Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hollywood Starlet, Fulbright Scholar, Doctor...All Catholic Nuns

In these days of discussion about the reform of the LCWR, it behooves me to feature some other stories about women religious, such as the absolutely astounding track record of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis.  The story of the founding is told in Come to the Stable, as well as Mother Benedict: Foundress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis.
The most well known of their nuns, of course, is Mother Prioress Dolores Hart, the recent subject of the documentary God is the Bigger Elvis (for more, see here, as well as The Leonard Lopate Show: “God Is the Bigger Elvis” - WNYC).

Mother Hart has lived an amazing life.  Excerpts:
...Like the 35 other nuns in this self-supporting community, Mother Dolores follows a strict routine: praying seven times a day, chanting in Latin and eating meals in silence. Since taking her vows, she has served in many roles, including a baker, an education director, even a coffin maker. But as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she has continued to cast her votes for Oscar winners year after year, watching DVDs of nominated films in her cinderblock basement office, where she keeps 20 finches; her African gray parrot, Toby; and a Great Dane, Inke.

“These women didn’t leave their identities behind when they walked through the door,” Ms. Cammisa said. “Mother Dolores was an actress, and that didn’t end when she joined the abbey.”

Mother Dolores built a film archive and got behind the camera to record footage of abbey life, some of which is used in the documentary.

In the 1980s, she appealed to her friends, the actors James Douglas and Patricia Neal, to help her finance a local theater company and build an open-air theater on the abbey grounds, which is used each summer. And in December, when the abbey launched a $4 million campaign to pay for extensive renovations mandated by the town, it was Mother Dolores who appealed to the public, through the news media, for a Christmas miracle.

She is co-writing a book about her life with Richard DeNeut, vice president of Globe Photos; she is the national spokeswoman for the Neuropathy Association; and she continues to answer fan mail, often about her roles with Elvis, with whom she starred in “Loving You” in 1957 and in “King Creole” in 1958. During her brief film career, she also starred with Montgomery Clift, Myrna Loy, Connie Francis and Anthony Quinn, but it was her role in the 1960 cult classic “Where the Boys Are” that led to an invitation to join the Academy...
Her discernment followed a fascinating path. Excerpts:
"...I was performing in a play in New York and needed to get away for a break. I didn't own a house or property like some of the other actors but someone suggested I visit the Abbey of Regina Laudis. They said it was very quiet and restful. The first time I set foot there I knew there was something so attractive about the place. It felt like a magnet calling me to the land itself. Every time I had a film or other work in New York something drew me back to the monastery," continued Hart.

"I met with the abbess in 1959 and asked her if I could ever be called to this life. But she told me to go back and do my movie thing. Then in 1961 I was doing a movie with Stephen Boyd about a young Jewish girl who had been imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis. I met a French Jewish woman who told me about her own experiences when the Nazis came into her home and I was deeply touched. She told me nothing was more devastating than when a Nazi soldier came into her house and cut off her braid and said he would keep it as a souvenir. It was the first time something touched me that personally. I started asking myself if what I was doing in Hollywood was really answering life," cited Hart.

"I did two more movies but the Lord had planted something in me but I didn't understand the explanation of vocations. I was engaged to be married. My fiancee and I went to a party one evening and when he was taking me home he said I needed to get something straight and suggested I go back to the monastery to think about everything," Hart said.

"I returned to the monastery in Connecticut the very next morning and told the abbess I was serious about this vocation," noted Hart...
Mother Dolores went to the Oscars in 2012.  She also came to Franciscan University of Steubenville and delivered the John Paul the Great Fine Arts lecture to a packed house.
But, as the documentary shows, Mother Dolores is far from being the only notable woman at Regina Laudis.  The Abbey is also home to The Cheese Nun, Mother Noella Marcellino.  Excerpts:
...She is popularly known as The Cheese Nun.

Mother Noella doesn't much like the sobriquet, finding it, well, a bit cheesy, and wasn't terribly happy that it is the title of Pat Thompson's excellent TV documentary soon to be shown on the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States. It was the prioress of her convent who told her to go with The Cheese Nun because it is catchy and fungi alone are not immediately appealing. The prioress knows about such things because as Dolores Hart she was a Hollywood star famed for giving Elvis his first screen kiss. "I think it's great," Mother Dolores told her. "No one's going to watch a film about biodiversity."

The nun factor should indeed win viewers. It is also what makes taxis stop in heavy rain, restaurateurs give a free meal and customs officers cast a blind eye — and nose — when a nun arrives at the airport, as she was planning to do, with four raw-milk vacherin cheeses that she had been given at the last minute. It surely helped, along with Mother Noella's warm personality, when she arrived at remote French farms with her flasks and piles of petri dishes and sterile scalpel to scrape mold from the ceilings of cheese caves.

Mother Noella's research won her a science award in Paris last month and was praised by Rémy Grappin, the late director of research at France's National Institute of Agricultural Research. No one else, he said, had studied the biodiversity of raw-milk cheese fungi and no one else, it might be added, is fighting harder to preserve it in a world of standardization and pasteurization where even in France cheese makers are buying prepackaged bacteria and mold sprays and are giving up mold-rich family caves for shedlike cheese cooperatives...
She travels fairly widely as a result of her cheesy expertise. Excerpts:
...despite having lost her 90-year-old father last week and suffering a flare-up of an old back injury, she will travel to Seattle to attend the Seattle Cheese Festival at the Pike Place Market, which takes place Friday through Sunday.

"It's been an unusual week for me," she said. "But we made a commitment and my community is convinced I need to be (at the festival)." In describing Mother Noella, it's hard to know where to begin. That she made the decision to drop out of Sarah Lawrence to become a cloistered nun is its own story. She was the youngest of six children born to the free-spirited William "Babe" and (the late) Mary "Maidie" Marcellino.

"They once went out to dinner in Boston and then called me the next morning from Puerto Rico," Mother Noella recalled about her insurance broker father and travel agent mother.

One of her four brothers is John "Jocko" Marcellino, who co-founded the group Sha-Na-Na.

"It was hard for them. Because it's a cloistered community, they felt like they were losing me. But we don't abandon our families."

After visiting the Benedictine abbey for a retreat in 1970, Mother Noella discovered she was attracted to the structured lifestyle, in which she found a sense of freedom...
More here. She gave a presentation on spirituality and cheesemaking. Excerpts:
...Mother Noella began her presentation with a slide of a gold-gilded icon of St. Benedict beholding a ray of sunlight. She also showed images of yeast budding in aging cheese, under an electron microscope. She played a video clip of a monk who said that his Benedictine vows of stability and obedience have made him a better cheesemaker. Mother Noella spoke about practicing her vocation by analogy. She likened the cheese ripening process to St. Benedict’s maturation, during three years of solitude. She also suggested that traditional cheeses are losing their souls, largely due to the centralization of production, just as centralization can undermine diversity in monastic life. She showed pictures of her scraping endangered fungi from cave walls in France. She invited us to imagine St. Benedict as a young boy, living alone in a cave. After three years of contemplating God, he left the cave to found monastic communities, his particular vocation. And rising to that occasion, emerging from that cave of voluntary solitude, he looked at the sun. Sister Noella brought her talk on spiritual and professional integration home–to St. Benedict’s ray of light, in the microscopic light of ripening cheese...
The nuns of Regina Laudis have also recorded several CDs of chant.
The reach of these women's lives and work extends much farther than all this--lives of hospitality, prayer, and deeply living the Benedictine charism through a variety of crafts and vocations.  For more, explore the Abbey's website.  If you feel so called, donate to the fundraising campaign to do some very necessary renovations at the Abbey.  If you're trying to discern what God's calling you to, whether you are male or female, or just need an extended time with God, check out their monastic internships.   Below: Come To The Stable, the story of the founding of the Abbey of Regina Laudis.

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