Defining The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) is tricky in a limited sense. Obviously, it is a Catholic movie. If the title does not clue you into this fact, then it would become apparent after a couple minutes of watching it. The frankly insignificant mystery of the film is whether it is a sequel to Going My Way (1944). Bing Crosby is back as Father Chuck O’Malley in The Bells of St. Mary’s, and his character is again called upon to save a struggling parish, this time with a school. The bigger puzzler is the main protagonist. Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s bear further comparison to one another because you have two people with differing styles of parish management and roughly equal influence in plotting the course forward for their community. In Going My Way, it was Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). In The Bells of St. Mary’s, it is Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). With the former, it is clear that Father O’Malley is the primary force behind the events portrayed therein. My theory with the latter is that Ingrid Bergman, being a star in her own right, demanded a little more attention. Please note that this is not a complaint. Sister Mary Benedict is a wonderful character, as is the movie. This is me simply speculating.
Father O’Malley’s strides into The Bells of St. Mary’s topped with his familiar straw boater. He is at the title parish to replace the previous pastor, who apparently lost his mind. That is not meant to be a joke. That is basically what is suggested. The supposed reason for the onset of madness pertains to the conditions of the parish. The big problem is the crumbling infrastructure. The state of the buildings is seen by local real estate developer Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers) as an opportunity to grow. Specifically, he sees the increasingly dated church and school as prime real estate for a parking lot for the new office building he is putting up, which adjoins parish property. Horace makes his designs on St. Mary’s clear from the beginning. The other person with which Father O’Malley must contend is Sister Mary Benedict, the sister superior to a small cadre of nuns that run the school. Soon into his tenure, their different styles of pastoral care come to the fore. When a pair of the school’s boys get into a fight, Father O’Malley breaks it up, but seems to side with the victor. Sister Mary Benedict sees the winner as a bully, and endeavors to teach the beaten boy how to fight. Though she does not condone violence, she justifies it as teaching the kid how to defend himself. This way, the next time the bully picks a fight, he is surprised to find an even match. The main issue between the two of them, though, is Patricia “Patsy” Gallagher (Joan Carroll). The school has taken in Patsy while her single mother, Mary (Martha Sleeper), tries to make ends meet, and these concerns make her into a poor student. In Father O’Malley’s view, the issues with which the girl is dealing makes her a candidate for special consideration in regards to her grades. For Sister Mary Benedict, the idea of passing someone along without the proper work is dishonest. In this case, Sister Mary Benedict wins out, and she, along with Father O’Malley, get her to start believing that she is not stupid as she thinks she is and apply herself. Things are going along well until Father O’Malley visits Mary after offering to help find her estranged husband, Joe (William Gargan). Father O’Malley does so because there is a music tie-in, this being, at least nominally, a Bing Crosby movie. Patsy goes to show her mother her eighth-grade graduation dress, and overhears Joe leaving Mary with plans of going out of town. Thinking her mother will not be present for her special day, Patsy has a relapse into her poor studies and fails to pass the grade. When her parents do show up for the exercises, Patsy admits to Sister Mary Benedict that she failed on purpose because she wanted to stay. With their sudden appearance, the revelation of Joe as her father, and some impromptu demonstrating of her knowledge, Patsy is allowed to move on. Still, the real coup of the film is Father O’Malley’s gentle maneuvering of Horace into Sister Mary Benedict’s path. One of the nun’s prayers for the parish is a new school, and Horace’s edifice would provide everything they need. In a sense, Father O’Malley plays both sides of the issue, even at one point making it seem like he is forced to concede to Horace. Yet, Horace’s interactions with Sister Mary Benedict cause him to donate the building to the parish. Prayers have been answered, but as everything seems to be falling in place, Sister Mary Benedict is taken ill. Against her wishes, a doctor, Dr. McKay (Rhys Williams), is consulted and it is revealed that she has tuberculosis. Because Dr. McKay is a parishioner and knows what the school means to her, he suggests that Sister Mary Benedict be quietly transferred. Instead, just as she is about to leave, Father O’Malley explains that it is temporary, and once her health is clear she will be welcomed back. With this good news, she walks away and this is where the film ends.
Like Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s provides a good glimpse into the day-to-day workings of a parish. Since there is no miracle song that reverses the community’s fortunes as before, this one is a little more realistic, though with its share of singing. What makes this one stand out from its predecessor is Sister Mary Benedict. In the climactic moment with Patsy, the girl pays the nun a fitting tribute. Her desire to stay at St. Mary’s is because of the attention and care that she had been receiving there, something she is not getting from her pre-occupied mother. So inspired is Patsy that she says that she says she wants to be a nun, and to be just like Sister Mary Benedict. The sister superior’s response is a beautiful testament to what becoming a member of a religious order means to the many who takes these vows. She starts by pointing out the obvious: you do not become a nun because you are running away from something, as Patsy is from her family. Instead, a woman becomes a nun because they found something. I have seen more than a few vocation stories of religious sisters that echoes this sentiment. The thing that they find is something that had always been there, and that is God and His calling to serve Him in this capacity. It is often not something that people expected for themselves. Many of these women envisioned being virtually anything else you can think of than a nun. Yet, when God is the focus of our lives as He should be, no matter who we are, who are we to argue with our Creator?
There will be many who will not care one iota about seeing The Bells of St. Mary’s. Some simply do not like older films. For others, the lack of action might put them to sleep. Regardless, I would take this film over the majority of the sludge that oozes out of Hollywood with alarming irregularity. If this reviewer’s opinion means anything, I recommend seeing it.