Media MIA: Mother Dolores Hart’s love for Jesus

It’s the question that echoes between the lines of mainstream news features about the life and work of Mother Dolores Hart, the cloistered nun (yes, she gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss) who walked away from her promising future in Hollywood.

The question, stated simply, is this: Why did she do it?

The answer? I’m not really clear on that, but based on reading a number of mainstream press reports on this subject I can say that her decision — if the mainstream media is to be believed — had very little to do with her love for Jesus or his church.

Let’s set this question up, via some material from a new Religion News Service piece (it’s much better than the norm) about Hart:

As if to test her resolve in those weeks before she left Hollywood, Universal Studios offered her a role opposite Marlon Brando, a role she turned down shortly after she broke off her engagement to Don Robinson, a kind and handsome businessman who loved her intensely.

“Even my best friend, who was a priest, Father Doody, said, ‘You’re crazy. This is absolutely insane to do this,’” Mother Delores Hart remembered in a recent interview, conducted 50 years after she entered the Order of St. Benedict. To try to explain her decision to a world that’s perhaps even more enamored of celebrity than it was a half century ago, Hart, 74, has written “The Ear of the Heart,” a memoir of her life on screen and behind the convent walls.

Even though she wasn’t raised Catholic, 9-year-old Dolores decided to convert when she found meaning and comfort in the rituals of her Catholic school. At 24, she quit Hollywood to answer a call she heard from God. “I left the world I knew in order to reenter it on a more profound level,” she writes.

So, a “call from God” and that is that.

Now, the story dedicates all kinds of space to her life before that decision and to her connections to Hollywood. All well and good.

But, again, what was the nature of the life-changing spiritual tug that led her to spend decades working in an abbey laundry room, or roughing up her hands in a wood shop making coffins? She took the divine call. What did Hart hear on the line?

Nothing in particular, apparently.

I became interested in Hart’s story while writing about the angels and demons in the life of one of her famous friends, the Oscar winner Patricia Neal. In an earlier GetReligion post — about an Entertainment Weekly story about Hart — I noted that Elvis was not, in the end, the most important man in her life:

… (This) is an interesting profile and it spends — justifiably — quite a bit of time on the factors that went into Hart’s decision to enter the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. At the top of the list was her decision to walk away from her fiance and her wedding date that loomed in the near future. That’s all well and good. It’s also interesting that Hart has, to some degree, kept in touch with her roots — especially when a much more famous actress, Patricia Neal, came to the abbey to wrestle with the tragic issues that dominated several decades of her life and work. Was Hart the sister who yelled and cursed right back at Neal during one of their counseling sessions? …

What is striking — surprise, surprise — is that her faith and its role in her life-changing decision is given very little attention, until the very end of the article. Even then, it’s hard to write a length piece about a nun without mentioning one particular man in her life, as in Jesus of Nazareth. And what about the Catholic Church? Did love of the church play any role in all of this?

In the new RNS piece, there is one new quote — second hand — about Hart’s “call from God.” It’s an intriguing one to say the least. The key voice is that Suzanne Zada, a Holocaust survivor linked to a key Hart movie role decades ago.

“I was very upset and actually for a couple of years I was still writing her angry notes about throwing her life away,” said Zada, who still travels from Los Angeles to visit Hart at the abbey.

“If you heard what I hear,” Hart once told Zada, “you would come, too.”

OK, I’ll ask: What did Hart hear that was so life-changing?

Perhaps Hart is reluctant to talk about her inner spiritual life — with the press. It is clear that she has been an open and lively guide to many who came to the abbey seeking help and faith.

Does Hart not want to talk to the press, or it is possible that journalists — in the end — are not that interested in her real life? I mean, how do you top kissing Elvis?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Richard Mounts

    I find it easy to understand that it can be difficult to discuss, especially with a stranger, one of the most profound experiences of one’s life. Certainly Mother Dolores would also have a better idea than many that talking to the press about things religious can be even more difficult, in many ways. She probably understands that it’s likely to get mangled or just ignored.

    Just the same, I am baffled that any reporter worth the title wouldn’t probe into a statement about one being called by God. In my limited experience even I would ask, “What do you mean? How did you expeience this call?” If the subject demurred at the least I could write that I asked the question and got no response. That way, if I was one of THOSE reporters, I could make my article slant towards the idea that my subject was just one of those fringe, wacko types; just like all the rest.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Mother Dolores Hart’s autobiography has just been published by Ignatius Press. It is titled: “The Ear of the Heart.” The title is from the writings of St. Benedict : “Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.” The book’s preface begins with another quote from St. Benedict: :”What can be sweeter to us dearest brethren, than the voice of our Lord inviting us? Behold, in his loving mercy the Lord showeth the way of life.”
    Most of the questions raised in this posting can, I presume, be answered there. I just got my copy of the book so have barely started reading it.

  • Gail Finke

    I don’t think she talks about it. She certainly doesn’t write about it. I reviewed her book; she doesn’t answer the question there either:

    http://thecatholicbeat.sacredheartradio.com/2013/05/18/review-the-ear-of-the-heart/

  • tmatt

    From: Howard Kainz
    Subject: Dolores Hart

    Message Body:
    Hi. I was going to submit the following comment on your article, but couldn’t figure out a way to do it without creating another password. Here’s my comment:
    The missing link may be Don Barbeau, who is mentioned in the book. As a student at Loyola University in L.A., I was recruited by Barbeau to chauffer Dolores to rehearsals. She mentions the contacts Don made in getting her an agent, auditions, etc. Don, my personal friend, who also came to Marquette University as a grad student, was not only a “wheeler and dealer,” but an immensely spiritual, and mystical personality. He had an effect on many of us, and, I wouldn’t be surprised, on Dolores.

  • Frank Hamsher

    Just want to note that I bought and read the book as a result of your post. In the introduction to the book, the Lady Abbess of Regina Abbey us quoted thus “(a) call cannot be explained, any more than you can explain falling in love.” The book is aptly titled, “The Ear of the Heart” because as the book describes the call was not in words, but rather in a continuing, heart felt response to an inner non-verbal experience over time. Not something that can be put into words or contained in a newspaper article. My advice? Read the book as I did.


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