The nun who kissed Elvis

151014 Hollywood stars to Nun- Dolores Hart

Mother Dolores Hart finds it miraculous that she was able to turn one kiss with Elvis Presley into the spark that helped save an abbey. The former starlet who walked away from Hollywood in 1963 to become a nun spun her tale into a fundraising campaign for her crumbling monastery in rural Connecticut.

Mother Dolores, now 76, first shared her story with The Associated Press in 2011 as she and about 40 other members of her Benedictine order faced the possibility that their abbey in Bethlehem would close. Fire officials had found numerous fire code and safety issues in what was a ramshackle collection of factory buildings, barns and sheds that were linked together in 1947 after the nuns purchased the old industrial site.

Mother Dolores went on to write an autobiography, embark on a speaking tour, and make TV appearances. In 2012, she returned to Hollywood to attend the Academy Awards when a documentary short about her life, God is the Bigger Elvis, was nominated for an Oscar.

‘Of course it was only a nomination,’ she joked. ‘I’m still waiting for the real thing.’ But the bigger reward, she said, came as an answer to her prayers for the abbey.

Shortly after her autobiography was published, the monastery began receiving letters and donations from across the world. One man began sending $100 a month. A woman in New Zealand sent $3,000.’The Elvis fans didn’t have a lot of money, but they sent quite a few dollars and all their love,’ she said.

The nuns quickly raised more than $1 million. The abbey’s main building now has new alarm and sprinkler systems, an elevator and other safety improvements.

Mother Dolores’ story has attracted more than money. Other professional women have connected with the idea of leaving their hectic lives for the monastery. Some come to the abbey to visit, working in their dairy and learning how to live a more self-sufficient life on the abbey’s organic farm. There has also been a steady stream of young people, many inspired by Mother Dolores’ story, showing up and looking for direction. Every room where the novices live is currently filled.

Judith Pinco, a former singer from Hollywood, read about Mother Dolores and decided to visit the abbey. She ended up joining the church and now serves as Mother Dolores’ assistant and liaison to the outside world. ‘I thought I was coming here for a contemplative life, but this is my way of giving back,’ she said.

‘So there has been more than just donations,’ Mother Lucia said. ‘People have really been finding spiritual renewal. The changes will make it possible for the abbey to grow and continue its service, she said – like a movie with a happy ending. ‘I couldn’t ask for a better legacy,’ said Mother Dolores.

“God is the Bigger Elvis” is the real-life story of Dolores Hart. The 35-minute film examines a beautiful young starlet, Dolores,  transformation from a Hollywood ingénue and the recipient of Elvis Presley’s first on-screen kiss to a cloistered Benedictine nun at the abbey. 50 years later she returns to the Academy Awards ceremony — as the subject of an Oscar-nominated film.

During her brief career, Dolores Hart appeared in 10 movies, and in 1959, the year she turned 21, she earned a Theater World Award and a Tony nomination for her role as a featured actress in “The Pleasure of His Company.” But her future shifted that same year, when she first visited the abbey to unwind from her hectic performance schedule. The abbey visit gave her “a sense of peace and interior renewal.”

Four years later, while engaged to Mr. Robinson, she decided to leave Hollywood forever. Shortly after an autograph-signing session for what would be her last movie, “Come Fly with Me,”, she packed a single suitcase and left New York for Bethlehem. The abbey — a converted brass factory set on 400 bucolic acres, which includes a chapel, a dormitory and a working farm — has been her home ever since.

Like the 35 other nuns in this self-supporting community, Mother Dolores follows a strict routine: praying seven times a day, chanting in Latin and eating meals in silence. Since taking her vows, she has served in many roles, including a baker, an education director, even a coffin maker. But as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she has continued to cast her votes for Oscar winners year after year, watching DVDs of nominated films in her cinderblock basement office, where she keeps 20 finches; her African gray parrot, Toby; and a Great Dane, Inke.

“These women didn’t leave their identities behind when they walked through the door,” Ms. Cammisa said. “Mother Dolores was an actress, and that didn’t end when she joined the abbey.”

Mother Dolores built a film archive and got behind the camera to record footage of abbey life, some of which is used in the documentary. In the 1980s, she appealed to her friends, the actors James Douglas and Patricia Neal, to help her finance a local theater company and build an open-air theater on the abbey grounds, which is used each summer.

She is co-writing a book about her life with Richard DeNeut, vice president of Globe Photos; she is the national spokeswoman for the Neuropathy Association; and she continues to answer fan mail, often about her roles with Elvis, with whom she starred in “Loving You” in 1957 and in “King Creole” in 1958. During her brief film career, she also starred with Montgomery Clift, Myrna Loy, Connie Francis and Anthony Quinn, but it was her role in the 1960 cult classic “Where the Boys Are” that led to an invitation to join the Academy.

Her most prophetic role was in the 1961 film “Francis of Assisi,” in which she plays Clare, a beautiful young woman who leaves a life of nobility to found an order of nuns. But her own spiritual journey was not nearly as romantic as that of her film character. Seven years passed between the day she joined the abbey as a postulant and the day she took her final vows, in 1970. The initial adjustment, she says in the film, was terrifying: “I had no idea that it was going to mean singing seven times a day, working in the garden, 10 people in a bathroom, the sternness.” In the film, she compares it to being skinned alive.

But the film also shows another side of abbey life: nuns engaged in an impromptu snowball fight; Mother Dolores holding hands with her former fiancé; a Keystone Kops-like chase after a loose cow. And, while the nuns often communicate with visitors from behind a wooden grate, some of them, including Mother Dolores, use an iPhone to take photographs of friends and to return e-mails.

Still, why give up Hollywood for cloistered life?

“How do you explain God? How do you explain love?” she asks in the film.

Her answer is both simple and enigmatic: “I never felt I was leaving Hollywood,” she says. “I never felt I was leaving anything that I was given. The abbey was like a grace of God that just entered my life in a way that was totally unexpected — and God was the vehicle. He was the bigger Elvis.”




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