Escaping the Grim Reaper: A Tale of Three Courageous Catholics

God’s providential design is best seen in retrospect, after enough time has passed so that our vision is cleared from the things that do not matter. We live from moment to moment, but we comprehend the meaning of our life when its concatenation of moments spell out a pattern. And it is in this pattern we glimpse the Hand of God.

Let us begin with the celebrated philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand. He was dubbed “The Knight of Truth” because of his unflinching dedication to that ideal, a virtue that led him into the Catholic Church. A born teacher, he was instrumental in leading all five of his sisters into the Church. His influence on four of them was decisive. As a Catholic and an outspoken critic of Nazism, the man who refused to kowtow to the politicization of moral values earned the singular honor of being called “enemy number one” of National Socialism. A warrant for his arrest and execution was issued. Through courageous and generous friends, Dietrich von Hildebrand managed, through what was termed Divine Providence, to escape to America in 1940 and began his distinguished career at Fordham University.

It was at this institution that von Hildebrand met Alice Jourdain, a devoted student who later became his wife and co-author. Alice had her own harrowing tale to tell, which she recounted in her autobiography, Memoirs of a Happy Failure. She was a refuge at the outset of World War I when Germany was invading her native country of Belgium. Her Atlantic crossing was a life-changing experience for her. “Our vessel,” she writes in her autobiography, “the SS Washington, had been intercepted by a German U-boat. We had been given one hour to board or lifeboats and put out to sea. Our ship would then be torpedoed”.

The order was a bluff. The passengers, after being terrified, were allowed to leave safely. Ms. Jourdain, a teenager at the time, was convinced that she was about to meet God. But God spared her as she “went from youth to maturity in a few brief instants”. Courage became for her a lifelong attribute. She taught at Hunter College under extreme duress for 37 years, ridiculed and rejected because she was both a woman and a Catholic. Her tenure after teaching for 13 years, by a 9 to 8 vote, was considered a “miracle”. Two years later, she was finally given her own desk.  It was a crowning moment for her when she received the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

I had the personal good fortune of meeting and conversing with Alice von Hildebrand on several occasions. She related to me the story of another courageous individual: King Baudouin of Belgium. Baudouin himself had been interned by the Nazis during World War II. When the Belgian Parliament approved a “liberalization” of abortion, King Baudouin, rather than lend his signature to it, abdicated his kingship. Alice was most impressed by this act of loyalty to all his subjects, and wrote him a congratulatory letter. She soon discovered than many other Belgians did the same. Acts of courage are never in vain. Lily, as she preferred to be called, informed me that the king’s secretary, who had the task of dispatching letters of thanks to the king’s supporters, had planned to have an abortion, but after reading so many glowing testimonies to the sacredness of life, she decided to have her child (from a conversation with Alice von Hildebrand, November 5, 1993).

Dietrich von Hildebrand was a hunted man with a price tag on his head. Alice Jourdain was a teenaged refugee set out to sea in dangerous waters. The unborn child of Baudouin’s secretary was scheduled to be snuffed out by abortion. All three narrowly escaped the grim reaper. Dedication to truth, courage, and loyalty proved essential. There are no good stories without virtue. And virtue can be life-saving as well as soul-saving. Catholics have always been persecuted for their faith. But they cannot persevere in their faith without a quiver full of virtues. We may find encouragement in this tale of three courageous Catholics and how they wove the tapestry of Divine Providence.

Photo by il vano on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College.  He is is the author of forty-two books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on  He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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