November 2, 2018

From Hollywood to sharing Scripture with Elvis: Mother Dolores Hart tells her vocation story

Benedictine Mother Dolores Hart, center, holds an image of the Holy Family given to her by members of St. Louis Parish in Batesville and poses with members of the parish’s youth group on Sept. 30. Created by the local Weberding’s Carving Shop, the image was a gift to the nun who visited the parish and shared her life story. (Submitted photo by Katie Rutter)

Benedictine Mother Dolores Hart, center, holds an image of the Holy Family given to her by members of St. Louis Parish in Batesville and poses with members of the parish’s youth group on Sept. 30. Created by the local Weberding’s Carving Shop, the image was a gift to the nun who visited the parish and shared her life story. (Submitted photo by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

BATESVILLE—Benedictine Mother Dolores Hart said that she receives many letters daily at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn., each requesting her to come speak at a different location. Most she must turn down, but when a letter from Father Stanley Pondo, pastor of St. Louis Parish in Batesville arrived on her desk, it touched her heart.

“I felt this absolute piercing sense of, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t refuse him,’ ” she told the crowd gathered at the parish on Sept. 30.

“Maybe you’ve had the same experience?” she concluded, as the priest’s parishioners erupted into laughter.

More than 250 parishioners, community members and youths packed the pews to hear directly from this former Hollywood star who left the silver screen at the height of her career to become a cloistered nun.

Father Pondo had persuaded Mother Dolores to fly to Indiana because he was convinced that her story would help the youths, especially, understand that a relationship with God is the most important thing in life.

“Mother Dolores had everything the world would say you should want: [She was a] beautiful woman engaged to a handsome guy, fame, a successful career,” Father Pondo said. “Yet, she looked and saw that what’s more important was what God was calling her to.”

Mother Dolores was only 19 when she became an overnight success story. She landed a starring role in Elvis Presley’s 1957 film, Loving You, complete with a seven-year contract with Hollywood’s Paramount Pictures.

Punctuating her life story with humor, Mother Dolores recounted to the crowd that, when she first met Presley, she asked the King of Rock and Roll, “What do you do?”

Presley, she says, responded with, “I sing.”

During her second film with the cultural icon, she recounted that the two of them had to wait in a hotel room between scenes so that Presley was hidden from the ever-present crowds. Presley found a Gideon Bible in the room and asked the young Hart to flip to a random page, read the passage and share what it meant to her. He then did the same.

Mother Dolores attributed his interest in the Bible to his love and respect for his mother, Gladys Presley.

“She taught him Scripture, taught him his faith,” Mother Dolores said, “and whatever was going to come up for him in his life, I knew that he had been prepared by God.”

She herself was being prepared by God for her own vocation, even as her fame continued to grow. She explained that her friend, Don Robinson, proposed marriage to her, which triggered an immediate questioning of her future.

“ ‘Wait, there is another, there’s got to be something more,’ ” she recalled her thoughts. “ ‘My life has got to be given for something more than just my own gratification and seeing myself on the screen.’ ”

During a hectic time as a lead in Broadway’s The Pleasure of His Company, a friend suggested that she take a retreat at the Abbey of Regina Laudis which was located a short distance north of New York City. From the moment Mother Dolores arrived, she knew that she had found where she belonged.

“When that awakens, that begins to torment us,” she said, comparing the experience to that of falling in love with a spouse. “ ‘If I could be with him, if I could be with her,’ and for me it was, ‘If I could be with them, with the Lord.’ ”

In 1963, at the age of 24, Mother Dolores broke off her contract and engagement, gave away everything she owned and entered the abbey. In 2012, her incredible story was recounted in an Oscar-nominated short subject documentary, God is the Bigger Elvis.

“She’s just an amazing woman, and she makes me cry,” said Grace Eckstein, a student at Batesville High School and a member of the St. Louis Parish youth group. She had watched the documentary with other youth group members in the weeks leading up to the nun’s visit. As her pastor predicted, Grace came away from the talk with new priorities.

“Just discerning my vocation, it’s not about what I want, it’s about what God wants,” she said.

“I learned to just trust God because it was obviously a radical decision to quit Hollywood and become a sister,” explained fellow youth group member Adam Moster. Mother Dolores’s decision to leave everything behind for the sake of her vocation especially resonated with him: Adam said he is considering the priesthood.

“I think it’s a lot of prayer and trusting in God and hoping that he has a plan for you that’s better than your own,” he said.

The evening before her speech, the youth group and other parishioners had the opportunity to meet Mother Dolores one-on-one. Youth group member Erin Batta recounted that Mother Dolores listened attentively to each person and offered specific advice for each situation.

“She didn’t just say generic things like, ‘Remember God loves you,’ and stuff like that, but she would ask you about your life and then specifically give advice on what you said,” Erin said.

During the meet-and-greet, St. Louis parishioner Dave Meyer noticed a unique feature of Mother Dolores’s dress: atop her veil, she wore a black beret decorated with small pins. In his pocket, Meyer happened to have a small cross pin, an extra from a recent parish mission trip.

“I was waiting in line to greet Mother, and I put my hand in my pocket and I said, ‘There’s a pin, and she’s got pins on her hat,’ ” he recounted with a smile, “and it’s on the hat now.”

From the podium, Mother Dolores thanked the parish for the new pin and happily explained that her decorated hat allowed her to “hold a lot of people and a lot of situations and keep them close to my head.”

Father Pondo and the youth group also presented Mother Dolores with another special “thank you” gift: a large image of the Holy Family created by the local Weberding’s Carving Shop. Mother Dolores praised the small town for its “simplicity and love,” and encouraged her listeners to continue living as a loving community.

Asked by an audience member about her favorite saint, she gave the Batesville parish one last burst of pride.

“I always think that my favorite saint is one I have to come to know better,” she said, “and as I’ve been with you, I think St. Louis is coming very close.”

The parishioners gave their approval with a hearty laugh and resounding applause.

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.) †

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