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The deep faith of the Von Trapp family

Trapp Family Singers in 1941 (Wikimedia)

Last month we celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart, beloved of Catholic devotional iconography (and traditional kitsch holy pictures). If the core of the Christian faith is the love of Christ, this Feast is a visible and liturgical reminder of it. In Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family (Sophia Institute Press), its author, Maria Augusta von Trapp (aka actress Julie Andrews) devotes a loving passage to this Feast, writing “As our home is called “Cor Unum” and our motto for daily life that we want to be one heart and one soul, we chose the feast of the Sacred Heart as our family feast.”

My reference to Julie Andrews is not entirely frivolous, just a reminder that almost all people who have watched that enormously popular film The Sound of Music, will have learnt what little they know of the von Trapp family from it. What they won’t learn is the deep-rooted Catholic faith and culture that lay behind the winning combination of romance, motherless children, a new governess, music and political danger that made up the essential features of the film itself.

That the film has become embedded in the western psyche is obvious from the way it crops up from time to time in the media: former MP Ed Balls has taken his family to Salzburg on the von Trapp tourist trail; TV investigator Sue Perkins has made the inevitable TV programme, critical of the matriarch behind the family’s fame; even that arch-feminist Germaine Greer is on record as crying while watching it. But this beautifully produced and illustrated book goes much deeper.

Divided into two parts, Celebrating with the Family in Heaven, containing vivid and affectionate reminiscences of pre-War liturgical celebration in Austria, and Celebrating with the Family on Earth, which is all about how the von Trapp family celebrated the Sacraments and kept a firm hold on family customs such as reading aloud, singing, dancing and home concerts, the book would make an excellent addition to a Catholic family book shelf – not least today when the milieu surrounding the faith has almost entirely disappeared, leaving families marooned on a small island of religious belief, surrounded by the vast, secular (and often hostile) cultural mainland.

In her introduction, Maria Augusta writes that “When Hitler’s troops invaded our homeland, Austria, in 1938, my husband and I felt bound in conscience to save our children from yielding to the religion and philosophy of this neo-paganism.” She continues, “When we finally reached the hospitable shores of [America], we arrived in New York City, the fourteen of us possessing a total of four dollars. Most of us knew no English and we had no relatives or friends on this vast continent. We were real refugees and we were poor.”

The many thousands of dispossessed peoples and refugees tramping the roads to new countries today will identify with this. With their combined musical gifts and the energy and entrepreneurship of the indefatigable matriarch, Maria Augusta (Captain von Trapp sensibly bowed to his wife’s superior capacity to keep the family afloat), the family eventually became the famous Trapp Family Singers of post-war America.

This book reminds us that underpinning their worldly success was their Catholic faith. For instance, writing about All Souls’ Day, the author emphasises that “in the old country, the great event of the day used to be the visit to the cemetery”. Describing in detail the Austrian cemeteries of her memory, she adds, “When the father of our family died…we started our own old-world cemetery.”

In a thoughtful chapter, The Land without a Sunday”, Maria Augusta relates how Austrian friends made a trip to Communist Russia before the War and how what shocked them more than anything else and which “seemed to be the root of all the evil” was the way the traditional Christian Sunday had been abolished in favour of constant shift-work, with factories open every day of the week in “an atmosphere of constant rush and drive.” She follows this with a long, affectionate description of “a typical Sunday in Austria…up to the year before the Second World War.”

If this sounds an exercise in nostalgia; it isn’t. It is a vivid reminder of how ancient European Christian traditions have been lost (helped by the indifference of the EU) in the ensuing decades, and of the importance of the culture surrounding faith. This culture is wide, rich, life-enhancing and humane: Maria Augusta includes songs and rounds for family singing – and of course many appetising recipes for family meals, such as lebkuchen, stollen, sacher torte and simnel cake.