate measures: repeatedly refusing her tenure, stealing her finest courses by assigning them to other academics (only to see them collapse, for lack of attendance!), forcing her to teach obscure night courses, keeping her salary inexcusably low, and generally being rude to her on every occasion.
Alice’s perseverance, bolstered by faith in her vocation and by the loyalty of her students, eventually prevailed: she finally received her long overdue tenure, and when Hunter’s students acquired the right to evaluate their teachers, they repeatedly rated her among their best professors.
In 1980, when Donna Shalala became President of Hunter, she introduced an award for the professor who had earned the highest student evaluation. Four years later—the year of her retirement—Alice von Hildebrand was voted the top professor, out of eight hundred teachers, and a student body of 25,000. She received her award at a ceremony at Madison Square Garden, with the very liberal President Shalala commending her.
Since then, Alice has continued to teach and lecture about the beauty of truth, drawing on the work of her husband, always rooted in the teachings of the Church. Memoirs of a Happy Failure is a story of true patience and faithfulness—of apparent failure giving way to a lasting triumph.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.