The phone rang at 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 5th. “Her heart gave up” was how a mutual friend announced Mia’s death. Marie Immaculée Antoinette Acton, later the Hon. Mrs. Douglas Woodruff, was dead at 89. I had seen her scarcely two weeks prior and knew that the end was near: “One can live too long, Jim,” she had said. Though she had often joked about the nuisance of what she described as her “creeping decrepitude,” there was a different tone of voice this time. The end came in her beloved home, Marcham Priory, near Abingdon, on the grounds of which stands an ancient stone building (used as chapel and library by the Wood- ruffs), a remnant from the 10th century Benedictine abbey, suppressed in 1538.
What justice can be done to a life in a few score words? Mia Woodruff’s life breathed the long, deep, history of European Catholicism. Her grandfather was the 1st Baron Acton–the namesake of this Institute–one of the great cosmopolitan intellects of his age, with extensive family connections on both sides of the Channel. Her paternal great-grandmother was the Duchess of Dalberg, of high Germanic lineage. Mia married a convert who for thirty years edited the Tablet, the foremost Catholic journal in Britain. Their home, first in London, then at Marcham, was a veritable entrepôt for the Catholic intellectual world, ever filled with the comings and goings of clergy and prelates, dons, journalists, and writers, an unending procession of the celebrated and the controversial, from Belloc and Chesterton to Greene and Waugh.
Beyond the fame of family and marriage, Mia always cherished the memory of her considerable role in bringing comfort to thousands of homeless refugees during and after World War II. From 1943 to 1949 she was national president of the Catholic Women’s League; also from 1943 to 1949 she was vice-chairman of the Catholic Committee for Relief Abroad. While tending to her duties in Rome she would be visited by a certain Msgr. Montini (later Pope Paul VI), who would stop by “to practice his English,” giving rise to an enduring personal friendship. Memory of that good work gave her comfort throughout a long and active life.
My own fondest memories of this lady focus elsewhere and are drawn from a quarter century of seeing her. She was a pillar of strength in a family visited by more than its share of tragedy; her indomitable mirth and good cheer, practicality, and resolve did much for many. All her life she was mindful of her grandfather’s place in history and in many ways assisted and encouraged a generation of scholars who have succeeded in clarifying hitherto clouded accounts of Lord Acton’s legacy. Many are in her debt. Not long ago she wrote of her grandfather, who died three years before she was born: “He must have been a very fine man. May he rest in peace.” Now let it be said of Lord Acton’s granddaughter: Mia Woodruff was a very fine woman. May she rest in peace.