In 1963, actress Dolores Hart – the thinking woman’s ingénue – was at the top of her game.
She was about to sign a million-dollar contract. Her next film would team her with Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty. Life magazine had done a spread on her and her fiancé, adoring architect Don Robinson, selecting house wares for their new home.
And then, she walked away from it and into a new life as a Benedictine nun at The Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.
Her irresistible story of the call to the divine, to community, service and love itself is told in “God Is The Bigger Elvis,” the recently Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Tarrytown’s Rebecca Cammisa and produced by Scarsdale’s Julie Anderson. It will be presented on HBO April 5.
What makes this story and the 37-minute film so irresistible is that at its heart is a mystery: Why would a young woman – an intelligent beauty loved by a fine man with a brilliant career behind and ahead of her – chuck it all and don a habit to live with a group of women on a working farm, praying and chanting throughout the day and taking meals in silence in a cloistered atmosphere? There can be only one answer – “a deep, intense call,” Cammisa says.
Or as Hart – now Mother Prioress of the abbey – says in the film, ever the radiant actress, “God Is The Bigger Elvis.”
Behind the grille
The tradition to which Mother Prioress has been called, the Rule of St. Benedict, was established circa 529 in Italy with the first of a dozen independent monasteries. Benedictines take vows of stability, binding the nun to a particular abbey; conversion of life, reaffirming her devotion to God through community daily; and obedience to the abbess, who represents the authority of Jesus Christ. The motto of the Benedictines is “ora et labora” – “prayer and work.” In the film, the nuns exemplify prayer through the exquisite use of Gregorian chant in both the Mass and the Divine Office – a series of psalms that begin at 1:50 a.m. with Matins and continue throughout the day and evening with Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Prayer is the underpinning of Regina Laudis (“Queen of Praise”) – founded in 1947 by Mother Benedict Duss on 400 acres that include a former brass factory and elevated to the status of abbey in 1976.
But as “God Is The Bigger Elvis” makes clear, the abbey is not only singing nuns.
“This is a working farm of 37 women living in community,” Cammisa says.
The nuns – educated women from all walks of life — make their own cheese, blow their own glass, cut their own marble and work the smithy. They grow vegetables and raise livestock. There’s a kind of exhilarating feminism afoot there that has always been part of the sisterhood.
Cammisa recalls seeing one nun hitch up her habit to reveal a leather tool belt with a cell phone. These are not the Amish. There’s a scene in “God Is The Bigger Elvis,” in which Mother Prioress bops to Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” with her pet parrot, her computer in the background. It was given to her by Don Robinson, who never married and visited her every year until his death in 2011.
Just as the nuns of Regina Laudis make use of the latest technology, they also commune with the modern world, despite a life lived behind a grille.
“They’re allowed to have guests and can leave the abbey for stated purposes, with permission,” Cammisa says.
One recent spectacular example – the Oscars, for which Mother Prioress once again walked the red carpet. (She was a presenter in 1959 and remains a voting member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)
“It was fantastic,” Cammisa says. “I felt like the wife of a star….Everyone wanted to meet her.”
And though the film didn’t win, Cammisa adds that Mother Prioress loved the whole experience, for though she left Hollywood, Hollywood has never left her:
“She’s still an actress. That hasn’t changed, and she’s also a nun.”
Indeed, with friend Patricia Neal, the Oscar-winning actress, Mother Prioress founded The Gary-The Olivia, an open-air theater at the abbey, in 1986.
As she says on the abbey’s superb website:
“I never felt I was ‘walking away from Hollywood.’ I felt I was walking into something more significant and by that, I took Hollywood with me.”
Yet some things inevitably were left behind, including the dream of marriage and children. Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the documentary depicts her final meeting with Robinson, whose health had been declining.
“He was completely in love with her,” Cammisa says. “She was it for him.”
After he kisses her goodbye and leaves, the camera captures her watching him depart, tears rolling down her cheeks. She wipes them away and crosses herself.
Mother Prioress’ calling has not come without sacrifice or initial resistance even. In the film, she describes how she – the child of a handsome teenage couple, bit players in Hollywood who divorced when she was a toddler – first came to Regina Laudis for a rest while starring on Broadway in “The Pleasure of His Company.” She had no plans to become a nun and was relieved when Mother Benedict Dunn told her it was not for her.
And yet: She played St. Clare, who gives up her worldly life, to follow St. Francis of Assisi and found the Order of the Poor Clares, in the film “St. Francis of Assisi.” Something was pulling Mother Prioress. And then the pull became undeniable.
Cammisa, too, was reluctant. She had done “Sister Helen” (2002), about a Benedictine who opens a home for recovering addicts and alcoholics in the South Bronx.
When HBO’s Sheila Nevins – “the doyenne of docs” – suggested a documentary about Mother Prioress, Cammisa says she told her, “I don’t want to do another nun movie. I’ve done my nun movie.
“Then I went up there. The abbey is a one of a kind place. I fell in love with the abbey, the nuns and Mother Prioress.
“When I was there, I felt I had experienced a place that I wished the world was like. I wish people cared for the land the way the nuns do. I wish people cared for one another the way the nuns do. I wish everyone had that focus for work and prayer.”
We may not be able to join an abbey as Mother Prioress did. But perhaps we can take the abbey into our hearts.
“It’s an example,” Cammisa says, “of how to live.”