In 1963, Dolores Hart, a rising young Hollywood starlet with a glittering career beckoning, walked away from it all, as well as an engagement to marry, to enter Regina Laudis Monastery in Bethlehem, Conn. for formation as a Benedictine nun.
She very quickly discovered she had signed up for what could be called boot camp for the Seal Team Six of women religious. A half-century later she is still there.
Her very moving life story is told in the just released “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows” (Ignatius Press, Amazon, $16.96), co-written with Richard DeNeut, a Hollywood writer who was one of her very first Hollywood beaus and who has remained a loyal friend ever since.
His technique of writing based on interviews with Mother Dolores and others interspersed with long direct quotes is very effective.
This is far more than a story of “the girl who gave Elvis his first screen kiss enters the convent.” It is the story of a remarkable faith journey against the odds, and also of the evolution of Regina Laudis, her home for half a century.
Mother Dolores, who is now the prioress of Regina Laudis, was born in 1938 in Chicago. Her parents, Bert and Harriet Hicks, moved to Los Angeles where Bert pursued an ultimately unsuccessful film career. Their stormy marriage ended in divorce, remarriage and alcoholism for both.
Dolores spent long periods of her childhood in Chicago, where her grandmother enrolled her in a Catholic school because it was nearby, although the family did not practice any religion.
Dolores became fascinated by Catholicism. During her pre-Vatican II childhood, midnight fast before receiving the Eucharist was still the rule. On those mornings when the children took communion the school would serve sweet rolls and cocoa after Mass; Dolores wasn’t included because she did not receive.
One morning she asked a religious sister if she could have the bread too. The sister misunderstood, thinking Dolores wanted Communion. “Do you want to become Catholic?” she asked.
Dolores said she would ask her grandmother. When her grandmother and mother didn’t object she was baptized a few days before her 10th birthday, and immediately put her whole heart and soul into her new faith.
Back in California, as a college freshman, she was discovered at a school production of Joan of Arc, and it was through this she was signed to a contract by producer Hal Wallis, and her first role was opposite Elvis Presley in the film “Loving You.”
This was followed by several other films, and on Broadway, “The Pleasure of His Company” (for which she received a Tony nomination) and top-tier TV drama shows, including Playhouse 90.
Meanwhile, she was surrounding herself with mostly Catholic actors and attending Mass almost every day.
Her first visit to Regina Laudis was in November 1958. It had sufficient effect on her that she would return many times to refresh her soul after the strain of Hollywood and Broadway.
Regina Laudis was the only monastery for nuns in the United States to sing the Divine Office in Latin as prescribed by St. Benedict – Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline and at 2 a.m., Matins.
It was not Dolores’s intention to enter the convent, but slowly it took hold. Nowhere else in the world did she so strongly feel the presence of God.
Finally, in 1963, she broke an engagement to marry and entered the monastery. It was culture shock. Previously as a visitor, she had never been in the cloister itself or permitted on the areas of the grounds where the nuns walked. Her contact with the Benedictines prior to this had been with the select few whose task it was to care for visitors or to give them spiritual counseling.
Within the cloister was a different universe, with rules that had accumulated over the centuries in Europe, but strange to American sensibilities.
Virtually every hour of the day was accounted for with various activities punctuated by the bells calling the nuns to chapel. There was little time allowed for recreation or dialogue with others.
Meals were eaten in silence, and as a postulant she was not permitted to talk to the professed nuns without expressed permission, and that would be to those who directed formation or the various activities, whether it be on the farm, in the kitchen or other areas of endeavor.
Practical innovation in the performance of tasks was not encouraged. “This is the way it was always done, don’t question it,” was the general rule.
Her cell was a tiny five-by-eight-foot room with a single window. It had a cot, table with a small lamp and a chair. It was unheated even in the middle of winter.
Dolores felt entirely alone and worst of all, she could no longer feel the presence of God that drew her to the monastery in the first place. “That presence disappeared the moment I walked through the gate,” she wrote. On her first night she cried herself to sleep. “I would cry myself to sleep every night for the next three years,” she said.
One by one, the other five young women who were in formation with her left the monastery. The only thing that kept her from leaving was the realization that this was the place she had felt God so strongly; it would happen again.
And it did. By the time she took her final vows she knew this was the place in the world where she was meant to spend her entire life, even if she believed some practices were unreasonable and should change.
Mother Dolores’ early days at Regina Laudis were a time of turmoil in the Church. Many nuns left because they felt it had not changed with the times. Paradoxically in time many more entered, precisely because it had resisted change in essential values.
All of this is spelled out in “The Ear of the Heart.” It is an excellent guide to a Church that was, and yet can be, as seen through the eyes of a young woman who resisted the temptations of the theatrical world to enter a world that few could comprehend.
Over time Mother Dolores participated in bringing the monastery it into the spirit of the Church of today, while never forsaking the Rule of St. Benedict.
Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer and a member of St. Leo Parish.