Visitors to the Doheny Mansion, the opulent home of Los Angeles oil baron Edward Doheny and his wife, Estelle, that became part of Mount St. Mary's College's downtown campus, often marveled at the 1899 landmark's unusual features: the Louis Comfort Tiffany glass dome over the Pompeian Room, the eclectic facade melding Gothic, English Tudor and mission revival architectural styles and the gracious nun clad in a traditional black habit who greeted them and served them refreshments.
That nun was Sister Aline Marie Gerber, a professor of romance languages at the college who moved into the mansion in 1965. For many years Gerber served as the primary caretaker of the historic structure decorated in marble and gold leaf, and hers was often the first face guests saw when they arrived at the mansion for college functions or chamber music concerts.
Gerber died Feb. 15 of age-related causes at the Carondelet Center retirement home in Brentwood, where she had lived since 2007, her younger sibling, Sister Mechtilde, said. She was 92.
"She was the grand dame of the mansion," Mount St. Mary’s College President Jacqueline Powers Doud said last week. "She had a twinkle in her eye and was completely at ease in any social situation."
Gerber arrived at Mount St. Mary's in the late 1940s with a cosmopolitan background and fluency in English, Spanish, Italian and French. Raised in Mexico and Switzerland, she followed her two younger sisters into religious life after pursuing an academic career.
MaryAnn Bonino, the curator of the Doheny Mansion, met Gerber when she took classes in Italian as a college student. She then worked side by side with her mentor starting in 1973 after founding the Da Camera Society, an organization that stages concerts in historic sites.
"She was gracious, graceful and elegant, but underneath that she was down to earth," Bonino said.
Gerber first visited the mansion and its leafy surroundings on picnics with other nuns at the invitation of Estelle Doheny, who willed the home to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Four years after Doheny died in 1958, the 12,000-square-foot estate became the anchor for the downtown campus of Mount St. Mary's College, whose main campus is in Brentwood. Since then the mansion and other historic homes on the quiet, gated street near the intersection of Figueroa Street and Adams Boulevard have been used as offices, classrooms and housing for students and nuns.
"Taking care of the house was just part of living here, and we all helped out," Gerber said in a 1998 interview, recalling the group of 24 nuns, all Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who lived in spartan quarters on the second and third floors of the mansion. "But the responsibilities eventually began to fall to a few people and when they died or moved away, I took them on."
In 40 years of residence, she helped oversee mundane housekeeping tasks such as reupholstering furniture and polishing marble floors. But she also created floral displays, assembled from buds and blossoms she selected on early-morning trips to the downtown flower mart or gathered on walks across the campus. She decorated the mansion for Christmas and other holidays. And she was ever present at fundraisers and concerts, serving coffee and tea and chatting with international visitors and musicians in their native languages.
Gerber was born Feb. 12, 1917, in Mexico City, the oldest of three daughters. Her father, a New York native of Swiss descent, owned a pharmaceutical business; her Italian mother taught at the University of Mexico. The multilingual family divided their time between Mexico and Switzerland until the approach of World War II sent them back to the United States. They made their way to Tucson, where the girls attended a Catholic boarding school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
Having finished high school, Gerber began teaching English to native Spanish speakers from Mexico who attended the boarding school. She moved on to college and earned a bachelor's degree in English and French from USC in 1942, a master's degree in romance languages, as well as a teaching credential, from UC Berkeley in 1944 and then a doctorate in French from UCLA.
After Gerber's two younger sisters chose to become nuns, she decided to join them in taking vows of chastity, obedience and poverty. "She decided she didn't want to be without us," Mechtilde said of her sister's decision to become a nun. "She never expressed her feelings very much.
"We were surprised because she was very particular about her clothes," Mechtilde added, laughing. "We thought she would never last."
But a year after she began teaching at Mount St. Mary's, Gerber left to enter the convent in 1947, following Mechtilde, who became a nurse, and Hildegarde, a Spanish teacher. Hildegarde died in 1986. Mechtilde, who cared for Gerber in her later years, is her only survivor.
Gerber returned to Mount St. Mary's in 1950 and taught Spanish, French and Italian for 45 years. Starting in the 1960s, she helped guide a program that trained highly educated Cuban immigrants to become Spanish teachers in California.
Although she retired in 1995, she continued to tutor students until 2006. She left the mansion in 2004 to live with Mechtilde, and today there are five nuns living at the mansion.
"The thing that's so important about her," Bonino said, "is that she was born into a life of privilege, but she chose a life of service."
Donations can be made to the Sister Aline Marie Gerber Scholarship at Mount St. Mary's College, Institutional Advancement, 10 Chester Place, Los Angeles, CA 90007. For details, call (213) 477-2762.