Remarkable Belgians

Remarkable Belgians: Marie-Louise Habets

The life of Marie-Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse and former nun, was portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in the 1959 movie “The Nun’s Story,” which was based on a book by American author Kathryn Hulme. I look at the remarkable connection between Habets, Hulme and Hepburn.

Born in 1905 in the small Belgian village of Egem, in her teens Marie-Louise Habets hears the call of God to become a nun. At the age of 21 she joins the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, an enclosed religious order caring for the sick and poor within their cloister.

She enters their convent on Molenaarstraat in Ghent, taking on the religious name Sister Xaverine. Here she receives training as a nurse. In 1933 Sister Xaverine is sent to work in a mission hospital in the Belgian Congo where she stays for six years, performing valuable work.

Out of Africa

In 1939 she contracts tuberculosis and returns to Belgium, to the order’s convent in Uccle, Brussels. It’s not the country she left. She witnesses the invasion of Belgium by the Nazis, and the death of her father at the hands of German soldiers.

Sister Xaverine is drawn into the Belgian Resistance but realizes that this action, fueled by hatred for what the Nazis did to her family, is not in line with her Christian beliefs. She applies to the Holy See for a dispensation from her religious vows. It’s eventually granted, and Marie-Louise says goodbye to both the convent and the order on 16th August 1944.

Helping wounded soldiers

Marie-Louise Habets

She joins a British First-Aid Auxiliary Unit based in Antwerp. Amongst other tasks, the unit gives medical aid to soldiers wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. Starting from October 1944, Antwerp is heavily bombed for six months, killing 3,000 inhabitants and wounding 7,000 more.

It’s a horrendous time for Marie-Louise and her fellow nurses. She describes wading through blood for days, picking up arms, legs and even heads from bombed houses.

After the war, Marie-Louise signs up with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to provide nursing care to the millions of refugees still left behind in Germany.

At an UNRRA training camp in northern France, Marie-Louise meets an American called Kathryn Hulme and a friendship begins that is to last their lifetimes.

Kathryn Hulme

Marie-Louise is assigned to UNRRA Team No. 1050 consisting of Belgians, French, Canadians and Americans. The team is sent to Wildflecken in the north-east of Bavaria where approximately 2,000 displaced persons of Polish origin are believed to be existing in difficult circumstances.

It takes the team 12 days to travel through the ruins of Germany. Upon arriving at Wildflecken, the situation is much worse than expected. 20,000 refugees are packed into 60 blockhouses on a forested mountain. The members of Team No. 1050 roll up their shirt-sleeves and begin the enormous task of clothing, feeding and providing medical care to the refugees.

By 1948, UNNRA has been replaced by the International Refugee Organization (IRO). In this new organization, Marie-Louise is made Area Chief Nurse and transferred to Würzburg to oversee the care of some 65,000 displaced persons living in 73 widely scattered residences.

To America with Kathryn Hulme

As the work of the IRO begins to wind down, Marie-Louise considers what to do next. Having no desire to return to her homeland of Belgium, she applies for and gets an American visa. Her sponsor to the United States is her American friend, Kathryn Hulme.

After one last visit with her family in Antwerp, Marie-Louise sets sail from Rotterdam to the United States on the SS Noordam, accompanied by Kathryn. They arrive in New York City in February 1951.

The couple settle in Arizona for a while, where Marie-Louise works in a local hospital among the Navajo patients. From there they move to California.

The Nun’s Story

In 1956, Kathryn Hulme writes a book entitled The Nun’s Story. The lead character of the book is a Belgian nun, Sister Luke (pre-convent name Gabrielle Van Der Mal), who travels to Belgian Congo where she works in a remote field hospital. Back in Europe in the grips of war, Sister Luke struggles not to take sides, especially as her father has been killed by the German Army. Ultimately, Sister Luke has to decide between her devotion to the church and her desire to be a nurse.

Sounds familiar? Yes, Sister Luke is based on the real-life experiences of Marie-Louise Habets, who has shared her story with her friend Kathryn.

The book becomes a best-seller, reaching no.1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Plans are made to turn it into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn. The famous actress meets Marie-Louise and learns some more details of her life and work in Africa.

The movie The Nun’s Story comes out in 1959 and is a box office success. Audrey Hepburn is nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sister Luke.

Back to nursing

In 1960, Audrey Hepburn is involved in another movie; a western called The Unforgiven. During shooting, she is seriously injured when she is thrown by the horse she is riding. She is flown back to her Beverly Hills home on an ambulance plane. During her recovery, Hepburn requires the services of a private nurse.

Who steps in to nurse Audrey Hepburn and help her convalesce? Marie-Louise Habets!

In the 1960s, Marie-Louise and Kathryn moved to Hawaii where they spent the remainder of their lives together.

The stuff of dreams

Marie-Louise must have looked back in wonder at her life’s journey. Surely she could never have imagined when she joined the convent as a nun how her life would pan out. That she would work in a mission hospital in Africa. That she would leave the order that she loved so much. Or that she would travel abroad helping refugees. That she would find true love and settle down with a female partner in America. And would nurse a famous film star back to health. And that a book and a movie would be based on her life!

Kathryn Hulme and Marie-Louise Habets. Kathryn died in 1981; Marie-Louise in 1986.

Addendum

As Robert pointed out in the comments below, there is another Belgian connection in this story that I had completely forgot. Audrey Hepburn herself was born in Belgium. This was on 4th May 1929 in 48 Rue Keyenveld, which is a municipality of Brussels. Maybe she deserves her own post in the “Remarkable Belgians” category! Did you know I cover another nun in this series?

Categories: Remarkable Belgians

35 replies »

  1. I saw this movie when I was a little girl, and for ages after I was going to be a Nun when I grew up. Luckily for the Nunneries, that didn’t happen (I was more Whoopie Goldberg than I was Audrey Hepburn 🙂 ) but I did end up being a Nurse!

  2. I loved the Nun’s Story when I was growing up. Thanks for sharing this rich story with us. Talk about 6 degrees of separation among the three women. Reference your comment above the women clear up the mess–ain’t that the case at home and in the world. The next US president who may be a woman will have a heck of a mess to clean up…

    • Nurses: one of the most under-rated groups of people on earth! I was just hearing from one of my clients that nurses in general can vaccinate so much better than doctors. Yet in some countries they are not allowed to vaccinate In other countries, only if a doctor is in the same building! Weird.

  3. Goodness, Denzil, the story, as well as your excellent recount, features as many interesting twists, turns, & coincidences as the best Hollywood movies. Many thanks for the wonderful history lesson 🙂

  4. Btw – please keep me in mind if you’d ever like to guest blog post on my site again – I especially love this story & your one of the singing nun, but any you choose would be wonderful.

  5. Reblogged this on Happiness Between Tails by da-AL and commented:

    Guest Blog Post: Happy International Women’s Day Pt. 1 of 2 by Denzil
    International Women’s Day, initially proposed by German revolutionary Clara Zetkin, was first honored on the streets of New York, March 8, 1909. It was decidedly socialist until feminists embraced it in 1968, and the United Nations joined the festivities in 1975.

  6. Hi Denzil – fyi, after the reblog, I did some tweaking of my little intro – pls let me know if you want anything changed – tx again!

  7. I loved this post containing so many unknown facts about the woman upon whom it was based. I saw the movie several times and liked it over and over again. How wonderful that she really did do what she set out to do but not as a nun. She touched so many lives over the course of her own and really did do as she believed she was called to do. Thank you!

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