Mother Dolores Hart: God is Bigger than Elvis | Sojourners

Mother Dolores Hart: God is Bigger than Elvis

Mother Dolores Hart, as Hollywood starlet and after. Photos by Getty Images.
Mother Dolores Hart, as Hollywood starlet and after. Photos by Getty Images.

During her brief career as star of stage and screen in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dolores Hart won a Theater World Award, was nominated for a Tony Award and gave Elvis Presley his first on-screen kiss (in the 1957 film Loving You) when she was just 19 years old.

Now Hart — better known for most of the last 40 years as Mother Dolores, Prioress of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. — has a new claim to fame: Oscar nominee.

Last week, God is the Bigger Elvis, a short documentary film about her journey from Hollywood starlet to cloistered Catholic nun, received an Academy Award nomination for best short documentary film.

I stumbled across Hart's fascinating story while reading a news article about how women filmmakers are notably absent from this year's Best Picture Award nominees while dominating the documentary film nominations. Running 37 minutes long, God is the Bigger Elvis was directed by Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson, and is one of five nominees in the Documentary Short Film category — four of them with women directors.

The daughter of two actors who achieved minor success, Hart grew up in the footprint of Hollywood, but split her time between Los Angeles and Chicago, where she lived with her grandparents and attended parochial school. Her family was nominally Catholic and Hart wouldn't become devoutly religious until her own acting career, which she began at age 18, was in full swing.

"I grew up on Mulholland Drive, watching the klieg lights, just enamored at the lights from Sunset Boulevard," Hart said in a 2001 interview with ABC's 20/20. "You can imagine what that meant to me, as a 6-year-old, to suddenly find myself wandering around 20th Century Fox movie lots, thinking that was going to be my future."

Her first film was Loving You  with Presley, whom she also co-starred with in the 1958 film, King Creole. Success and notoriety came quickly to Hart, whose beauty was often compared to that of Grace Kelly. She signed a seven-picture contract with one of the major studios, and was the top-billed actor in the 1962 cult-classic, Where the Boys Are.

In a bit of prophetic casting, Hart played a young nun in the 1961 movie St. Francis of Assisi. Her last movie role came in 1963 where she starred opposite Hugh O'Brien in Come Fly With Me.

It was during a short break from performing in a Broadway play that Hart first encountered the nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Most of her co-stars had "country homes" outside New York City where they would go to relax on days off. Hart didn't have a regular place to go and unwind, so a friend told her about the abbey, which, according to the Rule of St. Benedict, operated a guest quarters.

Hart was enamored of the sisters of Regina Laudis, how they worked hard together to create something beautiful — a collaborative discipline not unlike acting in a play or film. Upon leaving the abbey after that first visit, Hart said she "felt that I was going to be back here sometime."

Three years later, not long before the release of Come Fly With Me, Hart says she felt God's call. Despite the seeming incongruity that a life of cloistered devotion offered to a beautiful young starlet who was engaged to be married at the time, Hart gave it all up and, in 1963, entered the abbey as a postulant. She took  her final vows in 1970.

"I have struggled with this call to vocation all my life," Hart told 20/20. "I can understand why people have doubts, because who understands God? I don't. When you are dealing with something at this level, you are dealing with mystery."

Try as I might, I couldn't find a trailer, clip or even a website for God is the Bigger Elvis, which will air on HBO in April. But if the short film is anything like the interview Hart gave to 20/20 a decade ago, it's sure to be an extraordinary tale of an unlikely spiritual journey.

Watch Mother Dolores tell her story to 20/20 in the video below.

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.