Remembering Lily

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Alice von Hildebrand truly lived for truth, goodness and beauty and reminded all of us that we are called to be their defenders, regardless of the personal cost.

Alice von Hildebrand reflected on her life in ‘Memoirs of a Happy Failure.’
Alice von Hildebrand reflected on her life in ‘Memoirs of a Happy Failure.’ (photo: Cropped St. Benedict Press book cover)

Last month, pop culture in the United States gave enormous attention and adulation to the life and work of the actress Betty White, who died Dec. 31, mere weeks before her 100th birthday. Not long after, the Catholic world celebrated another woman far less known but, respectfully, of far deeper and historic consequence: philosopher and professor Alice von Hildebrand, who died Jan. 14 at age 98.

Known to her friends as Lily, Alice von Hildebrand was a Catholic intellectual who defended truth, beauty, goodness and authentic womanhood in an increasingly hostile secular and relativistic age. While soft-spoken and meek in physical stature, Alice was nevertheless a giant among Catholic women in the 20th century, and her courage, wit and faith will continue to inspire many for years to come. 

She decried radical feminism and clearly articulated a vision of authentic womanhood in complementarity of authentic manhood that together create the bedrock of family and society. She recognized the power of Catholic culture through liturgy, art and traditional piety to captivate hearts and imaginations. Most of all, she was a great servant of truth, dedicated to witnessing to the supernatural power of God so profoundly at work in the world. 

Born Alice Jourdain in 1923, she fled the Nazi occupation of her native Belgium at age 17 and became a refugee in the United States during World War II. Settling in New York City, in the 1940s, she met renowned German personalist philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had also fled his homeland after publicly opposing Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Dietrich taught philosophy at Fordham University, and Alice studied under him, obtaining a doctorate in philosophy before going on to become a philosophy professor at Hunter College in the Bronx, where she taught for 37 years. She recounted in her autobiography, Memoirs of a Happy Failure that she encountered persecution from administrators, fellow professors and even students at Hunter for her refusal to deny objective truth. 

“In the secular domain,” she told the Register a few years ago, “I was a radical failure because I would not go along with the spirit of the age for material advantages.” 

Objective truth had its champion during her time at Hunter because of her fearless clarity of teaching, and she was ultimately both respected and loved because of it.

She married von Hildebrand in 1959 and after his death in 1977 worked tirelessly to promote his philosophical legacy through the Hildebrand Project. She called her husband “A Knight of Truth” and “a man with heroic dedication to truth, goodness and beauty.” She admired his moral courage and his vocal stand against Hitler and communism, proudly promoted his writings and praised the ways his dedication to teaching objective truth converted hearts and minds to Christ. That same heroic love of objective truth was a hallmark of her own life, and the same praise and admiration is rightfully owed to her, as well. 

“We do not create truth,” she told the Register in an interview in 2014. “We serve it. This is why we cannot end our quest with acceptance of the truth, as praiseworthy as that is. We have to live out the truth in our lives, which is another way of saying our actions have to be good. The apparent beauty of our actions then points others back toward the source of all truth, goodness and beauty: God himself.”

Her legacy lives on in the generations of courageous Catholic intellectual women she encouraged by her witness, such as Ronda Chervin, Mary Healy and countless others who quietly radiate love and truth. And her writings will continue to bear fruit, including The Privilege of Being a Woman, the biography of her husband, The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and her autobiography, Memoirs of a Happy Failure, along with countless articles in Catholic media, including a series of columns for Catholic News Agency written in the last decade of her life.

In a unique way, Alice’s legacy will also continue through EWTN, where she appeared more than 80 times. Alice was also invited by Mother Angelica to teach the Franciscan friars, and she and Mother Angelica became great friends. Born months apart in 1923, Mother and Alice were cut of the same cloth and intensely served God with all their feminine genius. Their friendship and mutual sharp wit were memorably on display during their many must-see television appearances together on the Network. 

When Mother Angelica died on Easter Sunday in 2016, Alice remembered her friend and their exchanges on air. She recalled Mother’s feminine genius through which her burning love for Christ led her to do the impossible. As Alice wrote, “A deep awareness of weakness gives us a golden key to an amazing life where defeats, with God’s holy chemistry, were changed into amazing victories. It should not surprise us that the holy women followed Christ to Golgotha: A woman who loves fears nothing. Mother Angelica’s supernatural qualities were the golden key to her ‘holy daring,’ abysmally separated from self-assurance, which is often the downfall of many ‘machos,’ starting with the beloved St. Peter. Mother’s life can be [summarized] with the words ‘from defeat to victory.’ She refused to be defeated, putting all her trust in Christ, to whom she had given her heart.”

I remember my own experiences with Lily over the decades. On nearly every one of her many trips to Irondale to appear on EWTN, she would always come upstairs to my office for a brief visit. I would look forward to those times together. Those “brief” visits inevitably turned into lengthy ones, and, even then, I wished they would have been longer. Lily always asked first about my wife and family and took great delight in seeing the latest baby pictures on my desk. In the earlier days, when my wife, Jackie, was new to her role as a college professor and facing some of the same challenges that Lily had encountered in her academic career, Lily would always offer sage advice and the occasional admonition to me on how to be a more supportive husband. And there was never a visit with Lily in which I didn’t discover new insights that helped me deepen my own faith and commitment to the truth. I will always cherish those memories with her.

Alice von Hildebrand truly lived for truth, goodness and beauty and reminded all of us that we are called to be their defenders, regardless of the personal cost. 

“Because we were made by God,” she taught, “we long for the truth, goodness and beauty that can only be found in God. We will only be content in the possession of the Almighty, who does not merely have truth, goodness and beauty, but who is truth, goodness and beauty.”

Eternal rest grant unto Alice von Hildebrand, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.