One picturesque, often employed image used by the University Museum shows a nun in full habit posed behind surveying equipment, with the caption “First woman to enroll in the School of Engineering”.
The juxtaposition claims a viewer’s attention. Who is this nun? And what brought her to UP?
She is Sr. M. Hildegarde, O.S.B. (Order of St. Benedict), enrolled as a student in the School of Engineering from the Fall of 1956. Beacon reporter Linda Wright profiled Sr. M. Hildegarde for an article published April 5, 1957. Originally from New Zealand, Sr. Hildegarde obtained a master’s degree in history there and then went on. And on. Around the globe.
There is a list of places, but not of whens in this life-story: the article mentions that she studied at several universities, located in Canada, the United States, London, France. Her home convent is in Normandy, France, though she studied art and was trained as a teacher in Australia.
For a three-month period during World War II, Sr. Hildegarde was detained by German forces as an enemy alien on French soil. She was soon released because she carried an Australian passport.
After the war, appearing here in 1956; that is, sometime during those ten years Sr. Hildegarde made her way from her Normandy convent to the western United States, to Portland and her enrollment at UP, to pursue a degree in architecture which involved a surveying class (and the photo above!), as well as other coursework.
The picture is great; and likely too colorful and too perfect. Taken together with the backstory of a New Zealand, MA (History), French, Benedictine, Australian concentration-camp-survivor, art-teacher, engineer-architect nun, the whole story appears almost too good and too complicated to be true. The gaps in Hildegarde’s itinerary suggest how both the picture and the biography have been posed, partially staged for effect. But as a marketing photo-op—still irresistible!
Asked her own opinion about her possible publicity-function, Sr. Hildegard is nun-ishly modest, telling The Beacon how she “didn’t care for it because it distinguishes me from the others.” And yet, on the contrary, The Beacon reporter concludes: we think she is a remarkable credit and most interesting figure, deserving of recognition on our campus.