Alice Marie (née Jourdain) von Hildebrand, known to family and friends as “Lily,” was born in Brussels, Belgium, on March 11, 1923. The third of five children (three sisters and one brother), she was educated by the Canonesses of Saint Augustine in Brussels. Her native language was French. She died peacefully at home in New Rochelle, New York on January 14, 2022.
When the Nazis invaded Belgium in May 1940, Lily (then 17) and her four siblings fled with their parents to Bordeaux. From there, at the invitation of her aunt and uncle living in New York City, she and her elder sister Louloute were able to board the SS Washington, the last passenger vessel to depart France during the war. While sailing from Lisbon to Galway to pick up additional refugees, the SS Washington was intercepted by a German U-boat. On deck, faced with the prospect of death, Lily had a life-changing experience. Looking out onto the “mysterious, fog-covered Atlantic, … with a clarity and 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, felt. The experience was overwhelming and convinced me of God’s goodness. Could I not assume that, at the very moment of death, God would grant this experience to everyone, so that each person would have the chance to say, ‘have mercy on me, my Lord’”? The captain of the SS Washington was eventually able to convince the U-boat commander that he was carrying refugees, and they were permitted to continue their journey, arriving in New York Harbor on June 21, 1940.
The six years she spent with her aunt and uncle, despite living with them in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, were extraordinarily difficult for Lily. She was thought unfit for further studies, and even sent to secretarial school. Eventually, she was allowed to enroll at Manhattanville College. One of her philosophy professors there was Balduin Schwarz, a student of the eminent Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, who invited Lily to attend a talk by Dietrich on November 27, 1942. Dietrich spoke on “the readiness to change,” a theme in his major religious work Transformation in Christ. This encounter became the great turning point of Lily’s life. “From the first moment he began to speak, I felt that he was feeding my soul with a food that I had always longed for. He spoke out of a deep recollection, and I drank in every word…. After twenty-nine months of darkness, the sun again rose in my life.”
Even before completing her BA, Lily began taking classes with Dietrich at Fordham University in 1943. She became acquainted with Dietrich’s first wife, Margarete (who died in 1957), and became an integral member of the Hildebrands’ circle of friends. Soon after beginning her studies with Dietrich, she began to assist him as his secretary. Over the coming decades, she typed many of his book manuscripts (which he always wrote by hand) and translated a number of his essays into English. She is surely the reason certain of his works saw the light of day. Not only did she supply most of the footnotes for his books; she became a true philosophical collaborator, reading and discussing his works in progress.
When her aunt and uncle returned to Belgium in 1946, she was forced to accompany them. Determined to complete her studies, she persuaded her parents to let her go back to New York. This time, she was not living in the splendor of the Waldorf Astoria, but in a modest apartment with her beloved sister Louloute and with Madeleine Froelicher (later Stebbins), who would be her closest friend for nearly 80 years. They met in the fall of 1943 at one of Dietrich’s evening lectures. Lily never forgot that first impression of Madeleine: “She was so radiant, pure, enchanting, feminine, graceful, and warmhearted that I immediately thought, ‘I wish she were my friend.’”
As Lily’s resources dwindled, she desperately searched for a teaching position at Catholic colleges around New York. Despite excellent credentials, she was repeatedly told: “It is not the policy of Catholic colleges to appoint women to teach philosophy.” But she was introduced to the chairman of the philosophy department at Hunter College in New York City, who hired her for a three-week substitute position in December 1947. She prepared for those first classes with “the intensity that only despair can fuel.” Despite being certain of having failed, after those three weeks she was offered a position in a new Hunter College veterans program in the Bronx.
Thus began a teaching career at Hunter College that would span 37 years. From the start, she faced opposition from her own colleagues, in part out of professional rivalry (she quickly became one of the most popular professors) and in part because of anti-Catholic sentiment. The latter surprised her, because she never spoke of Catholicism in the classroom. The difficulty was that several of her students began converting to Catholicism. She soon realized that it was her defense of the objectivity of truth against the prevailing relativism of the day that prepared the ground for these conversions. “If someone finds the truth,” she would say, “he automatically finds God, because God is the truth.”
Lily retired from Hunter College in the spring of 1984. Just as the semester was winding down, she received a call from Hunter President Donna Shalala, informing her that she had received the highest student evaluation in the College (from among 850 teachers) and would receive the award for Excellence in Teaching during graduation at Madison Square Garden.
Lily had married Dietrich in July 1959. She often spoke of their unique partnership: complete unity in love of philosophy, music, literature, art, and above all, their Catholic faith. They had a great love for the sacrality of the liturgy and the Church’s heritage of sacred music. Together they formed an extraordinary partnership in bearing witness to Christian culture and Christian life.
In the years after her retirement from teaching, she lectured in 35 US states, Canada, Mexico, and in many countries in South America and in Europe. In these years she also began to develop her understanding of femininity — informed by her husband’s thought on love, but also distinctively her own, as expressed principally in her books The Privilege of Being a Woman and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention. Her book By Grief Refined was borne of the experience of becoming a widow with Dietrich’s death in 1977. In addition to her book Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, she has left behind a rich body of essays on the nature of education, reverence, liturgy, marriage, and many other themes. She had a particular affinity for Plato, St. Augustine, Pascal, and Kierkegaard, returning to them for inspiration throughout her life.
In addition to her many years at Hunter College, she taught at several other institutions, including the Catechetical Institute of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, NY, Franciscan University of Steubenville (where she served on the board of trustees for 13 years), the Thomas More Institute in Rome, Ave Maria College in Michigan, and the Notre Dame Institute in Arlington, VA. She served on the board of Veil of Innocence and lent her support to innumerable Catholic apostolates and causes. Throughout her career she received numerous awards and three honorary degrees, including from Franciscan University. In 2013, she was invested Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory for her dedicated witness and leadership within the Catholic Church.
Lily became a household name through her early association with Mother Angelica and EWTN. She made over 80 appearances on EWTN, including two series with Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR: Suffering and What to Do With It and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention.
After Dietrich’s death, she saw her primary mission to be the preservation of his legacy. In 2001, she published The Soul of a Lion, a biography based on Dietrich’s memoirs. She also devoted two EWTN series to her husband’s life: A Knight for Truth with Thomas Howard, and He Dared Speak the Truth with John Henry Crosby. In 2004, she joined John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby to establish the Hildebrand Project as a vehicle for perpetuating her husband’s legacy. She was particularly instrumental in inviting the support of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, which proved crucial for the Hildebrand Project. She collaborated with John Henry in the production of My Battle Against Hitler, featuring her husband’s memoirs and anti-Nazi essays. She also worked closely with John Henry in writing her own Memoirs of a Happy Failure. The website www.alicevonhildebrand.org is devoted to her work.
Lily is survived by her sister Marie Laure (“Flotte”) Gillis (b. 1928) as well as thirteen nieces and nephews and their children. She is predeceased by her father Henri Jourdain (1892-1972) and mother Marthe (née van der Vorst) Jourdain (1899-1976), her brother Robert (1921-1961), and sisters Marie-Hélène (“Louloute”) Peeters (1922-2018) and Christiane (“Titane”) Jourdain (1935-2015).
In lieu of flowers, Lily requested that masses be said for the repose of the souls of her husband and herself, and that donations be made to the Hildebrand Project (www.hildebrandproject.org).