Mother Dolores Hart OSB: from Hollywood to convent

Mother Dolores Hart OSB: from Hollywood to convent

Michael Gilchrist

There are few more remarkable stories than that of the promising Hollywood actress of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dolores Hart, who left fame and fortune behind to become a Benedictine nun in 1963. At the time she was seen as a likely successor to Grace Kelly who had left Hollywood to become a princess in Monaco.

Born Dolores Hicks in Chicago on 20 October 1938, she adopted the screen name of Dolores Hart making ten films in five years, playing opposite such luminaries as Montgomery Clift, George Hamilton, Robert Wagner and Elvis Presley. Yet she turned her back on all the wealth and glamour to enter a Benedictine monastery and today is known as Rev Mother Dolores Hart OSB.

Dolores Hicks was the only child of the actor Bert Hicks and Harriett Hicks, who, despite the religious implications (they were nominal Catholics), separated and ultimately divorced, when she was three. Hart was an only child, and not raised Catholic, but converted to Catholicism when she was 10.

She later recalled: "As a child I was precocious. My parents married when they were 16 and 17 and both were beautiful people. Moss Hart [a Hollywood producer] offered my mother, Harriett, a contract but by then they had me and my father, Bert Hicks, a bit player, definitely a Clark Gable type, had movie offers so we moved from Chicago to Hollywood. I was a Hollywood brat. We lived in Beverly Hills and I used to visit the lots with him. He had a bit part in Forever Amber. I always wanted to be part of that life."

Dolores earlier had lived in Chicago with her grandparents, who sent her to the local Catholic primary school, not for its religious education but because it was close to home. It was actually her grandfather, a movie theatre projectionist to whom she turned for comfort in light of her parents' marital problems, and it was his enthusiasm for films that influenced her decision to pursue an acting career. She would watch the films, but without sound so as not to disturb his naps in the booth, and her job was to wake him at the end of each reel.

After moving to Beverly Hills at the age of 11, she lived with her mother, a restaurant greeter, who had remarried. She subsequently studied at Marymount College and became engaged to be married for a time.

Her screen break occurred at the age of 18 when, using the name Dolores Hart, she was signed to play a supporting role as the love interest to Elvis Presley in the 1957 release Loving You. After this appearance, Hart found herself in frequent demand, and made two more films before featuring with Presley again the following year in King Creole.

In 1960, Dolores starred in Where the Boys Are, a teenage comedy about college students on holiday which developed a near cult-like following at the time. She next appeared in what proved to be a prophetic film, Francis of Assisi (1961) in which she played a nun, and went on to star in four more films, including the lead role in The Inspector which was based a novel by Jan de Hartog and nominated for a Golden Globe for "Best Picture – Drama". Her last role was opposite Hugh O'Brian in 1963's Come Fly with Me.

At this point she had made up her mind to leave the film industry, and after breaking off her engagement to Los Angeles businessman Don Robinson, the 25-year-old actress entered the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in the town of Bethlehem, Connecticut, ultimately becoming the Prioress.

In Rome, Hart had been working on Where the Boys Are and Francis of Assisi when she met Pope John XXIII, who she believes was influential in her vocation. When she told him, "I am Dolores Hart, the actress playing Clara", the Pope responded, "No, you are Clara!"

When she entered the abbey Sister Judith was her religious name, but she changed it to Sister Dolores on taking her final vows in 1970.

In 2006, she visited Hollywood again after 43 years of convent life to raise awareness for peripheral idiopathic neuropathy, a neurological disorder that afflicts many Americans, including herself, and in April that year testified at a Washington congressional hearing on the need for research on the painful and crippling disease.

Sister Dolores was instrumental in developing her Abbey of Regina Laudis's project of expansion of its community connection through the arts, using her Hollywood connections. Paul Newman helped her with funding for a lighting grid, when she envisioned a year-round arts school and a better-equipped stage. Her vision was to meet the abbey's needs with the development and expansion of its open-air theatre and arts program for the people of Bethlehem.

Every summer, the abbey's 38 nuns help the community stage a musical, with the 2008 presentation of West Side Story, after previous shows Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man and My Fair Lady.

Rev Mother Dolores Hart has been Prioress of the Abbey since 2001, but she remains a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, having in recent years become the only nun to be an Oscar-voting member.

In her honour, on 4 October 2008, "The Holy Trinity Apostolate," founded by the late Fr John Hardon SJ, sponsored a "Breakfast with Mother Dolores Hart" during which she told her story, "He Led Me Out into an Open Space; He Saved Me Because He Loved Me: The Journey of Mother Dolores Hart to Regina Laudis". Actress Patricia Neal and Maria Cooper Janis, Gary Cooper's daughter, were among the Breakfast speakers.

The DVD of Francis of Assisi can be ordered through Freedom Publishing or via the Internet.

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