There’s always been a soft spot in my heart for nuns and Catholic schools. All those stereotypes about nuns being the strictest teachers armed with rulers was just a myth in my experience. And though my Catholic school of the early ‘90s had no air conditioning at the time, which my mother fretted over, I never felt the environment stifling. We worked, played and expressed ideas more freely than I felt I could later in public schools. Though our priest was no Bing Crosby, I couldn’t help but flash back on my own happy times in a Catholic school and appreciate all the good fortune my old parish has had.
In the film directed by the legendary Leo McCarey, Father O’Malley (Crosby reprising his role from Going My Way) has just arrived at St. Mary’s, a run-down inner city school nearly condemned. He and the principal, Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), don’t always see eye-to-eye and begin a little rivalry. O’Malley realizes how badly the school is falling apart and thinks that the best thing to do is send the students to St. Victor’s school where they have more modern facilities. But Sister Benedict loves being with the children and has worked so hard at keeping St. Mary’s open. She has her eye on the new building being constructed next door and prays that the owner, Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers), will simply donate the building to St. Mary’s.
Along the way, we also meet a troubled 8th grade girl, Patsy (Joan Carroll). Her mother seeks confidence in Father O’Malley, sharing the sad story about how Patsy has never met her father and is starting to look down upon her mother. Patsy is trying to grow up too fast, just before she is admitted into St. Mary’s she’s wearing quite a lot of makeup and was out trying to find a job. O’Malley is understanding, takes special interest in their situation and helps stay Patsy in school.
The film also brings up the idea that boys educated by nuns may become less masculine. After Tommy and Eddie have a little schoolyard fight, Father O’Malley nearly encourages Tommy, who won the fight, and tells disapproving Sister Benedict “I like to see a man who can take care of himself.” Realizing that Eddie lost the fight by listening to her, Sister Benedict teaches him to box. A nun teaching a young boy to box seems odd at first, but it becomes one of the best scenes in the film and later, we understand Sister Benedict’s good intentions.
Since we’re closing in on the holidays, I’d love to discuss the 1st grade Christmas play scene. Sister Benedict lets the children hold the reigns on the production and they boil it down the the simplest details: “I’m Joseph and this is Mary and we need a place to stay.” In their ending manger scene, the boy playing Joseph calls the Wise Men “neighbors” and they sing Happy Birthday to Jesus. There’s no recitation of big words or religious concepts that these children don’t really comprehend yet, just the simple story as they understand it. O’Malley describes it best: “Their simplicity is beautiful.”
I really loved The Bells of St. Mary’s, but I realize that I’m especially drawn and moved by these kinds of films by my own personal experiences. If you have a fondness for nuns, want to remember your own Catholic school days or just love Bing Crosby or Ingrid Bergman this is a must see. Crosby does find ways to sneak a few songs into the film, but I don’t know anyone who would mind hearing more of his beautiful voice.
“I can see you don’t know what it means to be up to your neck in nuns.”