Dolores Hart was 19 when she filmed her first movie scene:
kissing Elvis Presley.
The aspiring actress was dressed in a polka dot dress with
her honey-brown hair swept in a ponytail. He wore a denim
jacket with the collar turned up, his glossy bangs grazing
his brow. They were directed to kiss again and again and
again, lip locked until finally they heard "Cut." First a
make-up artist had to touch up Dolores' bright red ears, then
Elvis' ears needed concealer. After one seemingly endless
kiss, Elvis pulled away and called "Cut," saying he needed to
come up for air. It was his first onscreen kiss, too.
On set, Dolores never missed a chance to hear Elvis croon.
"He totally took you when he was singing on stage," she said.
But when Elvis asked her out on a date, Dolores was all
business, explaining they'd have to return by 7:30 p.m. to
get enough sleep before her 4 a.m. alarm for hair and makeup.
He was a gentleman, always calling her "Miss Dolores," and
the Catholic from Chicago recognized in the Mississippi
Pentecostal a fellow spiritual seeker. They would go on to
discuss Scripture, with Elvis pulling out a Bible and asking
for her thoughts on various verses.
When Paramount released "Loving You" in 1957, Dolores became
an overnight star. She earned a Tony nomination two years
later, and critics called her "the new Grace Kelly."
Dolores' faith kept her grounded, especially daily Mass.
After a long Broadway run, a friend encouraged her to
recuperate at Regina Laudis, a Connecticut abbey of
cloistered Benedictine nuns. Dolores felt a peace there and
knew it wasn't simply the reprieve from Hollywood pressures.
"There was something more," she wrote.
She began dating Don Robinson, a handsome Catholic architect.
The two were engaged in a year. Dolores' dream of marriage
and motherhood was within reach: The big day would be Feb.
23, 1963. Wedding invitations were printed.
But the tug of religious life persisted, and Don felt Dolores
grow distant. "You're still thinking about that monastery,
aren't you?" he asked.
She returned and again felt its powerful draw. Wandering
through a pine forest as the snow fell, Dolores sobbed over
the "jumble" in her mind. Besides giving up Don, she'd also
be forfeiting a fairytale career, including four scripts from
MGM and an offer from Universal to star opposite Marlon
Brando. She penned a letter to God that day, writing, "I
can't understand your ways."
Dolores broke the news to Don her first day back. They met
with the priest set to marry them, who was baffled by
Dolores' decision. "There is an aura of flightiness about
Hollywood," he warned her. "I think you should see the
archbishop as soon as possible. It's more than I can handle."
She entered the convent June 13 and cried herself to sleep
Religious life didn't come easily to the 24-year-old. Looking
back now, at 77, Mother Dolores sees how her early suffering
in the abbey carved out a "purity of heart."
She didn't instantly shed her vanity. "You still have that
drive, but you redirect it," she told me. "I came to the
realization that who you are in your soul, who you come to
love and who loves you is what makes you beautiful."
The same force behind her acting - her desire "to be a
bridge, a connector" - was fully satisfied through a life of
prayer, enabling Mother Dolores to become "a bridge for
people to an eternal life." She founded a theater at the
abbey "to help young people find their vocation in Christ
through the medium of theater."
Mother Dolores rose to new challenges that came to feel like
a homecoming. She became a carpenter - a trade, she later
learned, that had been passed down in her family since the
17th century. She tucked a toolkit into her belt, marveling
over her ability to build.
Mother Dolores wants to share her joyful outcome, so she'll
be recording a sisterstory.org oral history -
unvarnished, uninterrupted, in her own words - to be released
this spring. It's important to highlight the stories of women
religious, she said, which is the goal of National Catholic
Sisters Week (March 8-14), an official component of Women's
History Month. In their stories, we lay Catholics can better
understand our own paths to holiness and appreciate that
which unites us, Mother Dolores said. "My life in the
monastery has allowed me to be open to the grace of creation
and what it means to be a human being in the world."
Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights,
Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.