Madeleine Froelicher Stebbins was born in Paterson, New Jersey on November 1, 1924. Her parents were both Swiss immigrants, her father Victor Froelicher from Solothurn and her mother Helene (nee Stehli) from Zurich. Raised in the New Jersey town of Ridgewood, Madeleine vacationed with her family forty miles to the west on Lake Mohawk. After attending high school in the Swiss city of Ingenbohl, she went to the College Jesus-Marie in Quebec City.
In the 1930s, Madeleine’s parents became actively engaged in a Catholic network that helped three thousand Jews to escape from Nazi Germany and Austria, with the refugees given a warm welcome in the Froelicher home and financial assistance upon arriving in the U.S. Helene Froelicher also wrote for the Catholic periodical, Voices from the Pew. Victor worked as an executive of the Swiss chemical firm J.R. Geigy.
It was as a teenager that Madeleine first discovered the writings of the German Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), beginning with his book on marriage. She would recount how on a certain evening, while reading this book in her room, she gazed upon an exceptionally lovely sunset through her window and felt overwhelmed by the beauty of von Hildebrand’s vision of the sacrament of matrimony. She was likewise profoundly moved by von Hildebrand’s book on the spiritual life, Transformation in Christ.
The opportunity for Madeleine to meet Dietrich von Hildebrand in person came following his emigration to New York in December 1940, the philosopher having been compelled to leave Europe to escape assassination by the Nazis for his courageous opposition to Adolf Hitler. Madeleine joined the ranks of those attending von Hildebrand’s talks in his own apartment in Manhattan. It was at one such talk in the late autumn of 1943 that she met for the first time a brilliant young refugee from Belgium, Alice Jourdain, who was to become her greatest and closest friend for many decades to come. Alice, who twenty-six years later was to marry Dietrich von Hildebrand, never forgot the first time she met Madeleine. Immediately upon seeing Madeleine enter the room, Alice perceived her to be “so radiant, pure, enchanting, feminine, graceful” and “warmhearted” that she instantly thought to herself, “I wish she were my friend.” Over the years that followed, Madeleine and Alice became friends for life, their friendship marked by a shared love for “faith, books, friends, music” and “art.”
It was likewise while attending one of von Hildebrand’s talks that Madeleine first met H. Lyman Stebbins, a Wall Street banker with an Episcopalian upbringing who through his love of reading had been led to the Catholic faith, having been received into the Church on May 28, 1946. Attracted to the contemplative life, Stebbins funded the construction of the Benedictine monastery of Mount Saviour, founded near Elmira, New York in 1951, and became a Benedictine Oblate, a lay associate of this monastic community.
Following a serious foot injury from broken glass suffered while swimming at his summer home in North Hatley, Quebec, Stebbins, on a visit to Mount Saviour Monastery, met two fellow Benedictine Oblates, the Catholic philosopher Dr. Balduin Schwarz and his wife Helene, who was a practical nurse. Helene offered to nurse Lyman, and during his long convalescence from the foot injury, he discovered how much he had in common with Balduin and Helene, including a shared love for the writings of Saint John Henry Newman. It was thus that Lyman came to meet Balduin’s philosophical colleague at Fordham University, Dietrich von Hildebrand, in whose circle he met Madeleine.
Madeleine became a pupil of von Hildebrand at Fordham University, where she earned both a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in philosophy. From 1951 to 1959, Madeleine served as an assistant to von Hildebrand on a series of educational tours that the philosopher led for the purpose of introducing his students to the great artistic masterpieces of Europe, particularly those of Italy. She deeply shared von Hildebrand’s passion for great art, developing a special fondness for the works of Fra Angelico. Like von Hildebrand, Madeleine also had a passionate love for classical music, with the Bach Saint Matthew Passion, the Mozart Requiem and the Bruckner Te Deum particular favorites of hers. She was similarly well versed in literary classics, including the novels of Jane Austen.
By this time, Madeleine’s friend Alice Jourdain had already begun her career as a philosophy professor at Hunter College, but also participated as an assistant on von Hildebrand’s artistic tours.
On June 30, 1959, Madeleine married H. Lyman Stebbins in a small church near Innsbruck, Austria, just two weeks before their close friends Dietrich von Hildebrand and Alice Jourdain were married. Madeleine and Lyman settled in the New York suburb of New Rochelle. Their son John Henry was born in 1962. It was at this time that Lyman retired from his Wall Street career to devote himself more fully to the service of the Church as a Catholic layman. As a fellow Benedictine Oblate, Madeleine entirely shared in her husband’s aspirations. During the 1960s, the Stebbins family spent their summers largely in Salzburg, where Madeleine’s sister Marie Theresa lived with her husband Wolfgang. They also vacationed in Italy.
When in 1968 Lyman founded the lay apostolate Catholics United for the Faith, an international organization of Catholic laity dedicated to advancing and defending the teachings of the Catholic Church as well as spiritual formation, Madeleine served as a co-founder and later succeeded her husband as president, serving from 1981 to 1984. Over the years that followed, she remained deeply involved in the work of CUF as chairman of the Board of Directors. It was her long-running series of essays on great works of art for CUF’s periodical Lay Witness that formed the basis for her acclaimed work, Looking at a Masterpiece (2017). This highly successful book was soon followed by a companion volume geared to young readers, Let’s Look at a Masterpiece: Classic Art to Cherish with a Child (2018).
In their shared Catholic lay apostolate, always marked by an unfailing fidelity to the papacy, sound doctrine, and reverence in the sacred liturgy, Madeleine and Lyman particularly loved and promoted the writings and spirituality of Saint John Henry Newman, Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Catherine of Siena. In their labors for CUF, they traveled widely across America, delivering numerous talks for local CUF chapters and at conferences. Madeleine possessed a deep personal devotion to her patron saint, Mary Magdalene, and would speak fondly of the ancient pilgrimages sites in France traditionally associated with her.
During the 1970s, the Stebbins family spent their summers in North Hatley, Quebec. As Lyman’s health declined during the 1980s, Madeleine devoted herself to him as his tireless and loving caregiver up until he was called home to God on February 19, 1989. She described the loss of Lyman as the deepest sorrow of her life, a sorrow she had seen her dearest friend Alice von Hildebrand suffer twelve years earlier upon the death of her husband Dietrich in 1977.
It would be an impossible task to recount all the many people whose lives were transformed and changed for the better from coming to know Madeleine. It is truly rare to find a soul so highly gifted, articulate and brilliant as Madeleine who was at the same time so utterly humble, generous and graciously docile to the mind of the Church.
For Madeleine, as for her late husband, attendance at daily Mass was an indispensable “must” in her life, walking over a mile each day for Mass at New Rochelle’s Church of the Holy Family, where her great friend Alice von Hildebrand was likewise a parishioner. In 2000, Madeleine moved from New Rochelle to an apartment in Bronxville, having chosen her new home most especially for its proximity to Bronxville’s Catholic church, Saint Joseph’s, just a five-minute walk from her door. It was at Saint Joseph’s that Madeleine formed an enduring friendship with a closely-knit circle of parishioners with whom she loved to recite the Rosary following daily Mass, up to the time of her final illness. Madeleine’s last words, spoken just a few hours before her peaceful death on September 17, 2021, were a summation of her entire life-journey: “Let’s go to Heaven!”
Madeleine is survived by her son John Henry (Denise), her stepdaughter Victoria, her stepson Timothy (Louise), nine grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. She is predeceased by her parents Victor (ca. 1896-1979) and Helene Froelicher (1896-1970), her brothers Charles Gottfried Otto Froelicher (1923-1992) and Franz Froelicher (1936-2014), her sisters Marie Theresa “Esi” Froelicher Waldstein (1930-2017) and Sister Mary Peter Froelicher, S.H.C.J. (ca. 1927-2003), and two granddaughters.