‘A Godsend’
Sister Continues Tradition of Excellence in Music

by Mary Paynter, OP

Stained glass medallion designed and painted by Sr. Teresita Hession for the entrance to Villa Fougeres, Fribourg, Switzerland
Stained glass medallion designed and painted by Sr. Teresita Hession for the entrance to Villa Fougeres, Fribourg, Switzerland

This is the third article in the three-part series in Sinsinawa Spectrum spotlighting the lives of two remarkable Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, Teresita Hession, OP (1867–1936), and Amanda Courtaux, OP (1859–1941).

Over 100 years ago, two women fled to neutral Switzerland to escape the First World War raging in their home countries. One summer day they arrived at the door of the Villa des Fougères in Fribourg, asking to live with our Sisters and students there and offering to teach classes. The two were accomplished teachers—one, a musician from Paris, Mlle. Mathilde Courtaux; the other, a professor of languages from Berlin.

Their arrival was recorded in the 1919 Fribourg annals by a Sister who had come to Fribourg less than two years’ earlier—Teresita Hession. She called their arrival that warm summer afternoon “a godsend!” Why would she say that, and what would flow from this initial encounter between Teresita Hession, herself a gifted artist, and one of those refugees—Mlle. Mathilde Courtaux, a renowned musician?

Stained glass medallion designed and painted by Sr. Teresita Hession for the entrance to Villa Fougeres, Fribourg, Switzerland
Amanda Courtaux, OP

The short-term answer is that Mlle. Courtaux was offering her remarkable talents and wealth then to this little community of Sisters struggling to develop a new ministry in a foreign country. The long-term answer is that Mlle. Courtaux would become a member of the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, bringing to the Congregation her extraordinary gifts as a composer, concert pianist, and teacher. Further, she would find a lifelong friend and mentor in Teresita Hession.

Amanda Courtaux was born Marie Mathilde Courtaux on Oct. 27, 1859, in Port Louis on the Île Maurice (Mauritius), an island in the Indian Ocean. Her homeland was a British colony, having been captured from the French some years earlier. Although Mathilde always had a British passport, she spoke French as did her parents because the official language and culture of Mauritius remained French even after British rule. Her father, Eudore Courtaux, a merchant who dealt with the vast sugar plantations on the island, died when Mathilde was 8 years old. Her mother, Marie Amanda Rivière Courtaux, a widow with four young children, decided to move to France where she had family.

Mathilde studied piano for 11 years, four of which were at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris (she also studied composition there). She received her License—the highest degree, with first place honors in piano—at the age of 20. She had begun teaching piano when she was 17, and, before the outbreak of the First World War, she had nearly 100 music students. She also regularly performed concerts in various venues, and in 1907 received from the French government the honor of being named an Officier d’Académie des Beaux Arts.

About this same time, the Paris music publisher E. Costil published several of her compositions.

During the Fribourg summer of 1919, Mathilde Courtaux moved to the Villa and installed her grand piano in a room on the first floor where she gave public concerts and taught students. The Fribourg annals record that “as she had not music notation, she played from memory. She knew the masters by heart and rendered many exquisite selections of her own composition.”

The person at the Villa who became her friend and mentor was the artist, Teresita Hession. Mathilde Courtaux, in one of many letters to Teresita, wrote that she “often recalls our little get-togethers in your dear ‘studio’ at the Villa. There, my dear Sister, I was stirred by the question of my entrance into the Order of our Father St. Dominic.” Teresita warned her that “advanced age” (Mathilde was then 60) might present a difficulty in being accepted as a postulant. However, recognizing her exceptional musical gifts, Teresita strongly recommended her to Mother Samuel Coughlin, OP (1868–1959), who came to Fribourg and interviewed her. The result was positive, and Mathilde Courtaux came to the United States in May 1921, was received at Sinsinawa as a postulant, and was professed in 1923 as Sister Marie Amanda.

She suffered from ill health much of her life, and she returned to Europe several times, visiting her cousin, a well-known Paris doctor, for his treatments, and returning to Fribourg. These trips were via ocean liners, of course, and our Congregation has in the Archives the program from one of those voyages in 1929 when she performed a concert at the Captain’s gala dinner, including her own compositions as well as works by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Schuman—undoubtedly all played from memory.

She taught at St. Clara College, Edgewood Academy, Rosary College, and finally during her last three years again at St. Clara—teaching postulants and novices who would become music teachers. At a recital of her novitiate students on June 7, 1940, the program lists Catherine Becker (1918–2002), Emily Herrington (1922–2015), and Dorothy Wreisner (1921–2016) performing Military March for Six Hands and Gavotte—both composed by “S. M. A.” She performed another of her compositions with Sister Genevra, a duet, Meditation. Other students performing at that recital were Sister Romana, Mary Niemeyer (1921–2011), and Mildred (Meinrad) Pahlke (1920–2012).

Amanda Courtaux died at St. Clara on April 21, 1941, a professional musician to the end as her obituary states, “to the last day of her life, Sister Amanda practiced diligently almost every spare moment she had.” And as her friend had declared upon first meeting her—she was truly “a godsend!”

Click for Spectrum July 2020 Index

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