- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

Nearly a half-century ago, Dolores Hart was a blue-eyed, blonde actress starring with Elvis Presley in the 1957 film “Loving You.” In a switch of biblical proportions, she’s now the Rev. Mother Dolores Hart, prioress of a Roman Catholic abbey and 400-acre farm in Bethlehem, Conn.

Mother Hart’s unusual story is among those on display in “God’s Women: Nuns in America,” an exhibit at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center across the street from the Catholic University of America in Northeast.

“The overreaching theme of the exhibit is one of joy, particularly the joy these women have in their vocations — in their impact on this country and its culture,” said the center’s Penny Fletcher.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 30.Visitors are asked to make a donation.

The story of nuns in America begins in 1694 with Lydia Longley, who as a child was carried off by Indians raiding her New England village. The Indians sold her to allies in French-ruled Canada, who sent her to the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal. There she converted to Catholicism, became a nun and died as one.

The exhibit also tells of three American women who became Roman Catholic saints:

• Elizabeth Ann Seton, a New York socialite of 200 years ago who founded the first U.S. religious community for women, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.

• Frances Cabrini, an Italian immigrant who founded schools, orphanages and hospitals in major U.S. cities.

• Katherine Drexel, who in 1891 established the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to work with American Indians and blacks from headquarters in Bensalem, Pa.

The number of nuns in America has declined faster than the number of priests. About 70,000 women are devoted to austere lives of prayer, teaching and healing, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. In 1965 there were nearly 180,000.

The eclectic exhibit prefers to “emphasize the importance of what these women have done and still do, and the impact they have had,” Miss Fletcher said.

Included are more than 50 dolls wearing the habits of different orders of nuns. Some are heavy with religious symbolism.

The Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood, based in Watertown, N.Y., identify 15 symbols in what they wear, from seven buttons on their cape, in memory of the seven last “words” or statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, to a frill that recalls the crown of thorns with which Roman soldiers are said to have mocked Christ.

The exhibit also explores “America’s love affair with Catholic nuns in film,” listing more than 30 actresses who have portrayed nuns, from Ingrid Bergman to Jodie Foster.

Mother Hart, who played a singer who attracts Elvis in “Loving You,” is among those featured. She was 24 when she decided to quit Hollywood in 1963, end a wedding engagement and enter the abbey in Bethlehem, Conn.

“I came to understand,” she said, “that God truly expressed Himself through His beloved. Through a mystery of great love, He broke through the extravagance of the motion picture industry to make my vocation known to me.”

Mother Hart belongs to the traditionally strict order founded by St. Benedict 1,500 years ago. Eight times a day, starting at 1:50 a.m., the nuns chant Latin prayers.

Last month, Mother Hart celebrated her 66th birthday at a dinner in New York of the Neuropathy Association. She has a disease of the nervous system and has spoken and written on behalf of others with the illness.

“A nun must become a lover in a new way she never expects,” Mother Hart said. “A vocation is a marriage with Christ.”

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