From July 27 to August 2 Benedictine Mother Dolores Hart will be visiting a number of churches in Northern California to share her life story, chronicled in her new autobiography The Ear of the Heart: an Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows.

Mother Dolores’ life story reads like a film itself. She was born Dolores Hicks in Chicago in 1938, into a theatrical family. Her parents separated when she was three years old, and later divorced. For part of her early life in Chicago she lived with her grandparents, who sent her to a Catholic school. Although not raised Catholic, she converted to the Faith when she was 10. According to Wikipedia “It was actually her grandfather, a movie theater projectionist to whom she turned for comfort in light of her parents’ marital problems, whose enthusiasm for films influenced her decision to pursue an acting career.” Young Dolores would accompany him to the projectionist booth, and watch the movies while he napped, waking him up when it was time to change the reels.

By age 11, she was living with her mother in Beverly Hills—describing herself as a “Hollywood brat,” and later attended Marymount College. In 1956, using the name “Dolores Hart” she was signed on to play the love interest of Elvis Presley in the 1957 release Loving You.  She followed this with nine more feature films and two Broadway productions, earning the 1959 Theatre World Award and a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress for her role in The Pleasure of His Company. Her most famous roles may have been as Merritt Andrews in Where the Boys Are, immediately followed by her portrayal of St. Clare in Michael Curtiz’s 1961 production Francis of Assisi.

Although the film was not a box-office success, the role proved to be pivotal for Hart. While filming in Italy, she had a chance to meet Pope John XXIII. She described the meeting in a 2005 interview with Barbara Middleton in the National Catholic Register: “When I was introduced to the Pope, I said, ‘I am Dolores Hart, the actress playing Clara.’ He said, ‘No, you are Clara!’

Thinking he had misunderstood me, I said, ‘No, I am Dolores Hart, an actress portraying Clara.’ Pope John XXIII looked me squarely in the eye and stated, ‘No. You are Clara!’

His statement stayed with me and rang in my ears many times.”

The successor to St. Peter was apparently onto something. Two years later, Hart caused a sensation by becoming a cloistered nun at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem CT, where  “…the nuns of the abbey chant the Mass and full Divine office each day, while expressing the traditional Benedictine commitment to manual work and scholarship through various contemporary media and professional disciplines.”

In a 2008 article in the Tablet, Father Frank Mann related: “As a novice, she told abbey founder, Lady Abbess Benedict Duss, ‘I will never have to worry again about being an actress because it was all over and behind me.’ But Lady Abbess replied, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re completely wrong. Now you have to take up a role and really work at it.’ Hart submitted a rejoinder, ‘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.’ The abbess said, ‘I’m sorry you did that because there’s a lot of things you gave away that you’re going to need here.’”

Like the Holy Father, Lady Abbess seemed to be onto something too, because during her life at the abbey Sister Dolores’s friendships with Hollywood notables enabled important projects to go forward. In 1982 Sister Dolores and her friend the actress Patricia Neal created The Gary-The Olive Theater at the abbey, which each summer puts on a play, with a mix of professional actors and local young people. Paul Newman and Ms. Neal, among others, have helped fund the theater. In 1970, Sister Dolores took her final vows, and in 2001 became Mother Prioress Dolores Hart. She recently said “I never felt I was ‘walking away from Hollywood…I felt I was walking into something more significant and by that, I took Hollywood with me.”

The Ear of the Heart was published by Ignatius Press in May 2013. Mother Dolores’ tour will take her to St. Edward Church in Newark on July 27; Kolbe Academy Trinity Prep in Napa on July 28; Presentation Church in Sacramento on July 29; Easter’s Catholic Bookstore in Sacramento and St. Eugene’s Cathedral in Santa Rosa on July 30; St. Dominic’s Church in San Francisco on July 31; and Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara on August 2.

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