FROM CELEBRITY TO CONTEMPLATIVE ABBEY
Amidst the serene Latin chants of the Divine Office from Matins to Compline, an unsuspecting visitor to the rustic environs of the 400 acre Abbey of Regina Laudis (Queen of Praise) in Bethlehem, Connecticut would have never guessed that among these select daughters of St. Benedict is one Dolores Hart, a former film and stage actress who once basked in the glitter and glamour of the Hollywood limelight of the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Mother Dolores as she is now known turned her back on a promising movie career, broke off her engagement to an up-and-coming Los Angeles businessman Don Robinson, and entered the cloister to answer the call of the contemplative monastic life.
Since 1963, she has lived an austere life following the Rule of St. Benedict in the spirit and time-tested tradition of ora et labora (prayer and work.) Mother Dolores became prioress there in May 2001.
Born an only child from actor parents (Bert and Harriett Hicks) who were bit or studio contract players, little Dolores found herself moving from Chicago to Beverly Hills in California where she often accompanied her father to Hollywood studio lots. The early exposure to the allures of the movie world spurred her desire to be an actress. "From the age of 7, I never in my life wanted to be anything but an actress," Hart said.
Domestic affairs turned sour as her parents engaged in troublesome bickering which disrupted their family life. Shortly thereafter she was on her way alone to the Windy City where her grandparents lived, train ticket tucked in her coat pocket. She stayed there while her parents tried to pursue their respective careers in Hollywood. She would shuttle back and forth either by train or plane between Los Angeles and Chicago spending summers in California and winters in the Windy City.
Hart's grandfather worked as a projector operator at a downtown movie theater and she frequently joined him there. He often took naps and tasked her to wake him up every so often so he could change the reels. Though she watched these movies with no sound at all, the experience proved a blessing in disguise as it gave Hart the chance to analyze how actors perform. She would later attribute to these episodes in the projection booth as her lessons in “acting school.”
A little girl’s conversion
Her grandparents chose to send her to St. Gregory Catholic School for practical and safety reasons since it was closest to their home and less exposed to street traffic. Her studies there turned out for the better as she decided to become a Catholic at age 10. She relates in an interview with Barbara Middleton,
“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.”
Back in Los Angeles
Years later Hart, age 11and her parents divorced, moved back to Beverly Hills to be reunited with her mother now remarried to restaurant owner Al Gordon. While in high school she played St. Joan of Arc which opened the doors for her to get a scholarship to Marymount College (currently Loyola Marymount University) for drama. It was at that time when she became obsessed with the idea of becoming an actress often times praying for the chance to get her foot in the front door of big time movie studios like MGM and Paramount just twenty minutes away from her school..
While a freshman at Marymount College she got the lead role (again) in the school’s production of “St. Joan.” A male friend from Loyola University took notice of her remarkable thespian abilities and promptly informed the Southern California studios. Hal Wallis, an independent producer at Paramount, sought to check her out through a scout who eventually gave her the nod and a screen test and contract soon followed.
Dilemma and Crisis
However things didn’t go smoothly at first. Hart would recall,
“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. I took the call.”
As a freshman, Hart was barred from trying out for acting parts which was reserved for seniors. Her teacher, Miss Barnel told her she couldn’t go because she risked getting an F if she missed the finals the following week and lose her scholarship. Disappointed, she ran off to her dormitory and wept.
But Mother Gabriel, the dean of girls, came to her rescue and granted permission and advised her to come back the following year as English major.
And so on that fateful day in 1956, 18-year-old Miss Dolores Hicks was on her way to stardom!
Hal Wallis signed her to play a supporting role as the love interest to Elvis Presley in the movie Loving You released in 1957. She adopted the stage name Dolores Hart, keeping her name Dolores at the insistence of her mother. Otherwise she would have been known as Susan Hart.
The precocious little girl had now grown to become a stunningly beautiful young lady and fared much better in Hollywood than her parents. Groomed as the next Grace Kelly, the demand for her grew likewise. After a couple more films, she and Presley crossed paths once again in 1958’s King Creole where the budding matinee idol received his first on screen kiss courtesy of Hart.
Despite nasty and false rumors about her friendship with Presley, Hart has only kind words for Presley who died tragically in 1977. "I had no idea who Elvis Presley was," she admitted. "When I first met him, he was just a charming and very simple young boy with longer sideburns than most. He couldn't have been more gracious. He jumped to his feet and said, 'Good afternoon, Miss Dolores.' He and Gary Cooper were the only ones in Hollywood who called me that."
Other films of note to her credit are Where the Boys Are which became MGM’s highest grossing film of 1960; St. Francis of Assisi where she acted as a nun; Lisa (also known as The Inspector), a story about a Dutch-Jewish Holocaust survivor in post-World War II Europe and prisoner experiments done at Auschwitz. Her last role was opposite Hugh O’ Brian in 1963's Come Fly With Me. All in all, she made 10 films in a short career span of five years, playing opposite Stephen Boyd, Montgomery Clift, George Hamilton and Robert Wagner.
The influence of good friends
Hart credits her circle of friends, which she described as wonderful and sound, for helping her maintain her faith in Hollywood.
She made particular mention of Maria Cooper, the actor Gary’s daughter, who had a wholesome and positive influence on her. She has only but the highest praise for her 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.”
The first knocks of the vocation
In 1959, Hart debuted on Broadway with the play, The Pleasure of His Company earning her a World Theater Award and a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress for that year.
The grueling schedule took its toll on her and she pined for a weekend retreat. At a friend’s coaxing, she reluctantly agreed to visit a Connecticut monastery with her, the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Her kneejerk reaction was, “Ooh! I don’t want to see more nuns!
But all that changed once she stepped on the grounds of the abbey. There she found calm and serenity. She felt very much at home. The tranquility and sense of stability she felt were in stark contrast to the fast-paced and superficial life in the movie industry where she worked with co-stars and crew for some 8-10 weeks after which they would disband never to see each other again.
The remarkable experience led her to return in between shows even to the point of asking the Reverend Mother if she had a vocation. She was curtly dismissed and told she was too young and that she better go back to “her movie thing.” But that didn’t stop her from coming back to the monastery twice a year.
The final call
However, Hart credits the movie Lisa (1962) as the one that made her ponder seriously to become a nun. Something in that movie drew her to the abbey like magnet. She was never the same after that. Deep down, she felt ready to make a commitment to God but kept it quiet for the meantime.
After Lisa, she made her last film, Come Fly With Me with Hugh O’Brian. While on a promotional stop in New York for the movie, she surprised many when she took the studio limo to Bethlehem to discuss joining the order.
Breaking an engagement
Back in Hollywood, Hart still has an important and unfinished business to take care of – breaking her wedding engagement to Los Angeles businessman Don Robinson.
One night she and Don met at a crowded restaurant for dinner. He perceived what was going on with Dolores. He saw her reading her spiritual exercises that she performed at the abbey. Besides, she wasn’t wearing her engagement ring.
When she broke the news to him, he never felt an iota of rejection. With a heart full of understanding and support, 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."
He adds later, "Every love doesn't have to wind up at the altar."
Thus, the engagement was canceled, and in December 1962, she flew to Connecticut, never to return. Upon embracing the Benedictine monastic life, she acquired the name Sister Judith but changed it to Mother Dolores when she took her final vows in 1970. Currently, she is Prioress of the Abbey and the only nun to be an Oscar-voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Meanwhile, Don Robinson never married but comes every year at Christmas and Easter to visit the abbey to lend his support.
Coming out of the cloister
After 43 years of a secluded and cloistered life inside the Abbey of Regina Laudis , Mother Dolores left its austere and tranquil environs briefly out of necessity in 2006 to spread awareness about a mysterious neurological disorder that afflicted her and countless more Americans called peripheral idiopathic neuropathy. She went to Washington to testify at a congressional hearing to drum up support for more research grants to find a cure for the debilitating disease.
In October 2008, she was honored at a breakfast event held at Rochester, Michigan’s Royal Park Hotel which was sponsored by the The Holy Trinity Apostolate of founder Rev. John Hardon, S.J.
The meaning of ones vocation
In this vale of tears, God sets out a path for each of one of us to pursue and follow so we can best know, love and serve Him. Each one of us has an overriding purpose whose ultimate end is God’s glory.
Whether ones vocation is to be single, married, nun or priest, God endows each one a particular mission in life. As we mature and tackle the daily grind of our earthly lives, God reveals his will to us, more often through subtle or indirect means, not by imposition but rather more by invitation. And by following His will, we open the door to our salvation and the eternal life.
And if one is TRUE to his or her calling, ones vocation ultimate wins over career should a conflict arises. Mother Dolores’ life journey makes this evident to us. Endowed with striking physical beauty, fame and money, who would ever think she would shun the glow of Hollywood and end up being nun? Indeed, God’s grace works in mysterious ways!
In her own words Mother Dolores sums it all up,
“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.”
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3. Middleton, Barbara (Sept. 27, 2008.) "An Interview with Mother Dolores Hart." Catholic Exchange. .
4. "Dolores Hart: How a movie actress left Hollywood for a contract with God". Post Gazette. (April 08, 1998).
5. Rizzo, Frank (Oct. 24, 2008.) "Nun using film fame for abbey". The Columbus Dispatch (The Hartford Courant).
6. Montefiore, Simon Sebag (Nov. 01, 1993). “A Cloistered Life”, Psychology Today.
7. Barillas, Martin (Oct. 04, 2008.) “From Hollywood to an Abbey: A Life in Full,” SperoNews, speroforum.com
9. Young Beautiful Actress left Hollywood to Become a Cloistered Nun, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKGmDifYq60&feature=related