When the artist formerly known as Dolores Hart attended the Academy Awards in 2012, it was her third time on the red carpet and the first time she didn't fret about what to wear. She wore black - her nun's habit, a crisp white wimple framing her radiant face.
On a recent sultry July afternoon in Philadelphia, she demonstrates the garment's versatility. It has built-in ventilation, says Mother Dolores, 74, gentling her hem to circulate cool air. Over her headpiece she sports a jaunty black beret. She talks about her twin vocations, acting and the church. As she tells it, they have more in common than you might think.
In 1963 she left a promising Hollywood career for the Benedictine monastery, now abbey, of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. She was at the Oscars because a film about her, "God Is the Bigger Elvis," was up for best documentary short. Hart, a contemporary of Jane Fonda and Natalie Wood, made two films with Elvis Presley and gave him one of his first screen kisses.
The documentary takes its title from Mother Dolores' explanation of her move from Hollywood to holy vows. It is also the subtitle of her memoir, The Ear of the Heart, published in May by Ignatius Press, which describes her journey with plainspoken grace.
"Star Driven Into Nunnery by Her Love for Elvis!" read the headline in the National Enquirer in 1963. It wasn't like that at all, she says with a laugh. When the 19-year-old ingenue was cast in Loving You, producer Hal Wallis excitedly told Hart her costar would be Elvis Presley. "What does he do?" she politely inquired.
She came to faith not by birth but by choice. Her parents were teenagers when she was born, and their volatile relationship was marked by abuse and alcoholism. They left Chicago for Hollywood for her father to pursue an acting career, and Dolores' grandmother cared for her in Chicago. "She didn't want me to cross the railroad tracks to get to the public school," she recalls. St. Gregory's, the nearby parish school, didn't involve street or railroad crossings. She was enrolled there.
Since Dolores wasn't Catholic, she did not receive Holy Communion at morning Mass. The children who did got chocolate milk and doughnuts. "This really rankled," Mother Dolores recalls. When she told a nun that she wanted to eat with the other students, "she thought I wanted to receive the Eucharist and asked if I wanted to become a Catholic."
"That's how they got me, chocolate milk and doughnuts," she says with a laugh.
When she moved to Los Angeles, her parents had divorced and her mother was remarried to Al Gordon, a deli owner with a 9-year-old son, Martin. The Gordons were Jewish. Still, Dolores was persuasive enough to get her stepbrother to give up watching I Love Lucy for Lent. In L.A. Dolores grew close to her new uncle, Freddy Cocozza, a Philadelphia-born tenor better known by his stage name, Mario Lanza.
In high school Dolores auditioned for Otto Preminger for the role of the Maid of Orleans in Saint Joan (1957). Jean Seberg got the part, but the audition scene earned her a scholarship to Marymount College. There she played the lead in Joan of Lorraine (Bob Denver, later Gilligan on Gilligan's Island, was the Dauphin) and was scouted by Hollywood.
Soon after, she was kissing Elvis on screen and then Montgomery Clift (in the 1958 film Lonelyhearts). In 1958 she made her Broadway debut in The Pleasure of His Company. She starred in the generation-defining Where the Boys Are (1960), the original spring-break movie. Hollywood scribes dubbed her "the new Grace Kelly."
During her Broadway run, on the recommendation of a friend she visited Regina Laudis to renew and regroup. "What I was finding at Regina Laudis," she writes, "was the peace that had first attracted me to the Catholic Church, and when I went away I carried it with me."
When she was cast as Clare in Francis of Assisi, she was invited to a papal audience. Told her name, Pope John XXIII greeted her as "Chiara" (Clare). She was too preoccupied preparing her role to recognize this as a sign.
Years later, asked if any scene in Francis of Assisi influenced her to enter religious life, she thought of the scene in which Clare has her hair shorn during her investiture. With hindsight, she recognized that "an actress, like a religious, is a servant."
She was a vivacious young woman to whom men were drawn. After a date Peter Sellers dropped her off at her hotel room. She thought he had left and was startled to find him in her bedroom, stark naked. "It was a scene in a farce and I couldn't help laughing," she writes. She asked him to leave.
When Dolores accepted the marriage proposal of Don Robinson, her longtime beau, her grandmother told her, "Don't marry a man because you want to live with him - marry him because you can't live without him." It turned out that the man she couldn't live without was Jesus.
The wedding invitations were printed. Edith Head was preparing a wedding dress from a bolt of antique Spanish lace. At an engagement party given by Don's parents, her fiance said, "Your heart isn't here." He told her to go back to Regina Laudis and figure it out.
"Next day, I did go, and in a blinding snowstorm I took a walk up the hill where the founder had put a cross and an altar. When I found the altar, I knew I had to talk to the Abbess." Dolores wanted the Abbess to affirm her feeling. Instead, she asked, "What is it that you want?" The answer didn't come in a lightning bolt.
Recalls Mother Dolores: "When I walked into Regina Laudis, I was walking to God - to find communion with him. I had no inkling what the matter and substance of that experience would be." For the first three years, she cried herself to sleep every night.
The Benedectines are one of the oldest orders. "We care for the land, our work is living by the sustenance of our own hand," she explains. The sisters prayed. They worked. They did not speak of personal problems. Looking back on that first year, Mother Dolores says, "I was afraid to leave the film business. It was the thing that gave me an identity and self-worth." She felt bereft.
Father Prokes, a Jesuit priest, was instrumental in reframing her identity crisis. She writes that he felt "for a woman to become a religious devoted entirely to God she needed to integrate everything about herself, including what she had done in the world before she entered the order." This helped the postulant understand that she need not leave her skills at the monastery gate, but should use them in her spiritual life and work.
"This communication between acting and faith didn't come to me overnight," she says. To her mind, "Jesus was one of the first and best actors - he had a role to play."
So, too, did the novice, who took her first vows in 1966. "I loved reading a script and finding the character's aura, it's a fascinating way to learn about another's life - the deepest kind of empathy.
"As a nun, I wasn't doing it before the eye of the camera, but to help the community, to help each sister find the right work - for her." In 1973 she was appointed the monastery's dean of education, charged with identifying how each member of the order could best use her gifts.
The 400 acres at Regina Laudis include pastures, hayfields, orchards, vegetables, and a dairy. There's a foundry, and art studios. The community has sent nuns to college and welcomed academics into its fold. The sisters have enjoyed a hit recording, "Women in Chant," and Mother Noella is, famously, "the Cheese Nun," the subject of her own documentary.
This year Mother Dolores celebrates her 50th anniversary at Regina Laudis. She has rebounded from a crippling neuropathy and is a spokeswoman for the Neuropathy Association. Fortified with a regimen of medications, she looks fit to lead the abbey toward new horizons.