The Bells of St. Mary's is often referred to as the film which most exemplifies the mythological Church of pre-Vatican II days, the Church That Never Was, so to say. It is seen as idealizing priests and nuns and parish life when in reality, as we are continually being told, priests were abusive monsters and nuns were shrewish old hags. However, every time I see The Bells of St. Mary's I am struck by how many things about the film resonate with my own experience of Catholicism over four and a half decades. The nun friends that I have had laughed together just like those in the film, especially in the scene when the cat got inside Fr. O'Malley's hat on the mantelpiece. And the striving of the parish to keep the school open is not unreal either.
Here is one brief synopsis:
Produced in 1945, “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is the sequel to the 1944 Academy Award winning Best Picture “Going My Way.” Bing Crosby returns to his role of Father Chuck O’Malley. Father O’Malley has just been transferred to a new church, St. Mary’s. St. Mary’s is a church and school in disarray and without enough funds to even make basic repairs. In fact the parish is in serious danger of being shut down. While at St. Mary’s, Father O’Malley comes in to constant conflict with the school’s head nun, Sister Benedict, played by Ingrid Berman. He thinks she is too tough on the kids, she thinks he is too soft.
Making matters worse is crotchety, old Mr. Bogardus (Henry Travers) who is building a nice new office building next door to St. Mary’s and would like to see the parish torn down as the eye sore it is and turned into a parking lot for his new building. But Sister Benedict and the other nuns pray each day for Mr. Bogardus to somehow give the new building over to St. Mary’s so they may have a new place for their school. Father O’Malley thinks the nuns are wasting their time until of course the miracle of all miracles rewards the sisters’ faith.
Bing Crosby is not half so annoying as he was in Going My Way, the prequel of Bells. The fact that Ingrid Bergman was not a raised a Catholic and was not an especially devout person is testimony to her superb acting ability. Her composed deportment is right on target, restrained without being stiff. Sr. Benedict is able to gently impose a sense of discipline and order on the children while at the same time letting them know that they are loved unconditionally. I have known nuns just like her. She is based upon director Leo McCarey's aunt, a nun who helped to build Hollywood's Immaculate Heart Convent before dying of typhoid fever.
Sr. Benedict and Fr. O'Malley, like so many dedicated religious and clergy with whom I have been acquainted, interact with a variety of people with a plethora of problems, from the troubled young girl to the cranky old Bogardus. The story is fictional, meant to be entertaining and light-hearted but it touches upon very real quandaries. Sr. Benedict, who after overcoming many obstacles saves the school, has to lose it by going away. She is heartbroken and finds it hard to give up her own will, thinking that Fr. O'Malley has arranged her transfer on purpose. Discovering the truth at last helps her to accept everything that has happened in a spirit of faith. The look she gives Fr. O'Malley before walking away, eyes full of tears but radiant with peace, contains in it an ocean of sacrifice. In that sense, The Bells of St. Mary's is not only about the Church that was, it is about the Church that is, and that ever will be. Share