DeFrees, who spent four decades as a Catholic nun and was a Washington State Book Award winner, died Nov. 11 in Portland at age 95.
Madeline DeFrees, a prizewinning Northwest poet who spent almost four decades of her life as a Catholic nun and more than 60 years as a writer, died Nov. 11 in Portland from complications of dementia. She was 95.
Ms. DeFrees was born and raised in Oregon. She spent the first half of her life as a nun with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.
In a 2003 profile by Seattle Times reporter Tyrone Beason, Ms. DeFrees said she was raised in a strict Catholic family and was known as “the smart one.” She told Beason that her decision to enter the convent at age 17 was in partial fulfillment of her mother’s wishes. She was known as Sister Mary Gilbert and published her first volume of poetry, “From the Darkroom,” under that name.
In 2003 she told Beason that “the great thing about poetry is if you live long enough and write long enough, there’s nothing that at some point won’t be relevant.”
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After 38 years as a nun she left the convent in 1973, saying that “religious life and poetry both demand an absolute commitment.” She published two memoirs about convent life, “The Springs of Silence” and “Later Thoughts from the Springs of Silence.”
While known as Sister Mary Gilbert, she earned a B.A. from Marylhurst College in Oregon and a master’s in journalism from the University of Oregon. She taught at Holy Names College in Spokane; after she resumed using her baptismal name, she taught at the University of Montana and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
After retiring to Seattle, she continued to travel and teach, serving residencies at Bucknell University, Eastern Washington University, Wichita State University and the University of Washington. She received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ms. DeFrees published two chapbooks and eight poetry collections, including “Spectral Waves” and “Blue Dusk: New and Selected Poems 1951-2001,” both published by Port Townsend’s Copper Canyon Press. “Blue Dusk” won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for outstanding poetry in the United States — in the prize citation, jury chairman Michael Harper said, “These poems teach by example, over five decades, about the solitary works of service and epiphany.”
“Blue Dusk” also won a 2002 Washington State Book Award. She also won the Washington State Book Award in 2007 for “Spectral Waves.”
She moved to Portland in 2010 to be closer to her family. A celebration of her life will be held at 3 p.m. Dec. 4 at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church, 2310 S.E. 148th in Portland.
A Seattle celebration will be announced soon, according to her literary executor, Anne McDuffie. For more information go to madelinedefrees.com.