Mother Dolores Hart, who lives a cloistered life at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethelhem, CT, will walk the red carpet Sunday in support of the Oscar-nominated documentary, "God Is The Bigger Elvis," about her life.Here is Frank Rizzo's interview from four years ago.
BETHLEHEM, CT -- "Past old stone walls, lush greenery and hidden driveways to handsome homes, the winding country road in northwestern Connecticut leads to a simple wooden sign that says Abbey of Regina Laudis.
It's the meditative rural setting where Mother Dolores, formerly actress Dolores Hart, has called home since she gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career during which she made 10 films in five years, playing opposite such leading men as Montgomery Clift, George Hamilton, Robert Wagner and Stephen Boyd. She made her movie debut with Elvis Presley in 1957 in "Loving You."
It's been 45 years since she left Hollywood for the cloistered order, but Mother Dolores is allowing the spotlight to fall again.
But this time she is shining it on the abbey's needs: improving its open-air theater and expanding its arts program for the community in Bethlehem.
Every summer, the 38 nuns at the 61-year-old abbey situated on 400 rural acres work with the community to stage a musical. (This year it was "West Side Story." Previous shows included "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Music Man" and "My Fair Lady.")
It's not so odd a connection for Benedictine nuns, whose practical work ethic runs parallel with their contemplative life. The sisters are known for more than prayer. They have recorded Gregorian chants (four CDs), created iron sculptures (by Mother Paxedes Baxter) and made cheese-making into an art. (Mother Noella Marcellino, "the cheese nun," was the subject of a PBS documentary.)
The abbey's newest project is to expand its connection to the community through the arts, and Mother Dolores, the abbey's prioress ( second in command), is using her fame to do just that.
On a warm late-summer day, she welcomes her guests with a delicate graciousness, dressed in traditional full-length black habit and veil. At 69, her bright blue eyes and striking cheekbones hint at the sparkle she showed on screen as a young beauty in Hollywood when she was compared to Grace Kelly. But she also radiated an innate intelligence that, in watching her films today, is reminiscent of a young Kate Hepburn.
A CONNECTION TO THE ARTS
When Dolores Hart arrived as a novice, she told Lady Abbess Benedict Duss, who founded the abbey, "I will never have to worry again about being an actress because it was all over and behind me. Lady Abbess said, 'I'm sorry, but you're completely wrong. Now you have to take up a role and really work at it.'
"I was so mad when she said that because I really emptied my pockets, so to speak, and literally had given away everything that had meant anything to me. She said, 'I'm sorry you did that, because there's a lot of things you gave away that you're going to need here.'
"I asked her what she meant, and she said, 'You live with me gently, and you will understand.' "
It took many years for her to completely appreciate what the abbess meant. Eventually she came to know that those whom she left behind could be helpful to the order, which itself received "the Hollywood treatment" in the much-fictionalized 1949 film "Come to the Stable," starring Loretta Young, about French nuns in Connecticut founding a children's hospital.
Friends of Mother Dolores from her movie-making days included James Douglas (who played Steven Cord in the TV series "Peyton Place") and his wife, Dawn. In the '80s, they relocated East, often visited her and wound up helping the abbey, including starting a little theater group for the community and putting on shows every summer at the abbey's annual fair.
In the early '80s, Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal ("Hud") found refuge in the abbey during a particularly difficult part of her life. In appreciation, Neal performed a recital of poems outdoors on a hillside at the abbey's ground.
"But then it started to pour, and we all made a dash for the little chapel, and we finished the recital there. Afterward she said, 'Mother Dolores, we can't do that again. We're going to have to build you a theater.' "