December 7, 1980
Nun Sees TV Stars Acting Like
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Visit Dutch Ink- the literary home of Mary Hilaire Tavenner, Ph.D.
When world-wise Hollywood stars ask a naive, devoted nun to help make a movie about her favorite saint, there’s bound to be some surprises. The school teacher in Syracuse’s Franciscan order describes her own “minor miracle”.
Sister Mary Hilaire meets Father Joseph Dirvin, author of "Mrs. Seton".
I had just come home from school, thoroughly exhausted. I was half aware of the phone ringing. A woman asked for me.
“This is Beverlee Dean and I’m calling from MGM Studios in Hollywood, Calif. We are planning to make a film on the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Ann Hooe said you might be willing to help us.”
At that time, I never could have imagined how much this one phone call on Dec. 5 would affect my life. It would bring me into the midst of movie stars, the state of Georgia and countless, memorable and, to me, incredible circumstances…
I teach science to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders in Lorain, Ohio. I’ve been a teacher for 12 years and a sister of St. Francis, Syracuse, for the last 14. The routine for school sisters is fairly common. Getting involved with a national ABC Circle Theatre Presentation is an exciting and new “ballgame.”
“Beverlee, will you please say that again. I don’t think I understand.”
Beverlee explained she was a co-producer of an ABC film on Mother Seton, the first American saint. It is scheduled to be aired Dec. 21 as a Christmas special. She had called Ann Hooe in Maryland to discuss the movie. (Ann O’Neill Hooe was cured of acute lymphatic leukemia at the age of 4 ½, and the credit was given to Mother Seton. The devil’s advocate - a Catholic investigator of miracles - probed this cure for 11 years. The confirmed miracle brought about the beatification of Mrs. Seton on March 17, 1963.)
I had met Ann Hooe in Rome, Italy, in September 1975 at the Vatican ceremony of canonization, the Catholic Church’s formal proclaiming of Ann Seton as America’s first native-born American saint. We have been close friends since then.
Beverlee said Ann told her, “If you really want to talk to someone who knows about Mother Seton and loves her - you should call my friend, Sister Mary Hilaire.”
Beverlee asked for my prayers and said she wanted the film to be absolutely accurate, and good. I promised to pray. Then she asked if I would read Henry Denker’s script. A Jewish author with many stage and television credits, Denker spent 10 years writing, directing and producing “The Greatest Story Ever Told” for film.
I was eager to help. I’ve been a student of Mother Seton’s life for almost 10 years and have an intense and enthusiastic devotion to her. She founded the first American Catholic school, the first Catholic orphanage and the Daughters and Sisters of Charity, a religious community of more than 6,500 women. She was a convert, a dedicated teacher, devoted wife, loving mother and more.
Two days later, I received the script, with a note to edit, add, comment - do anything I thought might help - and send it back as soon as possible. Within 48 hours, it was on its way back to Beverlee.
It wasn’t a difficult job; more of a pleasure. I believed the script was good - about 75 percent accurate - not bad for Hollywood. I corrected the obvious mistakes like names, dates, children out of order, etc.
I was pleased, later, to see so many of the changes made in the finished script but had to accept “license for editing and adapting to film, and so much limited time.” The only real “flaw” I was aware of (without yet having seen the finished product) is how much of the story remains untold. A three-hour film cannot do justice to 46 ½ intense, inspired and courageous years of life.
Beverlee was grateful for my help. She would call frequently, keeping me informed as they prepared for filming.
Michael O’Herlihy was signed as director. (One of his projects was directing “Backstairs at the White House.”) The pressure was on when no leading lady was cast and filming was less than a month away. Many women were turned down or refused the part.
Only two weeks before filming, Beverlee called to tell me Kate Mulgrew (of “Mrs. Columbo,” “Kate Loves a Mystery,” and the original Mary Ryan of “Ryan’s Hope”) had been signed to play Mother Seton. I wondered if this was typical casting procedure for a $2.7 million film.
I thought of Kate’s signing as, more than anything, an answer to a prayer, even though I never had seen her on television and barely could visualize her.
A month later, I received a call from Kate Mulgrew. I was in the midst of preparing supper for the seven of us missioned in Saint Anthony’s Convent. When she introduced herself, I felt a surge of excitement - almost disbelief. I had never spoken to a “movie star.” It was a real lift, especially after peeling potatoes and fidgeting with the salad.
Her voice was firm, full and articulate.
I may have stammered.
She said she “needed my help.” Would I please send her some information or books that would help her to better understand the character of the woman she portrayed? Although Kate knew of Mother Seton since childhood, she wanted to be as authentic as possible.
Within 10 minutes after our conversation, I had packaged three of my best books and various articles, and was en route to the local post office. First class, next-day delivery to Savannah, Ga. And still home in time to put the supper on the table.
On Feb. 8, two days later, Beverlee was on the phone. “Sister, you really must come to Georgia ….. We need to meet you, and you should be a part of this.” She had mentioned it before, but I wondered, would it really happen? Being a teacher I knew, if it did, it could be only for a weekend.
First, I’d need to talk with my superior, Sr. William Clare Ryan. She could only remark, “Call that producer back and tell her ‘protocol’ is to invite the superior as well.”
Sister Nancy Emerick, another sister living with us, piped in, “Hilaire, you can’t go without a secretary. I’ll be your secretary!” I had all kinds of offers but Beverlee was sending only one plane ticket.
Sr. Aileen Griffin, our superior general, didn’t mind my visiting the filming location, but questioned my participation. Why me, a Franciscan? Why not a Sister of Charity, one of Mother Seton’s own spiritual daughters?
I didn’t understand either.
I called my mother who lives only a block from our convent. (I am originally from this (the Ohio) parish but went to the local public schools.) Mom felt the same way I did ... what an intriguing prospect!
But my hope and enthusiasm could not waver. I believed in Beverlee, in Kate and the excellent script I had read. They had filmed in Savannah two weeks and would be in Columbus, Ga., two weeks.
It was settled. I was to fly from Cleveland Friday after school Feb. 15. I would arrive in Atlanta in time for a “puddle jumper” to Columbus. I’m not especially fond of flying - “Nearer my God to Thee” and all - but this particular flight had me more concerned with “how is this possible?”
Beverlee was in Columbus to meet me. I never pictured her short, stocky, blonde, or Italian. But she was, as well as delightfully sincere in every conversation we shared.
Beverlee and I talked that night until 3 a.m. The next morning, we went directly to the set - almost 30 miles from our Holiday Inn to a ‘historic settlement called “Westville,” built around 1850 - not far from (would you believe?) Lumpkin, Ga.
We arrived to find 100 to 150 people at “St. Peter’s Church.” Some were extras in the film, others spectators - many were cast and crew. Out of the church came running a little figure of a woman, dressed in an early 1800 Italian widow’s garb - black bonnet and all. It was Kate. She embraced me with the most warm and sincere greeting I ever received from a person I had never met. This first image of Kate will remain indelible.
She was beautiful - much younger than I expected. I’m 32; I thought she would be at least 35. She was 24.
The first scene I watched was Mrs. Seton (then a widow and mother of five children) receiving her First Holy Communion. Four or five other scenes were filmed that day; I thoroughly enjoyed them all - always watching Kate. A critical eye-searching to discover a semblance of Mother Seton. Yes, I sensed her. Kate moved and spoke with a strength - a warmth - a presence. This was not a “sensational” or “distorted” performance, but an authentic and conceivable presentation of the saint I love.
That evening, Kate and I had dinner in her trailer. We talked about everything. I imagine she may have been as curious about a nun as I was about a movie star. I believed she was perfect for the part.
We went out to watch the late-hour filming. The director was creating a mob scene - a rather violent moment of tension where Catholic and Protestant bigotry collide in front of “St. Peter’s Church, New York City.” Mrs. Seton had been a prominent Episcopalian of Holy Trinity Parish there and her conversion to the Catholic faith added to the religious animosities.
O’Herlihy kept the cast and crew working that night until 1:30 a.m. It turned into a very cold night and costumes were not much comfort. The mob became more and more angry, take after take. I think a few of that gang would have liked to attack the director.
My first full day was the most memorable. Meeting Father Joseph Dirvin, author of “Mrs. Seton,” the book upon which the movie was based, was a special honor. It was the first book I ever read about Elizabeth Seton. It made a profound impression.
I first heard of Mother Seton from a Daughter of Charity of Emmitsburg, Md., while studying at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1971. I was telling this same sister about our Mother Marianne of Molokai, who worked with Father Damian and the lepers. And she spoke of her foundress, who was married and had five children. I never heard of such a thing and wanted to know more. She gave me Father Dirvin’s book, and that’s how it all began.
Sunday morning, Kate and I attended mass in Father Dirvin’s motel room with Jimmy Hawkins, Beverlee’s co-producer, and Theresa Filbert-an extra in the cast and a good friend of Beverlee’s. Bev couldn’t make it because of a serious ear infection.
After mass, Kate and I went to one of the more elegant restaurants in Columbus. People recognized her and it wasn’t easy for us to talk with constant interruptions. They wanted her autograph or an exchange of words. I sincerely felt sorry for her, and began to realize how precious my private life really is.
Several hours later, we went back to the motel. I set up my slide projector in Kate’s room and spent the next two hours explaining to Kate and Hoolihan Burke (who played Sr. Maria Murphy) about Mother Seton, the shrine in Emmitsburg, Md., and the canonization ceremony in Rome.
After my “presentation,” the three of us went for coffee in the dining room. I joked with them, “We ought to have a reunion at Lorain! The two of you should come to our convent for a weekend sometime.”
Kate laughed and added a wry, amusing reply. “Yes, Hilaire, but what will the sisters say when I arrive with 14 trunks? Or when I send my steak back to the kitchen because it’s too rare? Or when you have to leave your students in class to get me a cold drink?” We had a lot of good laughs; I liked them both.
That night, I showed my slide collection and spoke to Beverlee, Nan Mason (Sr. Rose White in the film), Allison Biggers (Sr. Mary Ann Butler) and Theresa Filibert (an extra).
In the middle of my explanation, Beverlee blurted, “Sister, how can you leave us? Your students have you every day, your school, your parish, your family - can’t you stay for the week? I gladly will pay for your substitute! There’s only one more week of filming. Your being here means so much to us.”
(Could she possibly know how much it meant to me?) I must admit, I was torn. I hated to ask so much of my sisters in Lorain. I knew their work load already was straining.
I called Sr. Rose Alice Carbery. She was more than kind. She didn’t hesitate to tell me she would take my students and everything would be “covered.” I should stay for the rest of the week - they probably needed me.
That week reminded me so much of the week I spent in Rome for the canonization back in 1975. There were so many parallels - the most significant a feeling Saint Elizabeth Seton was there, with me, approving of this remarkable endeavor and these very fine people.
I spent the rest of the week with Kate, the cast and crew, discovering each other and becoming what each of us felt we needed to be - singing, concentrating, praying, reflecting, discussing.
I was surprised to find them so much like other people I have known. I learned of marital, health and personal problems; they were so honest and forthright. I felt very comfortable. The only vulgarities I heard all week were a few choice words a man in transportation voiced after backing his van into a pole.
One evening at supper, I told Kate how amazed I was with the caliber of these people.
Her response was, “Hilaire, this isn’t Hollywood! These people are not the usual trip. They aren’t sleeping around… they’re in bed by 10 p.m. No one is taking cocaine…. they are beautiful people - but this is not a typical Hollywood production!”
Kate always makes me feel a little naive, but I don’t mind. She added, “It’s hard to be beautiful in Hollywood. Damn hard. You have to be so strong!”
I had no idea how much planning and difficult hours go into a movie. They are very serious about their technique - it is more of a craft for these people than a job. Many of the cast and crew were working on the set before 5:30 a.m. The light and sound crews were perfectionists. I took it all in.
I especially liked C.B. “Duke” Cosgrove, the man in chargeof Kate’s trailer. Kept on location, it was a place for her to practice lines, reflect on characterization, to rest in or to stay away from photographers, autograph seekers, etc. Duke has been employed for years by ABC to take care of the “stars.” His favorites include Jackie Gleason, Danny Thomas and Burt Reynolds.
One evening, Duke and I were having dinner and the heel broke off my shoe. Kate and Jean LeClerc (who played Fr. Brute) had joined us. Kate turned to Duke, “Aren’t you going to help sister? Buy her a new pair of shoes, Duke!”
I interrupted, “Kate, I really don’t need a new pair. I already have two other pairs back in Lorain.”
Kate looked surprised and laughed heartily as she admitted to having between 200 to 250 pair! “But Hilaire,” she added, “I really have a thing about hats! I have between 60 and 75 of them!”
And I thought about my two veils (one of which needs mending). It’s all so funny -Kate and I, so different from each other, yet so much in tune.
The shooting one morning was a little different because Rosalynn Carter’s mother was on location with some of her best friends. Mrs. Allie Smith is a small, frail, white-haired delightful woman.
Beverlee invited the foursome to dinner and a tour. The native Georgians insisted we come to Plains, a short drive away. They showed us the sights, past all the security guards. Mrs. Smith impressed me as a dear, most lovely and gentle woman.
The entire week was a highlight, but I remember with great fondness the day they filmed the death of Mrs. Seton. She doesn’t actually die in the film - but there is a scene where you know death is imminent. It was the last day of filming - everyone was quite drained - Kate especially. The cast and crew, in general, were eager to wrap it up.
Kate lay in bed, looking ghostly - pale and thinned by a tubercular condition. Ken Chase did a marvelous job making vivacious 24-year-old Kate look like a dying 46-year-old matron.
I was in the room across the hall. David Bernard, of the sound crew, gave me the earphones which blocked out every sound except Kate’s dying words. She was doing beautifully and I was deeply touched - tears fell from my face into my lap.
Then, in the middle of the scene, Kate’s stomach began to growl. The super sensitive microphone on her nightgown magnified the churning sounds into a gurgling roar.
Filming stopped. The director sent for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Kate sat up in bed and downed half her meal in an attempt to stop the sound effects. By now, my stomach began to do the same. It was past lunch time and I hadn’t bothered with breakfast. I knew a growling stomach was sufficient cause to have someone removed from the area. I didn’t want to be asked to leave.
And then I spotted the half-finished sandwich and half a cup of coffee. I asked Richard what would be done with it.
“We’ll throw it away. Do you want it?
I said, “Yes,” and he told me to go right ahead and enjoy it. I did - over in a corner where the sound of my chewing would not be heard.
I felt much better. Then the director called for the other half of the sandwich. I overheard “sister” being whispered several times and asked did I do something wrong? They assured me it was all right, and there would be a lunch break for everyone. People were too eager, too tense, too hungry and too tired to finish the film. After the break, the filming was completed.
Kate and I shared a lot that week. For example, the first time I spoke with Kate’s mother on the phone, we called from Georgia. She said, “Sister, can you get my daughter into a convent?” Mrs. Mulgrew’s humor was equal to Kate’s. I thought fast, “I think that’s something only God can arrange!”
Kate is one of eight children in a very Irish and very Catholic family of Dubuque, Iowa. A month after filming, she took her mother on a vacation to Italy.
So many people helped to make the film a masterpiece. I believe it could be a classic for years to come.
Other stars include Lorne Green as Bishop John Carroll, Rosanno Brazzi as Philipo Fillichi, Leonard Mann as Antonio Fillichi, John Forsythe as a postulator, Nan Mason as Sister Rose White, Milo O’Shea as Father O’Brien, Robin Clarke as William Seton, Hoolihan Burke as Sister Maria Murphy, Jean Pierre Aumont as Father Dubois, Michael Higgins as Doctor Bayley and Jean LeClerc as Father Brute.
People like Denker, O’Herlihy, Beverlee Dean, Jimmy Hawkins, Kate, Fred Karlin (music composer) and countless others in cast and crew have created a film worth watching. It was a happy privilege for me to have been a small part of it.
The original title, “Mother Seton,” was changed later to “A Time for Miracles.”
“A Time for Miracles” was a minor one for me.