Dolores Hart: From the Glitter Of Hollywood to the Quiet of a Convent

Mother Dolores Hart made her debut in Hollywood alongside Elvis Presley in Loving You. Since 1963, she’s inhabited a very different world. She caused a sensation when she became cloistered nun at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. Mother Dolores became prioress there in May 2001. She is still a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She recently updated Barbara Middleton on her life in the cloister. Your father was the actor Bert Hicks. What was your life like growing up? I remember my mother taking me to St. Louis for the investiture of my great aunt, Sister Dolores Marie, a St. Joseph sister. It was at this time my mother asked the priest to baptize me. The priest replied. “I couldn’t do that — you’re not a Catholic!” It was nine years later that I became a Catholic. My grandparents took over my education and they sent me to school. I was attending St. Gregory Catholic School in Chicago when I told the sister I wanted to take bread with the children. I was alone with the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel waiting for them to have their breakfast. I went back to my grandparents and said, “I want to take bread with the children. I want to become Catholic.” They said, “Okay!” I told the sisters, “I’d like to take bread.” Nobody asked me if I was speaking of the Eucharist. I was baptized, and my mother was thrilled. I continued to live with my grandparents while my mother and dad went to Hollywood. I began to think very much that I wanted to join them in Hollywood. My grandfather was a projectionist, and I would go with him to the theater. We would go in the booth and he would sleep on a cot. Every 25 minutes, I would ring a bell to wake him to start the movie. I saw those movies over and over again. They had no sound. It was an amazing experience. I was being trained to be something that would be, somewhere down the line, very efficacious. My daddy was in Hollywood, and I was always wondering when I was going to see him on the big screen. In due course, my mother and dad divorced. My mother, then, was a single parent. My grandmother would put me on a train in Chicago, and my mother would pick me up in California. It was a wonderful experience. Seeing the waving palm trees and knowing I was getting closer to Los Angeles — I can still hear the wheels of the train coming in to San Bernardino — and knew I would be seeing my mom soon. I was 10 years old and that was “the way I got my growing up.” Did you see your father in those years? Yes. He was in Winged Victory, a play in New York. ... I lived with my mother in Beverly Hills. She got a job at a restaurant as a greeter. Mom and the restaurant owner married and that allowed her to make a home for us. His name was Al Gordon. Al Gordon had a 9-year-old son. I was 11 at the time. My mother was happy because she had a possibility of a real home. A mother superior was key to your becoming an actress. When was that? In high school. I was really aiming my sights and thinking about living close to Hollywood. The idea of becoming an actress did not seem to be a “pie in the sky” thing. I dreamed about it day and night. You could be that close and yet … that far. I lived 20 minutes from MGM and Paramount studios. How do you get an agent? When it gets down to it, how do you get yourself in the front door? I thought I would go to school and pray to God that this would happen, and then these questions would be resolved. In high school, I played St. Joan. That part allowed me to get a scholarship to Marymont College for drama. When I was a freshman at Marymont College, a young man approached me from Loyola University to portray St. Joan. (Yes, again.) My friend, Don Barbeau decided to take some snapshots of me. He sent letters with the photos to all the film studios in Southern California. After seeing the photographs, a talent scout came to see the play, which I knew nothing about at the time. And, I did a talent-scout show on television. So, I had my first brush with the big world. In the middle of charm class at Marymount, I received a call from Paramount Studios. It was the associate producer of Hal Wallis, and he wanted me to come to Paramount for a meeting. The teacher didn’t want me to take the call. … She thought it was a sham. “We’ve already talked to your mother and she thought it was a sham.” “Miss Barnel, it’s not a sham. I must take the call!” “Miss Hart, just sit down.” “Miss Barnel, it’s not a sham!” “Miss Hart. … Just take the call.” I took the call. They wanted to meet me that afternoon. … My friend, Don Barbeau, came to pick me up in a 1938 hearse. I had on my letter sweater and socks and went to see Mr. Hal Wallis. He asked me, “What do you want to do with your life?” I responded quickly and said, “I want to be an actress.” “We’re doing a picture with Mr. Presley and we want you to start next week.” I didn’t even know who Elvis Presley was, but next week was the final tests at school. I said, “Does it have to be next week?” His reply, “Yes, it does!” I was a freshman, and only seniors were allowed to try out for acting parts. Miss Barnel, indeed, told me I couldn’t go because we had our finals. I was in tears. She said, I would get an F for missing finals and lose my scholarship. I went to the dormitory and wept my head off. Mother Gabriel, the Dean of girls, came to see me and told me, “Kids in the drama school want an opportunity like what you’re going for. Dolores, this is the big one. Go for it, and come back next year as an English major.” I took her advice, did the screen test and got the part. The cameraman asked, “Miss Hart, who taught you technique on film? Where did you go to school?” “I never went to school for such.” “You certainly know what to do.” Finally, the call came and I would start filming with Mr. Presley. When you were in Hollywood, how did you maintain your faith? I was very blessed with wonderful friends. I had a circle of friends that were really sound, which is one of the first things that helps you. Maria Cooper [Gary Cooper’s daughter] was a sound Catholic woman and a best friend. She truly was clear, and true to her faith. She lived in the most elegant and high circles. Yet, she did not bow down to anyone in Hollywood. Maria was very straightforward in her standards and introduced me to fine persons. If I withdrew my own sense of truth, I wouldn’t be in that caliber. I never met one person that I can remember that I regret as a friend. The Lord had his hand in it and gave me wonderful friends. Pope John XXIII was instrumental in your becoming a nun. In 1959, I was in a play in New York, The Pleasure of His Company. A friend invited me to meet some nuns and she said, “They are very special.” “I exclaimed, “Nuns! No, I don’t want to meet nuns.” But my friend said, “Did I ever steer you wrong?” So, I came to Regina Laudis — after a few hours here, it has a definite call. You feel you’re in a special place. Well, after the first visit, I kept coming back in between shows. Eventually, I asked the Reverend Mother if she thought I had a vocation. She said, “No, no — go back and do your movie thing. You’re too young.” I did, and then did some more films; Where the Boys Are and St. Francis of Assisi, which took me to Rome. I met Pope John XXIII, and he was very instrumental in helping me form my ideas about a vocation. When I was introduced to the Pope, I said, “I am Dolores Hart, the actress playing Clara.” He said, “No, you are Clara!” Thinking, he had misunderstood me, I said, “No, I am Dolores Hart, an actress portraying Clara.” Pope John XXIII looked me squarely in the eye and stated, “No. You are Clara!” His statement stayed with me and rang in my ears many times. Would you tell us about your engagement before entering the abbey? It was] a very wonderful experience for Don Robinson and me. He had a feeling that I might have a “calling.” He wanted to try the engagement. “Let’s give this a try.” Several days went by, and we were driving down the road when he stopped the car. Don said, “Something isn’t right. Do you love me?” “Of course, Don. I love you.” He asked again, and then said, “Something in you is not with me.” When I returned home at 1 a.m., I called and got a flight for 6 a.m. to Regina Laudis. God is far from all of us until we get into the reality of ourselves. I finally came to say — in my heart more than anything and then openly to myself — “my search for God was a marital search.” When I spoke to Don again, he knew, because a man knows — every human being knows when something is real. We were at supper, and I didn’t have my ring on. Don said, “I know — I’ve known it. This is what you’ve got to do — and I’ve got to do this with you. We’ve got to do this together.” That was an amazing gift — and all these years he’s been like that. Don says, “Every love doesn’t have to wind up at the altar.” Many relationships can wind up a lot worse. He never married. Don comes every year at Christmas and Easter. He wants to do whatever he can for the community. You have to be open to a larger family in a vocation. When you don’t have children of your own, you realize your children may be of a high order — as a test of faith. What would you say to someone considering a vocation? I can only go back to my own experience, which was a long and severe test, and it was not easy. I would say you can never allow anyone to take you out of a vocation. The fact is, there is a promise given in a vocation that is beyond anything in your wildest dreams — there’s a gift the Lord offers and he is a gentleman. I have not been profoundly missed by any means [in the outside world]. My vocation has been totally gratifying and I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that in leaving Hollywood I was disappointed. For every generation, the call of a vocation is different because the needs of the Church are different. Young men and women today who are seeking God in this new era really have to listen to their heart. This age must have its own witness. Barbara M. Middleton is based in Shelby Township, Michigan.