Before she became a Connecticut nun, Dolores Hart had been nominated for a Tony, frolicked on a beach with George Hamilton and co-starred in movies with Montgomery Clift, Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando.
She had also kissed Elvis.
When at 25 she decided to join a monastery in Bethlehem, Conn., she had established herself as a leading lady.
Unsurprisingly, her decision shocked Hollywood.
Dolores Hart was born Dolores Hicks on Oct. 20, 1938, in Chicago to Harriet and Bert Hicks, a bit-part movie actor. Her mother was 16. Her father was 17. Their marriage didn’t last, and her grandparents raised her in Chicago.
Her grandparents sent her to St. Gregory parochial school, not because they wanted her to have a religious education. The school was closer to home, and they didn’t want her to get hit by a streetcar. At age 10, though, she converted to Roman Catholicism.
She did visit her father in Hollywood, and in 1947, she played a child in the film Forever Amber.
She prayed for an acting career. “I knew God was on my side,” she later said. At 19, Dolores Hart was studying at Marymount College when she received a telephone call. A man asked her if she’d come to Hollywood for an interview for a film.
She said yes. And then she prayed she’d get the part.
The film, Loving You, starred Elvis Presley. She hadn’t kept up with music and hadn’t heard of him. When they met, she said, “I hope we can be friends.”
She played his love interest and people often asked her, “What is it like kissing Elvis?”
“I think the limit for a screen kiss back then was something like 15 seconds,” she said. “That one has lasted 40 years.”
During filming, Elvis asked her out on a date. She declined because they worked together, but she suggested they go out when filming had ended. He never asked her again.
Dolores Hart starred in another film with Elvis, King Creole. She played opposite George Hamilton in the cult classic Where the Boys Are, and she starred as Montgomery Clift’s girlfriend in Lonelyhearts.
But whether she had a job or not, she woke up every day at 6 AM to go to Mass and take communion.
Abbey of Regina Laudis
In 1958, Dolores Hart appeared on Broadway in The Pleasure of His Company. The demands of the stage exhausted her. So a friend suggested she take a few days’ rest at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a monastery for Benedictine nuns.
The abbey was founded in 1947 by Mother Benedict Duss and Mother Mary Aline Trilles de Warren, nuns of the Benedictine Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre in France. The nuns bought an old factory complex and established the monastery. A devout Congregationalist, Robert Leather, donated a hill covered with pine trees. He had often prayed on the hill, and he wanted it preserved as a site of contemplation. It became the heart of a 400-acre complex, which included a blacksmith shop built in 1750.
The nuns adhered to a strict Benedictine schedule of work and prayer.
Dolores Hart at first resisted the idea of visiting the nuns. But her friend prevailed.
“I went and I loved it,” she said. “It was peaceful, and I found inner certitude.”
During her visit she met the mother superior. “I was worried it was wrong as a Catholic to be in the movies because you could be sexually aroused by boys and get involved with men. My leading star was Elvis. She said, ‘Well why not? You’re a girl. Chastity doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate what God created. Chastity says use it well’.”
She asked the reverend mother if she had a vocation. “She said ‘go back and do your movie thing.’ I was so happy. I fled.”
Dolores Hart not only did her movie thing, she got engaged to Don Robinson, a California architect. They dated for five years. She broke off the engagement when she decided to become a nun. He never married, and they remained friends until his death in 2011.
In 1963, Dolores Hart visited New York City promoting her latest film, Come Fly With Me, starring Hugh O’Brian and Karl Malden.
She developed a close friendship with Malden, often babysitting his children. Shortly after filming started she got engaged to Robinson. She asked the Maldens’ daughters to be her bridesmaids.
After Dolores Hart had gone through several fittings of her wedding dress, she came over to the Maldens’ house with jewelry, purses and dresses and told the daughters to take what they wanted.
Then she took a one-way car trip to Bethlehem to join the order. “An affair of the heart,” she called it.
Dolores Hart, Hollywood star, had a hard time adapting to the convent. She had to get used to singing seven times a day, working in the abbey’s garden and sharing a bathroom with 10 people.
But she took her vows in 1970 and became the abbey’s prioress in 2001. She used her fame to raise funds for expanding the complex.
Today the Abbey of Regina Laudis has a robust arts program. Summer theater productions are held at a theater built in 1982 with the help of movie stars Patricia Neal and Paul Newman.
Sister Noella Marcellino, an artisanal cheese maker with a doctorate in microbiology, also lives at the abbey. The PBS documentary The Cheese Nun featured her. The abbey’s subprioress, Mother Maria Immaculata Matarese, is a lawyer who served in the Connecticut House of Representatives.
In 2011, fire and safety hazards threatened the abbey with closure. Mother Dolores did press interviews, went on a speaking tour and wrote an autobiography, Ear of the Heart, to raise money. In November 2016 she spoke at the Fall River Diocese Scholarship dinner.
In 2012, she attended the Academy Awards when a documentary short about her life, God is the Bigger Elvis, was nominated for an Oscar. (Click here to see it.)
The Abbey also raises money by selling handmade items for the Christmas holiday. It has a creche thought to have been given to Victor Amadeus the Second, King of Sardinia, in 1720.
This story about Dolores Hart was updated in 2023.