Called to the cloister

As a little girl, Dolores Hart was always dreaming about a fascinating acting career. In college, her dream came true when she won the part in the 1957 film “Loving You” and made her debut with Elvis Presley. She continued her acting in nine additional movies alongside famous stars and appeared in television shows and on stage as well.

In 1963, at the height of her career and while engaged to be married, something remarkable happened. Hart heard God calling to her heart. She shocked everyone, left her fiancé and cherished acting career behind, and entered a contemplative religious monastery, the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. She now serves as prioress of the abbey.

Mother Hart recounts that transformation from actress to woman religious in her new book “The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows” (Ignatius, $24.95). She recently spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about her decision to leave Hollywood and how she has lived out her vocation for the past 50 years. 

Mother Hart
Mother Dolores Hart is marking 50 years since she left Hollywood at the peak of her acting career to enter the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., where she serves as prioress. Photo by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle

Our Sunday Visitor: Do you have a favorite moment in your acting career? 

Mother Dolores Hart: I think meeting Anna Magnani and being with her. The one scene I worked with her (in “Wild is the Wind”) was at least five and a half hours. To be with her in that one scene I think that taught me more about acting than anything I ever did. And it was just because she listened to the moment and the acting and what was happening now. And I realized that she wasn’t following a script, she was making a script. 

OSV: Have you ever been accused of running away from life and hiding in the convent?

Mother Hart: Actually, no! [laughs] I’m sure people must have thought it and had it in the back of their minds. But no one has actually come out and put that in my face. I guess they may have been afraid of me! 

OSV: Do you think your former life as an actress has prepared you in some way for the convent and evangelizing others? 

Mother Hart: Absolutely. Because an actress, as her gift, is to hear and to listen to what the other actors are saying, what the script is saying, what the whole aura of her work — if you’re not listening and integrating at the time, I think it looks corny or fake — that to me is the key for coming into the contemplative life because in the contemplative life essentially your work is to listen. 

Mother Hart book
Ignatius Press

OSV: Was your call from God to enter religious life profound and distinct or did it happen over time? 

Mother Hart: I think it was a gradual build. My great-aunt was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. When I was a little girl she loved to take me for walks to the corner tavern and get some beer and I would carry it [chuckles] so she (could) have it when we got home. 

OSV: The Mother Abbess had said a “call” can’t be explained, but she asked you one time to explain it? 

Mother Hart: A call can’t be explained any more than you can explain loving someone or falling in love. It’s a reality of life. It takes you into its own way of being. You follow that call because your heart takes you there. 

OSV: When you left the world to enter the convent, how did your family react? 

Mother Hart: Well, I don’t know if you can print how they reacted! [laughs] My grandmother came here as a guest to try to talk me out of it. When I wouldn’t come around she had a fit in front of the guest house. She yelled and cursed, and she was just so mad. When she knew this is what I wanted to do she asked what we wear on our heads at night. I told her we have a night veil but sometimes it’s not warm enough. Well, within six weeks there was a blue crocheted cap for every single nun in the house. We still have them. 

OSV: How did the industry react? 

Mother Hart: They were equally upset. My boss Hal Wallace was really infuriated. He was so angry that he told me, “Don’t bother coming out because you’ll never work again. I’ll make sure!” He had a right to be upset because I had just signed a contract. In time he came around. His wife still sends us fruit baskets every month. 

OSV: What about your fiancé? 

Mother Hart: I told him I needed to end it. 

OSV: Was he shocked? 

Mother Hart: He just couldn’t believe that I could do something like that and not tell him. I told him I didn’t know. In the long run he said to me, “Every love relationship doesn’t end at the altar, and I will stay faithful to you in this.” And he did. Every Christmas, every Easter he would send money for us for whatever we needed. He came to visit me at least twice a year. 

OSV: When one enters the monastery, she knocks on the door and tells the Mother Abbess what it is she seeks after she asks you. May I ask what you said? 

Mother Hart: I said something about “I want to know the will of God in my life.” She said, “God knows his own will. What do you want, Dolores?” I said, “I want to enter to find my vocation and hopefully know who God is for us.” She said something like, “Jesus Christ said that he was to be found in every single person who was created.” The real will of God is to know his son in everyone and to stay with each person until that was revealed. 

OSV: Do you know why God gave you the life of an actress first and then a religious? 

Mother Hart: I thought the casting was pretty good! [laughs] Why not? I think if you know who you want to be and you’ve had a time in the world to find your own call and to experience it in a positive way, then that prepares a woman for religious life. 

OSV: You found living together in community to be like a new martyrdom similar to being thrown to the lions in years past, as you said it in your book. You mentioned the nightly tears and constant thoughts of leaving the monastery. What kept you from leaving? 

Mother Hart: I think it was an inner conviction that this was God’s way for me — this was the purpose of my life and I had to get through the response of my own negativity and my own tears and to learn to get on the other side of that. 

OSV: That’s beautiful advice for anyone, right? 

Mother Hart: I think you have to — either that or else leave. Don’t do something and cry about it every day. 

OSV: How did St. Thérèse, your confirmation saint, help you? 

Mother Hart: I prayed to her often to help me understand the times and not be taken by them. 

OSV: Mother Abbess said about you, “Mother will always have a heart of an actress, a place where she is totally alive in spirit.” How do you describe your heart, Mother? 

Mother Hart: I think she’s right to say “the heart of an actress” because the actress is a listener.

You have to listen to life and I think that is probably why the book is named “The Ear of the Heart.” 

Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is an EWTN TV host and author of several books, including “Catholic Mom’s Café: 5-Minute Retreats for Every Day of the Year” (OSV, $14.95).