A Work of Intricate Threads

Published August 24, 2021

First Things

Certain things live in the memory.

It’s 1980. The Los Angeles summer is hotter than the fire door of hell. I’m at the office. I get a late afternoon call from Suann, my lovely bride. I ask about her day. She says, “I was at Universal Studios.” I ask her why. She says, “Andrée’s community has a visitor, and he wanted to see Universal. So they asked me if I could take him.”  

Andrée’s community is the L.A. branch of Our Lady of the Way, a secular institute for consecrated women working in the world. “Andrée” is Andrée Emery, the community’s superior and a family friend needing some help. So Suann straps our three-year-old son John into the back seat of our beat-up VW bug. Then she picks up Andrée’s visitor and one of her community sisters, and the four of them spend the day in 100-degree heat at Universal Studios. The visitor insists on trying every attraction. He takes special delight in the Jaws ride.

“He’s a nice man,” Suann says over the phone. “A little odd, though. It was brutally hot, but he wore an Alpaca sweater the whole time. Also, he has very long nose hairs. John kept trying to pull them.” When the four get back to the community, Andrée is there. She offers everyone cold drinks. The visitor wanders out onto the back porch. It has a breathtaking view of the L.A. basin. John trails along after him. Ten minutes go by. Suann goes looking for them.

“It was cute,” she tells me. “The old guy was asleep in a rocking chair. He had John on his lap, curled up against his chest.” I ask, “Where’s the old guy from?” She says, “Europe someplace.  He had a German accent.” I ask, “What’s his name?”

“Hans,” Suann says. “Hans something or other.” I say, “von Balthasar?” “Yes,” she says brightly. “Hans von Balthasar. That’s it.”

Andrée Emery, Hungarian by birth, rates barely a footnote in Church history: Check Google. She’s Andrée the Obscure; Andrée the Forgotten. But she mattered. She was a trusted confidante of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a friend of Joseph Ratzinger and other post-conciliar luminaries, and one of the founding editorial board members of the American edition of Communio, the international theological journal. She was a brilliant, kind, deeply faithful Christian woman. She was also formidable. Andrée had strong views, with a special dislike for the idea of women priests. Her reasons were theological, but also baldly practical. She once told me that ordaining women would be “the perfect excuse for men to do nothing at all in the Church.” And David Schindler, U.S. Communio’s first editor, recalls a board meeting at her home where a prominent priest-theologian made the mistake of interrupting her mid-sentence. Andrée’s response was immediate, sharp, and memorable: “I thought [the man] was going to wet his pants,” Schindler laughs.  

I never saw that side of her. I was inside her circle of trust from the start—not because of anything I did, but because of Msgr. Richard Malone. Dick was a longtime friend of Andrée’s community, had worked for a decade at the CDF, knew Ratzinger and Balthasar personally, and served with Andrée on the Communio board. She liked and admired Dick, who was also, happily, my wife’s uncle. Andrée became, for me, a kind of godmother and mentor. We met two or three times a month for an hour or more for several years with no special agenda; just an ongoing conversation about faith, Church, and life. She counted a whole range of leading international theologians and Churchmen as friends; and since that was so, I asked her once why she didn’t insist on more recognition for herself. She just shrugged. She shared the blessing and the curse, she said, of her patron saint, Andrew. He was the apostle who connected other people, who brought other people together; people who were more important than himself. He was her model, and his humility was good enough for her.

Andrée was a gifted scholar, editor, and writer, and a veteran psychologist. She had a profound respect for the priesthood and religious life. She tolerated no cynicism toward the Church or the men and women who gave their lives in her service. As a result, she was trusted to handle the most sensitive personnel issues and counseling for a variety of religious communities and dioceses. She never betrayed confidences, but she did, occasionally, open a window on her desert-dry sense of humor. She told me once of a string of several (nameless) clerics in a row, good men, but all with the same tiresome sexual issues, whom she had helped as they struggled with, and overcame, their problems. It was rewarding but exhausting work, she said. So, she asked God to please make sure that her next case would be different. “And did he?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she said. “My next patient was a very sweet and lovely young nun. And pregnant.”

One of Andrée’s Our Lady of the Way sisters, now based in Jamaica, remembers her as “a no-nonsense person; strict, but with a very gentle, empathetic, caring, and loving heart. She had a joyous disposition. She bore no anger and carried no distaste for anyone. One minute she would tell you what she didn’t like about an action or what was wrong, the next minute she would be hugging, laughing, forgiving, and asking forgiveness, and life would go on. That’s the Andrée I came to know . . . she was, to a great extent, responsible for introducing the secular institute way of life to the United States.”

I have a copy of Andrée’s handwritten, autobiographical notes that she submitted with her application to the Our Lady of the Way secular institute in May 1958. She told me once that she had, for a while, been a colleague of the psychoanalyst Anna Freud in Europe, but her notes don’t mention that. She was born in Budapest in 1900 and raised in an irreligious home. She converted in her teens, against the wishes of her parents, but her family eventually followed her into the Church. She spent a couple of years as a religious sister, left the religious life, later married, nearly died in childbirth, and divorced. There’s no mention of her child. Her husband remarried, and she lost contact with him soon thereafter. She traveled to America for a fellowship in social economics, taught for a time at Fordham University, had a crisis of faith, left the Church for some years, and began what she described as her “psychiatric social work” in 1952. All of which became a winding and complex path back to the Church and a passion for forming women to serve Jesus Christ.  

Her application ends with the scribbled words: “God in his great mercy permitted me . . . to live for him, and him alone. All I can do is thank him and try to love him—for I could never atone for my unfaithfulness and my many sins. Perhaps he wants to show that he can take a broken reed, and use it, and light a smoking candle again for the greater glory.”

As I said: Certain things live in the memory. I have a photo of Andrée from 1981. She’s on the steps of our parish church at the baptism of our daughter Molly. This woman of extraordinary intellect and zeal, who quietly counted some of the Catholic greats of the last century as friends, spent a lifetime mending, connecting, and stitching together hearts searching for God. Her baptismal gift to Molly, done beautifully, thread by intricate thread, was a needlepoint that marked and blessed her birthday. Andrée got the date wrong by a day; mistakes, she’d be the first to admit, are made. But the mistakes don’t count. The love does.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Photo by Wolfgang Sauber via GNU Free Documentation License. Image cropped.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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