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Actress-Turned-Prioress Celebrates 50 Years of Religious Life
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
Fifty years ago, actress Dolores Hart shocked Hollywood when she made a momentous announcement: She was leaving Hollywood to join a contemplative Benedictine monastery. Why would a movie star on a fairy-tale rise leave the movie industry?
Her career took off in 1957. As a young college student, she debuted opposite Elvis Presley in his first film, Loving You, in which she was the first to kiss him on screen.
In six years, starring with the biggest names in the industry, she had 10 very successful feature films to her credit, plus TV roles and a Tony Award nomination for her debut on Broadway. And she was engaged to a Los Angeles architect.
But in 1963, she entered the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. Today, 50 years later, Mother Dolores Hart is prioress of the abbey.
In her autobiography, The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey From Hollywood to Holy Vows (Ignatius Press) — co-authored with lifelong friend Richard DeNeut and released May 7 — she tells her amazing life story, from her birth in Chicago to becoming Catholic, from her Hollywood adventures to monastery life.
The book title comes from a quote by St. Benedict meaning to listen with the "ear of our heart" to the voice of God inviting us to follow him.
Mother Dolores has been granted the rare privilege of traveling outside the cloister for a short time to talk about the book. With a similar privilege in 2012, she became the only contemplative nun ever to walk the red carpet and attend the Oscars because an HBO documentary about her life, God Is the Bigger Elvis, was a nominee for "Best Documentary Short Subject." She remains the only Oscar-voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who is a nun.
Days before her book’s release, Mother Dolores spoke with the Register at the abbey’s Church of Jesu Fili Mariae (AbbeyofReginaLaudis.org).
Her China-blue eyes sparkle with a genuine friendly welcome, and her thoughtful conversation is often punctuated by a delicate chuckle or little laugh that springs not just from the answer, but also from an abiding joy that radiates from her.
Surely the people in Hollywood were dumbfounded when you announced your decision to leave the industry for the abbey.
They were shocked — angry. My boss, Hal Wallis, just couldn’t believe it. He sent me a message that said, "Don’t leave. Because if you do, I’ll make sure you never work again in Hollywood!" [She laughs.]
But, eventually, he became a very good friend. His wife is still alive and sends us a basket of fruit every month.
People from the film industry still keep in touch with you, I understand. Do many ask for prayers?
I think that to me is a reflection of the depth of genuine spirituality in many of my co-workers. They don’t necessarily call me because they’re Catholic and I’m Catholic and they can trust our mutual understanding. They come from many different walks of life and have become actors or actresses. Some are persons who work in the industry in other areas. But their reach back to me is one of faith — that prayer is a resource.
Prayer is not something you just teach a little child as a pious action. Prayer comes from the deepest heart of human beings who want their life to continue or they want the life of someone else to continue. The call for prayer is a belief and faith that their needs can be answered.
Who is one of those friends?
A very dear friend of mine is Patricia Neal. She told me one of the first times she came here, "Well, I guess I’ll be Catholic before I end this whole thing." I said, "Patricia, you can do better than that." She became a Catholic on her deathbed here at the abbey and is buried here. So you just have to wait and let God do his work sometimes.
Someone says in the book, "Young people especially respond to her." Why is that?
[A gentle laugh punctuates each explanation.] I think it’s because I kissed Elvis as my first major movie experiment. And they all somehow want to get close to that. I don’t think I have ever yet talked to a young person who hasn’t asked me, "Mother, what was it like to kiss Elvis?"
The fact was that we were in the studios with about 150 workers around us, lights everywhere, and about two minutes into the scene the director said, "Cut!" and I said, "Oh dear, what’s wrong?" And he said, "Get a makeup man. Her ears are turning red. She’s blushing."
Did your role of St. Clare in the film Francis of Assisi have any influence on your vocation?
I’m sure that it did. I think that, if anything, being in Assisi the four to five months that it took to do this film was a very deeply penetrating experience — having to live in the very shoes of St. Clare and St. Francis — because Assisi hasn’t changed much since they were there.
I also had the great gift of being able to see the body of St. Clare, visible in her incorrupt state. It was just very penetrating. I don’t know that at that time it made me think, "Oh, I should be a nun." If anything, it made me appreciate the richness of the Franciscan call and to realize also that the Benedictines were very much a part of St. Clare’s life, too, because, apparently, she had to live with them for a certain time.
During the filming, was there a strong spiritual presence or awareness?
Brad Dillman, who played St. Francis, was astonishing, because, when he was dressed in the robes of St. Francis, he refused to smoke. He said, "I can’t do that because the children will see me smoking, and they’ll go around saying, ‘St. Francis smoked. Why can’t I?’"
Brad is not Catholic either … but he had the honor of a dignified gentleman. He knew that even when he wasn’t in the character on screen he was projecting an image.
I realized that, too, because, when we were sitting together waiting for a scene, one of the young people would come up and say, "You sign my book for me?" And I would write Dolores Hart. "No, No. Chiara!" They’d want me to sign St. Clare. Or they’d want Brad to sign St. Francis. We had a hard time convincing them.
That happened with John XXIII too, didn’t it? During filming, you went to the Vatican and were introduced to the Holy Father as Dolores Hart, the actress playing Clare, but he insisted in Italian, "No, you are Chiara!" Another saint also means much to you. Why did you choose Thérèse for your confirmation name, after the Little Flower?
I found her a very gutsy little person who had to do what she did [getting permission to enter the convent so young] … because she had very little help, except the piety of her family — though, oftentimes, that’s not as helpful to people [some of whom may] withdraw and run away from the very pious and very good example.
I think that her faith was extraordinary and why the Church made her a doctor of the Church. It’s an amazing thing for someone who would seem so far from that kind of a dignified title. But she really was because she stood by the faith with a conviction that was so absolute. Even when she couldn’t believe, even when she was in the "dark night," she maintained a strength of character. I think her witness was extraordinary.
What did you find as your biggest challenge in the abbey?
The biggest challenge for me was learning Latin. I still don’t know it, and I still have to go back and read it and say, "This is what it means." I can’t pick up a Psalm and read through it like some of the novices can. I just never, never could get over the hump. I failed Latin in school, too! [She chuckles.]
Please share one of your many happy moments here.
I think one of the happiest times was when Mother Abbess let me receive a gift from my former fiancé, Don [Robinson], of an African grey parrot. I couldn’t imagine that I would ever be allowed to keep a parrot. That was 22 years ago, and I still have him. [She shares a photo of her parrot, which is all gray with a bright red tail.]
I understand vocations are rising at the monastery, three new this year and two entering soon. Do you think you had a hand in bringing vocations to the monastery?
Yes, I think there were a few vocations that were stirred up. But it wasn’t that I brought them in. I think I showed that anybody can do it. I was such a wild card, you know! [She laughs.]
No wonder the abbey started New Horizons, its first-ever fund campaign to expand space to accommodate all of the new vocations.
The fire department challenged us to redo our main building. We were going to make a little bakery out back. But the department made their proposal about what to do, and it was $4 million dollars! Well, we just about passed out.
You founded The Gary-The Olivia Theatre on the grounds to present summer productions, and you say in your book, "Our abbey theatre brings together the vocations of the actor and cloistered nun." How do you see acting and vocations going together?
In the old monasteries in Europe, at Matins, the prayer in the middle of the night, because people couldn’t understand the language … sometimes they would have little plays in the sanctuary to depict what the Gospel was about. This was at 2:30 in the morning and was very much a Benedictine thing that was done. So I figured if they can do plays in the sanctuary in the middle of the night, we can have a theater.
And it’s part of hospitality. The theater only picks up an honest gift of hospitality because we always try to choose something that has the message of life, peace, work, a mystery that is important to deal with in one’s state.
The wonderful couple of Tom and Sally Camm … are really devoted to helping me by getting the plays on and do the work of directing and getting the cast. …They’ve made the theater come alive every summer with a new version of what’s been on Broadway.
What’s important for our readers to know that you’re rarely asked about?
The one thing is the Gregorian chant, and what a gift it is to be able to sing and to pray at the same time. I think that I would hate to see people lose that part of the Tradition of the Church, because the chant goes back over a thousand years.
People come to the chapel, to this church, sometimes to just hear the chant sung [the nuns chant the Mass and full Divine Office eight times every day in Latin, as prescribed by St. Benedict].
I think that’s a very beautiful and wonderful gift for someone: to be able to sing their prayer. It changes something inside of you in a way I can’t describe. But I think it’s deeply prayerful. … And you have to believe in what you sing.
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.