Marie Louise Habets
|Marie Louise Habets|
Egem, West Flanders, Belgium
|Died||May 1986 (81 years old)
Hawaii, United States
|Other names||Sister Xaverine, S.C.J.M.|
|Occupation||Nurse and religious sister|
|Known for||Being the model for the protagonist of the 1956 novel The Nun's Story|
Marie Louise Habets (January 1905-May 1986) was a Belgian nurse and former religious sister whose life was fictionalised as Sister Luke (Gabrielle van der Mal) in The Nun's Story, a bestselling 1956 book by American author Kathryn Hulme. The Belgian-born actress Audrey Hepburn portrayed Gabrielle van der Mal in the 1959 Fred Zinnemann film The Nun's Story.
Habets was born in the town of Egem in West Flanders during January 1905, and in 1926 entered the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, an enclosed religious order, which cared for the sick and poor within their cloister. She was admitted at their convent on Molenaarstraat in Ghent, and then took the name Sister Xaverine. In 1933 she was sent to the mission hospital her congregation staffed for the Belgian government in the Belgian Congo. She returned to Belgium during the summer of 1939 due to her having contracted tuberculosis, shortly before the Nazi invasion of her country that September at the start of World War II. Her father was killed shortly after this. Sister Xaverine developed such a hatred toward Germans that she became involved with the Belgian Resistance. She came to feel that she could not obey the dictates of her faith for forgiveness and applied to the Holy See for a dispensation from her religious vows, a very rare request in that era. She was eventually granted this and left the congregation on 16 August 1944 from their convent in Uccle.
Habets settled in Antwerp, which was liberated by Allied forces a few weeks later. She joined a British First Aid unit which nursed the soldiers wounded while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. She was present in Antwerp when German forces massively bombarded the city soon after its liberation, killing and maiming some ten thousand people. After the end of the war in Europe, she was sent to Germany to help care for her fellow Belgians who had been imprisoned in concentration camps there.
Hulme’s 1966 autobiography Undiscovered Country describes Hulme and Habets’ first meeting in 1945. Both were volunteers with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), an international project working to resettle refugees and others displaced by the war. Hulme recounts that, at a training camp in northern France, she became aware of a Belgian female colleague who spent most of her time asleep. Even when awake, the woman, a nurse, was taciturn, solitary and preoccupied, almost antisocial. In time, however, the Belgian nurse revealed herself as a diligent worker, a good friend, and a woman with a secret: she had just left the convent after 17 years of struggle with her vows. She felt burdened and depressed by a deep sense of failure.
Zoe Fairbairns’ article The Nun’s True Story and Fairbairns’ radio play The Belgian Nurse, broadcast in 2007 on the BBC, tell the story of how Habets’s story became Hulme’s bestseller and how the two women became partners and shared a home and a life for nearly 40 years. Their parallel lives are explored in The Nun and the Crocodile: the Stories within The Nun's Story, a paper given by Debra Campbell at the Women and Religion section of the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting on November 21, 2004.
Documents relating to Habets can be found among the Kathryn Hulme papers which are held at the Beinecke Library at Yale University in the United States.
These include a report by Habets about a repatriation transport from the displaced persons resettlement camp at Wildflecken, Bavaria, which set off for Poland on April 30, 1946. The report is written in English, which Habets did not speak fluently at the time; it was probably translated by Hulme. Read in conjunction with Chapter 14 of Undiscovered Country, it shows the high value placed by Hulme, an American who had not lived under enemy occupation, on the first-hand knowledge, experience and powers of observation of her Belgian colleague. There is also a report by Habets on caring for tuberculosis patients at Wildflecken.
The papers also contain a small number of press interviews given by Habets around the time of the publication of The Nun’s Story and the launch of the film. Habets appears to have been ambivalent about publicity. This is seen in Hulme’s letters to friends and business associates where she frequently refers to Habets’ reluctance or downright refusal to talk to the press or be photographed. But the interviews are there anyway, including an undated (probably 1956) interview in Glamour magazine, in which Habets describes her post-convent difficulties in reacquiring such skills as clothes-buying, money management and drinking alcohol.
There is an undated (probably 1957) interview from The Boston Globe, probably condensed in The Readers Digest, which outlines Habets’ war service between leaving the convent and joining UNRRA
She became attached to the Belgian army which in turn served with the British forces. She aided the wounded and dying when the first V-bombs were fired at Antwerp by the Germans. Scarcely had the tide of the German advance in the Battle of the Bulge been blunted and turned than she was nursing the American wounded who held Bastogne and survived.
In an interview from The Honolulu Advertiser dated February 15, 1963, Habets describes a brief "return" to convent life. Some 19 years after her departure, she attended a refresher course for nurses which involved her sleeping overnight in a convent. She acknowledges that the idea gave her "the shivers" - she thought she would have to sleep in a dormitory with cloth partitions but was relieved to have a single room, albeit an austere one. Haunted by her vow of poverty, she was reluctant to ask for anything, even a glass of water. She describes nuns as "wonderful, dedicated women." Like most of the other interviews, this one carries photographs - not snatched paparazzi snaps, but professionally posed pictures of an apparently willing subject.
There is also a partnership agreement dated 17 April 1959. In signing this, Hulme and Habets acknowledged the existence of their partnership since they first discussed the writing of The Nun’s Story in 1953. It provides for all literary profits to be shared equally between them, and all properties to be owned in equal shares. In the event of a dispute, however, Hulme had primacy. (There is no evidence that this provision was ever invoked.) In spite of the joint ownership, Hulme’s books and articles continued to appear under Hulme’s sole authorship.
In late 1948 Habets had been promoted to Area Chief Nurse by the International Refugee Organization of the United Nations. After continuing to help displaced persons for the next several years, she decided that she had no desire to live in her homeland again, and requested an American visa. Hulme was her sponsor in this, and the visa was granted. After one last visit with her family, Habets and Hulme sailed from Antwerp to the United States on the SS Noordam, arriving in New York City during February 1951. They initially settled in Arizona, where she worked as a nurse in a hospital serving the Navajo people. They later moved to California where she nursed Hepburn after a horseriding accident which occurred during her filming of the The Unforgiven.
In 1960, Hulme and Habets moved to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where Hulme continued to write, with Habets’s support and assistance. They grew tropical fruits, bred dogs, rode horses, had friends to stay, gave talks, and socialised among the other Kauai expats. They remained Catholics, and Hulme continued her involvement with the work of the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. Habets did some nursing, though mainly on a private basis for friends. Hulme and Habets travelled widely, sometimes together, sometimes independently.
Novel vs. life
Anyone who, inspired by the integrity, rebelliousness and self-assertion of Gabrielle van der Mal, goes to the Hulme papers looking for signs of Habets as a religious or sexual revolutionary, will search in vain. Comments attributed to her in interviews show her as socially conservative (though tolerant) and a staunch admirer of nuns, her one regret being that she herself was not strong enough to remain one. If she and Hulme had any criticisms of the Catholic Church or convents, they kept them out of their archive. If they were aware of or interested in women’s liberation or lesbian/gay liberation, they show no sign of it, though clearly they lived openly as a couple, and were acknowledged as such by friends and business associates. Numerous letters to Kathryn Hulme, from friends and business associates alike, contained among the Kathryn Hulme papers, include greetings to Habets, enquiries about her health and activities, plans for social events in which she is to be involved as Hulme’s partner - the normal stuff of communication among friends who are relaxed about each other‘s status. A handwritten note from Habets to Hulme dated 3 November 1975, begins "darling" and ends "I love you. Warmest kisses."
Death and legacy
Habets died in May 1986, five years after Hulme. Having inherited her literary estate, Habets, in her own will, shared it out among members of her own family, members of Hulme’s family, and six Sisters, who cannot be traced. The resultant confusion makes it unclear who owns the rights, and who can give permissions. This is probably why The Nun’s Story, along with Hulme’s other books, remains out of print.
K. Hulme, Undiscovered Country, Atlantic Little Brown, 1966
- Musschoot, Dirk (8 May 2008). "'The nun's story' gaat over zuster Xaverine". De Standaard (in Dutch).
- Rhoenline.com "Marie Louise Habets"
- The Tablet, Jan 6 2007, "The Nun's True Story", Zoe Fairbairns
- BBC Radio Four,The Belgian Nurse, Zoe Fairbairns Jan 13 2007
- Kathryn Hulme Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.