The Nun’s True Story

First published in The Tablet, January 6th 2007

The first time I saw the film The Nun’s Story, I felt as if I were doing something rather wicked. I was a ‘60s teenager, and I seemed to have sneaked into a forbidden area of my convent school to watch the nuns in their private moments: waking up in their cells, eating in their refectory, working, praying, confessing their faults and doing penance for them. Most private of all was the ending when Sister Luke, played by Audrey Hepburn, removed her habit piece by piece, and put on lay clothing in order to return, after 17 years as a nun, to the world. I sat mesmerized: would she really leave the convent? Would she dare? What would happen to her? 

More than 40 years later, I saw the film again, and re-read the book by Kathryn Hulme on which it was based. My curiosity grew. Written in the third person, the book nevertheless had the assurance of autobiography – but Sister Luke was Belgian, and “Kathryn Hulme” didn’t sound like a Belgian name. I started Googling my way through references to Hulme and her book. Another name began to recur: Marie Louise Habets.

Habets was the real Sister Luke, and, although many of the details in the book were deliberately obscured by Hulme to protect Habets’ privacy, Sister Luke’s story is essentially hers. Born in 1905, she came, like Sister Luke, from a family of devout Belgian Catholics and medical professionals. In 1927 she joined the Soeurs de la Charite de Jesus et de Marie in Ghent.

Like Sister Luke (formerly Gabrielle Van Der Mal), Habets served as a missionary nurse in the Congo in the 1930s before returning to Belgium shortly before the outbreak of World War Two. Like Sister Luke, she found it impossible to reconcile the demands of her order with her hatred of the Nazi invader. Like Sister Luke, Habets left her convent in 1944 for an uncertain future.

Her future lay with Kathryn Hulme. The two women met shortly after the war ended, through their work as volunteers with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), caring for concentration camp survivors in Bavaria. Hulme, an American who held the rank of deputy director, notes in her autobiography Undiscovered Country that Habets seemed solitary and emotionally exhausted, and was secretive about her past. But she was a skilled and dedicated worker, and one day, praising her, Hulme happened to call her a saint. It was only a figure of speech, but to Hulme’s astonishment, the “saint” burst into tears and announced, “You must never say that again of me. I left my convent last August – a nun who failed. Now that I have told you, I’ve probably lost you as a friend.”

On the contrary, her confession marked the start of a partnership which would last for nearly four decades, until the women’s deaths in the 1980s. Their UNRRA work was interspersed with long conversations about spiritual life, with Hulme urging Habets to unburden herself of her secret and her guilt. Hulme, a Protestant, was also a devotee of the mystic Gurdjieff, and believed that her inter-war years in Paris in his women’s study group The Rope, had provided her with a spiritual training equivalent to Habets’ years in the convent. Habets was not convinced, but the friendship flourished.

In 1951 they sailed for America, Habets as a new migrant under Hulme’s sponsorship. Soon after their arrival, Habets acted as Hulme’s sponsor when she was received into the Catholic church. They lived together in California, Habets nursing to support them financially while Hulme resumed the writing career that the war had interrupted. In 1953, Habets suggested to Hulme that she might write a book about a nun.

First published in 1956, The Nun’s Story went quickly into the bestseller lists, and won plaudits in both the lay and Catholic press, for its combination of authenticity, emotional honesty and readability. Monsignor Francis Lally, editor of The Pilot, wrote that the book portrayed “the tender vision of a great faith and a great love which, in one person, meets a will too brittle to bend and too strong to break.” Sister Marie Claire Madeleine, whose review from an unidentified magazine is contained among the Kathryn Hulme papers held at the Beinecke Library at Yale University in the US, wrote: “After a fulsome menu of Hollywood nuns who drive down Fifth Avenue in jeeps, after a parade of coy little nuns who play adolescent tricks on policemen, and of frightful nuns who inhabit cracked cloisters, it is with an almost tragic catharsis that we put down the simple and profoundly moving story of Gabrielle Van Der Mal who knew only too well what it means to be a flesh and blood nun.” Father Harold Gardiner, Jesuit editor of the weekly America, called it “artistically superb.”

Some of the private correspondence contained in the archive is less friendly. “Sister Luke is either moronic or masochistic,” fumes the author of one letter; “CRACKPOT LETTER,” Hulme has scribbled on it, in red ink. “NO ANSWER. DON’T GET INVOLVED.”

Sometimes she did get involved. She entered into a cordial and detailed correspondence  with an Illinois nun called Sister Beatrice, who put Sister Luke’s problem down to her “failure to be truly generous and honest in the making of her vows”. Sister Beatrice also declared that “most priests and nuns who have read the book feel that you have harmed the religious life,” a point with which Hulme respectfully took issue, pointing out the many favourable responses she had received in Catholic media, and informing Sister Beatrice that she herself had placed the entire project in the hands of the Blessed Virgin from the start.

Sister Beatrice was not reassured, and, on hearing that the film rights had been sold, begged Hulme “in Christian charity to all of us, and for the greater honor of God” to withdraw them, or, at the very least, “get a strong man, preferably one from a religious Order, to represent you on the Movie Lot. It takes a man to talk to men, a man strong in manhood’s moral and priestly power.”

Hulme and Habets represented themselves, forming a close working relationship and warm friendship with director Fred Zinnemann, scriptwriter Bob Anderson, and Audrey Hepburn. Parts of the Church in the meantime seemed to share Sister  Beatrice’s doubts. The Archdiocese of Melines in Belgium refused a request to film in its convents on the grounds that the book “describes the religious life as somewhat inhuman, and disregards the intrinsic beauty and consolation of a life dedicated to religion.”

The production team sought help elsewhere, and in 1958, filming on location in Rome, Zinnemann wrote to Hulme and Habets that he had “received a great deal of co-operation from the Church – or rather from individuals within the Church who, for some reason, became fascinated by the project.” This co-operation included staging re-enactments of various convent ceremonies, establishing contact with Jesuit mission stations in the Congo, and allowing Audrey Hepburn to stay at an Assumptionist convent in Paris to research her role.

After the  successful premiere in 1959, scriptwriter Bob Anderson wrote to Habets, “Dear Lou, did you ever think that you’d be a bestseller and Whammo at the box office? Interesting, isn’t it, how our sorrows become so successful?” Habets’ reply is not recorded – indeed, it is one of disappointments of the Kathryn Hulme papers that although they are rich in Hulme’s accounts of Habets’ activities, comments and feelings, Habets herself wrote very little. (She had apparently lost her taste for writing in the convent, where all letters were censored, and the only other personal writing allowed was the recording of ones faults in a notebook.) We know from rare press interviews that Habets, like Hulme herself, was happy with the film, and that although Habets never regretted her decision to leave the convent, she still felt a failure for not having been strong enough to stay.