Mother Dolores Hart Talks About Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper

Actress Patricia Neal and Mother Dolores Hart (photo courtesy of Barbara Middleton).
Actress Patricia Neal and Mother Dolores Hart (photo courtesy of Barbara Middleton). (photo: Barbara Middleton)

When actress Patricia Neal died earlier this month, Mother Dolores Hart, the former actress-turned-nun, lost a friend. Neal was a frequent guest and supporter of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. Dolores Hart is known for starring opposite stars such as Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, and Robert Wagner. At the age of 25, she entered the Benedictine Order at Regina Laudis. She’s still a voting member of the Motion Picture Academy. Mother Dolores Hart spoke with me last week about being converted to Catholicism by sweet rolls and the role that she played in Neal’s coming into the Church.

I understand that you converted to Catholicism at the age of 10. How did that come about?
My grandmother sent me to a Catholic school because it was closer and I wouldn’t have to cross the street car tracks. By age 9 I was quite taken with the whole experience of the Catholic Church.

The kids at school would fast. After Mass they had chocolate milk and sweet rolls. Those of us who weren’t Catholic would eat our breakfast at home. I was jealous of those kids who had breakfast there, so I told Sister that I would love to have bread with the children.

She thought I meant something more high-minded and told the principal, “I think this girl is asking for the Eucharist.”

She asked me, “Dolores, do you want to stay and go to the classes?” I replied that I’d be happy to do that; I would just have to ask my grandmother. I told my grandmother that I could have breakfast at the school if I went to the classes, and she agreed. So, I began going to the religious classes and I began to like it. While I waited after school, I would sit in the chapel and pray to the Lord and I began to like that very much. Eventually, I got hooked, and before I knew it the “bread with the children” meant more to me than just the sweet rolls.

According to what I’ve read there were a couple of seeds to your religious vocation – one being the role of Pope John XXIII while you were filming St. Francis of Assisi and another being the film Lisa. Talk about what led to your vocation?
It was quite startling when I met his Holiness. I wasn’t prepared for it. When I greeted him I told him my name was Dolores Hart. He took my hands in his and said, “No, you are Clara.”  I replied, “No, no, that’s my name in the film.” He looked at me again and said, “No, you are Clara.” I wanted to sink to the floor, because I wasn’t there to begin arguing with the Pope. It gave me great pause for a number of hours. Being young, I dismissed it as one of those things that happened, but it stayed very deeply in my mind for a long time.

I think the imprint of that came back very strongly when I did the film Lisa. People sometimes associate that moment of clarity with the film St. Francis of Assisi because it was such a direct association. That was so obvious that I dismissed it entirely. I would not even look at it.

When we did Lisa, the story of this young woman who had been so violated by her experience as a Nazi survivor, the experience of taking on that role was one that quite knocked my socks off. In preparation for that role, I found a woman who had been at Auschwitz. I talked to her about what her experience meant for her.

She spoke about when the Nazi guard came into her room to take over her house. The worst thing she could imagine was when he grabbed her braid, took his knife, and cut it off at the root. Then he shoved it into his pocket saying, ‘This is the souvenir of the day.’ She told me that nothing that could happen that day was worse than that moment.

I knew how much long hair meant. I went through St. Francis of Assisi wearing a wig so that they wouldn’t cut my hair. Hearing that story, I couldn’t retain any of my holding back. I realized that the human condition was in such terrible pain that I wondered what one person could do. What can one woman do to face that kind of evil? The only thing that came to me was: The consecration of a woman was the only way to fight that. You have to believe that giving your body into that kind of prayer has a meaning. I found that the sense of holding that experience kept pressuring me to want to do something and wanting to deeply make some kind of a stand.

I understand that you recently lost your friend, actress Patricia Neal.
We were on our way to see her in Martha’s Vineyard when we received the message that she had passed. I was completely dumbstruck, and yet at the same time it was in line with what she wanted. She had announced to everyone at the supper table the night before that she loved everyone. She was in great spirits and gave a beautiful farewell. The next day her lungs filled up and there was no way to get her back.

Did you play a role in her conversion?
Patricia was sent to the Abbey by Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria. After Patricia’s divorce [from poet Roald Dahl], in desperation, she went to France. There, she ran into Maria at a hotel. Patricia told her her troubles and Maria said, “I am going to send you somewhere where I know that you are going to be helped.”

We helped her through a very long recovery. During that time she wrote her own book – As I Am – with the help of Mother Benedicta. She regained her acting wings and did a poetry reading for our Abbey fair, during which a huge thunderstorm took down our tent. Her response was to build The Gary-The Olivia Performing Arts Center, so that would never happen again. She stayed with us over many months and returned often as a guest. She helped us by selling her book at the fair every summer.

She was the most faithful of human beings you could ever ask for. When I would inquire about her faith, she kept telling me, “Oh yes, I want to be Catholic, but not yet.” I would ask her, “What do you mean, not yet?” She said, “I like being Catholic when I’m here, but not when I’m not here.”

“That’s not going to do God any good,” would reply. “He wants you to be Catholic all the time.”

I didn’t believe in pushing her. Four months ago, when she was hospitalized with her illness, she called me and said she wanted to be a Catholic. She made the step at that time. She had waited a long time and finally threw in her towel on March 30, 2010.

Did you know Gary Cooper?
Yes. Every time I met him he was very gracious and charming to me. He always called me Miss Dolores. The last time I met him he was very close to his death. Maria invited me to go and see him. When I saw him I asked, “Gary, how are you?” He took my hand and said, “No, Miss Dolores, I want to know how you are? Have you gotten any work?”

I told him where I was in my career. He was so interested. I told him I wanted to know more about him. He said, “I’m on my way now. I just want to know if you’re doing well. That’s the most important thing.”

That was Gary. He was always interested in the other person.