Partner Kathryn Hulme

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Marie-Louise Habets (January 14, 1905 – May 28, 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, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Habets was born in West Flanders in January 1905. In 1926, she 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 to their convent on Molenaarstraat in Ghent, and then took the religious 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 in the summer of 1939 due to her having contracted tuberculosis, some years before the start of World War II and the subsequent German invasion of Belgium. Her father was killed shortly after this, causing Sister Xaverine to develop such a hatred toward the 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 her day. She was eventually granted this, and left the congregation on 16 August 1944 from their convent in Uccle.[1][2]

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.[2]

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 aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2007, both tell the story of how Habets’s story became Hulme’s bestseller and how the two women became partners, sharing a home and a life for nearly 40 years.[3][4] 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.[5]

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.

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 Katharine Hepburn after a horseriding accident which occurred during her filming of The Unforgiven.[2]

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.

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."

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.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Louise_Habets