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 told me. But when Elvis asked her out on a date, Dolores was all business, explaining they’d have to return by 7:30 pm to get enough sleep before her 4 am 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 on June 13 and cried herself to sleep that night. 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 Sister
Story.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.” Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.