Dodging Nazis, Daring Students With Truth: Alice Von Hildebrand’s ‘Happy Failure’

BOOK PICK: Memoirs of a Happy Failure


By Alice von Hildebrand
Saint Benedict Press, 2014

180 pages, $24.95

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Assisted by John Henry Crosby (director of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project), author Alice von Hildebrand has completed this memoir of a life marked by great graces profitably used.

This is a wonderful chronicle — which includes a foreword by Cardinal Timothy Dolan — of a well-known Catholic woman, philosopher and teacher (from the late 1940s to the 1980s) at Hunter College in New York City.

There, she faced great challenges as a woman and a Catholic, rising finally to the level of tenured appointment in this aggressively secular and intellectually relativistic milieu. It is a story of courage and faith in the grace of God acting in the world.

Having collaborated with her from time to time, I found particularly interesting her wonderful stories of Catholic conversions due to her teaching and influence. Although she could not openly proselytize in the classroom at Hunter, her kindness and earnest teaching of the reality of objective truth led many young, and not so young, students to approach her about reverting or converting to the Church.

But I should first have mentioned — as she herself would — that she was the wife of one of the greatest philosophers in the Catholic world in the 20th century: Dietrich von Hildebrand, who was greatly admired by (among many others) St. John Paul II.

Readers of this memoir will also find that Alice’s life before she encountered Dietrich von Hildebrand makes for a great story: Growing up in pre-World War II Belgium, she escaped from the Nazis with family members and came to New York City while in her late teens.

Many readers of this review will have encountered Alice on EWTN. Some would call her feisty — I would call her convincing, in an enchanting way, with a wonderful sense of humor, which comes through in her writing and reflection.

Most important, she has achieved what every Catholic should: a loving relationship with the Lord. She was honored in 2013 by Pope Francis as a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory.

Nowadays, she spends much of her time disseminating her husband’s wonderful work.

This is a book that can be enjoyed in itself as a good read, but it can also give the reader great insight into the difficulties of a Catholic in the secular world of today’s universities.

After all of her trials, at the end of her teaching career, Alice von Hildebrand received Hunter’s award for excellence in teaching.

Surviving and even thriving under such circumstances can be done, but it requires great faith and hard work, as Alice von Hildebrand has shown. Her book could be shared with the young of the proper age (adolescents on up) and with friends needing a nudge to come back to the Church.

Her life would make for a fine movie — I hope someone picks up the option.



Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian

 and research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.