Marriage of True Minds

Alfredo Oswald, internationally known pianist and teacher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and his wife for eighteen years, Beatrice Oswald, who also taught at the conservatory, parted yesterday to devote their lives to the service of Catholic orders.

--The [Baltimore] Sun, September 19, 1930

He drove her to the Baltimore Carmelite Monastery in their roadster convertible. After embracing his wife for the last time in their lives, Alfredo left Beatrice at the Carmel cloister and drove to Wernersville, Pa. There he joined the Society of Jesus as a brother. Four years later, Br. Alfredo Oswald, SJ, joined the faculty of Georgetown Prep, where he taught piano until his death in 1972.

Alfredo Oswald was born in 1884 in Florence, Italy, where his father, Henri, a Brazilian diplomat, was stationed. Henri had been a composer and a conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra in Brazil, and Alfredo became involved with music at an early age and quickly made a name for himself as a child prodigy. The young Alfredo traveled throughout Europe as a piano and organ soloist, performing with leading symphony orchestras.

When Alfredo was 22, he met a girl exactly half his age named Beatrice Bacchelli, after Dante's Beatrice. Born in Bologna in 1895, she was the daughter of a renowned Italian family. Her father, Giuseppe, was a successful engineer. Her mother, Anna Brumiler, held dual citizenship in Italy and Switzerland. The entire Bacchelli family was highly cultured: Beatrice's brother, Ricardo, became a celebrated novelist, playwright, and film director. As for Beatrice, even at age 11 she was refined and well educated; as an adult, she became a linguist, fluent in five languages.

As Beatrice grew up, her friendship with Alfredo evolved into love, and in 1913, when Beatrice was 18 and Alfredo 29, they were married in São Paulo, Brazil, where Alfredo was living at the time. The couple lived in Brazil for five years, Beatrice accompanying Alfredo on his worldwide concert tours. In 1920 they moved to New York, where Alfredo made his debut at Carnegie Hall to rave reviews. This was immediately followed by a tour of some 50 concerts across the United States.

Alfredo and Beatrice

An uncommon man and an unusual woman, Alfredo and Beatrice gave up successful careers and even their marriage to follow their hearts: she to the Carmelites and he to the Jesuits.

When the couple returned from the tour, Alfredo was offered a teaching position at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. They moved to that city in 1922, and Beatrice was also asked to join Peabody's faculty, teaching Italian and diction to opera students, while her husband taught advanced piano lessons. Both became very successful, and the Oswalds soon were among the most popular members of Baltimore's high society. Their active musical careers were matched by an equally active social life among the cultural elite of their time.

Perhaps it was the fact that the couple was childless that enabled Beatrice to pursue a career with enthusiasm and dedication. In that era, it was certainly unusual for a married woman to have any career, much less a successful one. However, Beatrice was an unusual woman married to an uncommon man, and their relationship proved anything but average.

Then one day, who knows how, the truth came out: the inseparable Beatrice and Alfredo had each been sensing an irresistible calling to religious life.

"They had been married sixteen years, and each of them had spent five years thinking about joining a religious order without mentioning it to the other," recalled Fr. Joseph Simmons, SJ, former teacher of German and Latin at Georgetown Prep. "I guess that's a part of the mystery of it all."

After discussing and agreeing upon it, they approached their priest, Fr. Henri Weisel, SJ, who in turn held an undoubtedly long conference with the bishop. The bishop finally agreed but had to obtain a special dispensation from the pope that would enable each spouse to join an order, despite the lasting commitment of their marriage.

Beatrice and her mother (?)Beatrice (left) spent idyllic summers during her youth at Cypressina, her family's villa on the Mediterranean. The person on the right is probably her mother.

Papal permission was slow in coming, and in the meantime Alfredo and Beatrice were required to live as brother and sister. In 1930, after two years of coexisting as platonic friends, Alfredo and Beatrice were granted permission to join their respective orders. When they publicly announced their radical decision, Alfredo explained: "For years, we have been giving our time, our money to the Church. Now we feel that the only thing left to give is ourselves."

Alfredo chose to join the Society of Jesus. Although he had the education to pursue ordination, he decided to join as a brother. The more easygoing Beatrice selected a contemplative and strictly cloistered order, the Carmelites, the first foundation of religious women in Colonial America, whose monastic community in Baltimore dates to 1790.

For the next 42 years the couple lived separate lives but were never disengaged in mind or heart. After Br. Oswald returned to Washington to work at Georgetown Prep in 1934, he began making regular visits to Beatrice at the Carmelite monastery in Baltimore. "I call her up whenever I visit," he once said. "I tell her I want to make sure she's home before I come over." Sr. Beatrice was not allowed to leave the monastery, so he would go to the visitors' room and speak to her through a small grate. "We'd talk and talk until she'd kick me out," Br. Oswald said in 1966. Toward the end of his life, Br. Oswald suffered a severe stroke; he had to depend upon fellow Jesuits to drive him to visit Sr. Beatrice.

"I was one of the people who'd drive him," Fr. Simmons recalled, "and I remember clearly how Br. Oswald would get more and more excited the closer he got to Baltimore."

Even after his stroke, Br. Oswald continued to tease and joke with Sr. Beatrice through the grate. "She likes to talk politics and I hate politics," he once said with a smile. In between visits, Sr. Beatrice would call Georgetown Prep for frequent updates on her husband's health, inquiring about every detail of his condition.

"It was as if she were still at home taking care of him," Fr. Simmons said. "Their relationship was very tender. They were really companions until death." In the early 1970s, Br. Oswald became so ill he could no longer make the trip to Baltimore. Appealing to her superiors, Sr. Beatrice was granted permission to leave the monastery to occasionally visit her ailing husband.

One day in 1972, Br. Oswald's condition took a turn for the worse, and he was admitted to the hospital; at the same time, Hurricane Agnes struck and prevented Sr. Beatrice from traveling to Washington. While the storm raged, Br. Oswald died quietly. His wife once again left the monastery, this time for her husband's funeral.

It is difficult to imagine how Beatrice must have felt sitting in Georgetown Prep's chapel at her husband's funeral. She had known Alfredo since she was a child; had loved, married, and lived with him for 18 years; and for another 42 years had voluntarily deprived herself of his companionship. Yet despite or in some way because of the cloister, Sr. Beatrice had remained an involved and supportive wife. After all, she chose to join the Carmelites, an order whose sole purpose is to "make special supplication for priests and religious, and for all who are engaged in the work of saving souls." Spiritually speaking, then, Beatrice had continued to be Alfredo's helpmate.

Sr. Beatrice lived almost another 20 years after her husband's death. On March 13, 1991, she passed away peacefully, as Alfredo had done. At 96 years of age, she was the oldest member of her community.

If the choice that Br. Oswald and Sr. Beatrice made perplexes and intrigues us, perhaps it is because it very graphically embodies a basic truth most of us prefer to overlook: that love is as much a matter of releasing as it is of joining, and that we can neither own nor forever hold the ones we love. In the end, each of us must answer to, and can be united only to, ourselves and God. Thus, our love for another person, if it is to last, must be an essentially spiritual, not a physical, bond. The love and the marriage of Br. Oswald and Sr. Beatrice bore vivid testimony to this powerful, often painful, but ultimately permanent variety of love.

Ann Thompson, director of public relations and publications at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, Md., has been a professional writer and editor for fourteen years. This article originally appeared in Georgetown Prep's ALUMNEWS.

Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, S.J., Copyright(c) . Created: Friday, September 13, 1996 Updated: Friday, September 13, 1996