‘A Godsend’ from Our Archives
by Mary Paynter, OP
This issue of Sinsinawa Spectrum introduces a three-part article spotlighting the lives of two remarkable Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters—one an artist, the other a renowned musician—whom Providence brought together 100 years ago in Fribourg, Switzerland.
What the Sister annalist at Fribourg, Switzerland, labeled “A Godsend!” occurred more than 100 years ago—on a day in late July 1919. It was the first meeting of two remarkable women, an artist and a musician— Teresita Hession, OP (1867–1936), and Mathilde Courtaux (later, Amanda Courtaux, OP [1859–1941])—kindred spirits who became lifelong friends.
In August 1917, with war still raging in Europe, George Adamson, OP (1866–1918), and Grace James, OP (1873–1945), had arrived in Fribourg to assess the feasibility of acquiring the Villa des Fougères. But only one year later, in August 1918, George died of what was called the “Spanish grippe” or influenza. Within a few days, Mother Samuel Coughlin, OP (1868–1959), assigned four Sisters to go to Fribourg to assist Grace James: Evelyn Murphy, OP ([1881–1955] from Washington, DC); Teresita Hession, OP (from Edgewood, Madison, WI); Rosemary Crepeau, OP (from Sinsinawa Mound); and Laserian Doran, OP ([1880–1967] from Rosary House, River Forest, IL). The four sailed to Europe from New York on Sept. 18, 1918, traveling with U.S. troops during wartime and facing the reality that German submarines were prowling the Atlantic. The annals record that The evening of the first day found Sister Teresita throwing up all but her passport! They arrived in Fribourg in October after a long and difficult journey, and Teresita set up her little “studio” on the Villa’s third floor.
Less than a year later, in late July 1919, the Fribourg annals record: Two new arrivals found their way to the studio, where Sister Teresita received them kindly and made them feel at ease. They were Mathilde Courtaux and Gertrud Hildebrandt. The former is French and a devout Catholic; the latter, German and a convert to the faith. Mlle. Courtaux was her sponsor in baptism, and conscientiously clings to her charge. Mlle. Courtaux is an artist-musician who is a gold-medal or laureate artist of the French Academy of Music [the Paris Conservatoire]. Mlle. Hildebrandt has a degree from the University of Berlin and is a teacher of German, French, English, and Italian, besides the History of Art. Since they have been drifting in Switzerland during the five years of warfare, they are anxious to cast anchor in some quiet religious atmosphere.
The two women indicated that they would like to reside with the Sisters at Fougères—and even stated that they would like to receive the Habit. Teresita told them their age might be an obstacle [Mlle. Courtaux was then 60], yet considering their extraordinary gifts and accomplishments, some arrangements might be made. The two women offered to teach at the Villa gratis, and soon moved there with their furniture (including Mlle. Courtaux’s grand and upright pianos). The annals record that soon, The little community assembled in the music room for a treat of Mlle. Courtaux’ rare music. As she had not notation, she played from memory. She knew the masters by heart, and she rendered many exquisite selections of her own composition.
This godsend was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between a gifted artist and a renowned composer-pianist. From many letters and other documents in our Archives, it is evident that the artist had encouraged the French musician to join our community and to remain. They were kindred spirits: both had entered religious life more professionally experienced than most postulants, and Teresita was only eight years younger than Mathilde Courtaux when they first met in July 1919; both were remarkably talented women.