A renowned medievalist who did her post-doctoral work at Oxford under such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Sister Madeleva Wolff wrote poetry as beautifully as she handled expertly all the chores of a Wisconsin farmer…
“Accidents are so often God’s way of being doubly good to us”
She is one of the most unsung heroines of an almost unsung movement, who desperately needs an ode, or sonnet, or even a rock ballad written in her honor. Sister Madeleva Wolff (1887-1964), if remembered at all, is remembered for her presidency of St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, over an astoundingly long tenure, 1934-1961. Born to a Lutheran father and Roman Catholic mother in Wisconsin, Mary Evaline Wolff attended St. Mary’s College as an undergraduate and entered the Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in 1908, taking the name Madeleva. A renowned medievalist who earned her Ph.D at Berkeley in 1925 and who did her post-doctoral work at Oxford under such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Father Martin D’Arcy, Sister Madeleva wrote poetry as beautifully as she handled expertly all the chores of a Wisconsin farmer.
She was, by all accounts, an absolutely extraordinary person.
As much as Madeleva appreciated Tolkien and D’Arcy, it was C.S. Lewis who intrigued her most. In her sadly out-of-print autobiography, My First Seventy Years (Macmillan, 1959), she proudly remembers her relationship to him, eleven years her junior.
Oxford that Trinity term meant and continues to mean for me Mr. C.S. Lewis. After attending his second lecture to the Prolegomena to the Study of Medieval Poetry I said to some of the students at Cherwell Edge, “Mr. Lewis is the one person at Oxford with whom I should like to tutor.’ ‘But,’ they exclaimed in amazement at my temerity, ‘Mr. Lewis refuses to tutor a woman.’ ‘That,’ I replied stoutly, ‘does not change my statement in the least.’
Lewis, she noted with obvious glee, “dug up medieval poetry by the roots and planted it in our minds, there to grow and flower as it might.”
Whether Lewis thought as highly of Madeleva as she did of him remains unclear. She appears several times in his collected letters, but the last one written in 1934 ends with the somewhat ominous if unsurprising comment (Lewis never felt comfortable around female students): “If I am ever in those parts (which is unlikely) I will certainly brave the ‘terrors of convents’ and accept your kind hospitality.” Certainly, Lewis never did venture to Notre Dame, Indiana. The two did not correspond again until 1951, when she sent him a copy of her work, “Lost Language.” Lewis pronounced it “wholly delightful.” The two continued to correspond until Lewis’s death in 1963, and he, unexpectedly, revealed a number of personal thoughts to her regarding his wife, Joy, and the sacraments. Lewis was not only one to “confess” to her. The famed historian, Bernard DeVoto, did as well.
Madeleva’s connections, however, went well beyond the Inklings and Father D’Arcy. Indeed, she served as both a critical Christian humanist herself as well as a vital nexus between European and American Christian humanists. As an intellectual and poet in her own right, she interacted with, influenced, and was influenced by R.H. Benson, Christopher Dawson, Stringfellow Barr, Clare Booth Luce, Helen Hayes, Robert Speaight, Frank Sheed, Barbara Ward, Arnold Lunn, Joseph Pieper, Mortimer Adler, E.I. Watkin, and Jacques and Raissa Maritain. The list of her friends and allies reads as a who’s who of the liberal arts and Christian humanism.
Through these connections, Sister Madeleva made St. Mary’s a vital center of Christian humanism throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It was she as president who initiated the Program of Christian Culture, based on the pioneering work of Dawson. Though she held the “Great Books” as understood at the University of Chicago and St. John’s Colleg with deep admiration, she also believed that liberal education should be directed toward a larger truth than our own perception of texts. “The liberal arts are most liberal, most liberating when they rest on complete rather than on partial truth.” This was true philosophically as well as empirically. “Here the Catholic college is the authentic exponent for the first sixteen centuries of Christian arts and sciences.” The same, she noted, was true for the fine arts. Given her own background as a poetess, a farmer, a nun, and a university president, she often answered the question as to what her favorite books were with these three: the Bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, and various seed catalogues. Books, she noted more seriously and with love, “are my friends. Here they are again, shelf upon shelf, the poets from Beowulf and Langland to Eliot and Millay and Daniel Berrigan on the left of the fireplace, the mystics on the right. Lead me not into digression or we shall never emerge from this room.”
It was also Madeleva as president who racially integrated St. Mary’s, having no patience for bigotry based on the accidents of birth. As she said at the time she first accepted a black student, if the school empties in response, St. Mary’s would simply continue as a college for black women! “I knew only one answer,” she wrote, “the right one.”
A scholar of Chaucer and the literature of the high and late Middle Ages, in particular, Sister Madeleva published more than twenty books during her lifetime. Nearly half of these were collections of her poetic verse. While she wrote her poetry in a variety of styles, most of it reads (at least to my untrained, if appreciative, eyes and ears) as Eliot-esque and quite modern. Imagism, especially, abounds.
Two examples reveal much.
A shy ghost of a wind was out
Tiptoeing through the air
At dawn, and though I could not see
Nor hear her anywhere,
I felt her lips just brush my cheek,
Her fingers touch my hair.
Although you know, you cannot end my quest,
Nor ever, ever compass my desire;
That were to burn me with divinest fire;
That were to fill me with divinest rest,
To lift me, living, to God’s living breast.
I should not dare this thing, nor you aspire
To it, who no less passionately require
Love ultimate, possessor and possessed.
You who are everything and are not this,
Be but its dream, its utter, sweet surmise
Which waking makes the more intensely true
With every exquisite, wistful part of you;
My own, the depths of your untroubled eyes,
Your quiet hands, and your most quiet kiss.
As one recent writer has noted, the themes of Madeleva’s poetry are as much Emily Dickinson as Roman Catholicism. Whatever one might label them, these two sample poems reveal the depths of Madeleva’s soul and artistic ability.
At the end of her page-turning and captivating autobiography, Sister Madeleva reflects on a life well lived, wondering about the culture of modern America and its obsessions with the ownership of “stuff.” After a trip to Marshall Field’s in Chicago, she concluded, she was happy to “see how many things there are in the world that I do not want.”
A fine human being, a devout Catholic, and a poetic Christian humanist, Sister Madeleva Wolff gave every talent she had to the Church, to St. Mary’s, and to the very fortunate students who attended that college under her leadership. “Some day I shall have only One, Infinite, Absolute want.” That, she now possesses, and He possesses her.
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