Strange as it may seem today, once upon a time, Hollywood respected Christianity.  Many movies had biblical themes—some were box-office blockbusters—but, more importantly, many others had scenes depicting religion as an integral part of American culture.  The public demanded it.  The silver screen was full of families saying grace before a meal or attending religious services; chaplains giving last rites to dying men or comforting troops; pioneers praying, singing hymns, or building churches.  Leading men played priests: Bing Crosby in Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and Say One for Me; Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces, The Fighting 69th, Fighting Father Dunne, and The Fireball; Spencer Tracy in San Francisco, Boys Town, Men of Boys Town, and The Devil at 4 O’Clock; Frank Sinatra in The Miracle of the Bells.  And leading ladies played nuns: Loretta Young in Come to the Stable; Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; Rosalind Russell in The Trouble With Angels and Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows; Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story; Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

Christianity and actors are words that now seem antithetical.  Yet, in years past, there were good numbers of actors in Hollywood who could rightly be described as practicing Christians.  The largest number were Catholics, including Don Ameche, John Barrymore, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, George Murphy, Robert Ryan, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck among the male leads, and Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell, Grace Kelly, Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball, Jane Wyatt, Jeanne Crain, Helen Hayes, and Maureen O’Sullivan among the female stars.  Catholic directors included John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Leo McCarey, Frank Capra, Jack Conway, and Alfred Hitchcock.  Many of these actors and directors regularly attended Mass at Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills or St. Martin of Tours in Brentwood.  Other churches where actors could be found included St. Victor’s in Hollywood, St. Monica’s in Santa Monica, and Corpus Christi in Pacific Palisades.

From the 1930’s through the 1960’s, there was a distinct and active Catholic community in Hollywood, and, while male stars played a role, their female counterparts made the larger contribution.  Among the latter was Loretta Young.  She was deeply troubled by the growing loss of decency in film and television, and a preoccupation with depravity.  “We can’t keep focusing attention on depravity,” she said, “because it goes hand in hand with utter despair.”  She never despaired and championed the cause for cleaner motion pictures and television programs, organized and contributed to charities, and volunteered at hospitals.  In 1957, she went to Rome for a private audience with Pope Pius XII.  Late in her career, she was slated to play Mother Cabrini in a screen biography of America’s first saint, but the project never came to fruition.

Young was starring in movies by the time she was in her late teens.  She was headstrong and foolish, and living life in the fast lane.  Fr. Patrick Ward, a young Jesuit, lectured her in a manner that took the teenage star by surprise.  Instead of the sycophantic flattery she had come to expect, he told her,

Don’t you know . . . that God didn’t give you your talent just so you could glory in it for the gratification of your own ego?  It was given to you to develop for His glory.  You are in a position to be an example to others.  You have no right to lead a selfish personal life.  For whether you want it this way or not, as a movie star you will be an example.  You dare not be a bad example.

His warning evidently had some effect.  When only 22 years old, she fell in love with Clark Gable, a nonpracticing Catholic, during the filming of The Call of the Wild in 1935.  Although Gable was married, they had a torrid affair that left Young pregnant.  Abortions were illegal but surprisingly easy to get in Hollywood.  Young refused to consider such an option, quietly going into seclusion once she could no longer disguise her pregnancy.  After giving birth to a daughter, she reappeared in public, telling reporters that she had adopted two little girls and was overjoyed.  Then a new story was released saying that the mother of one of the little girls had taken her daughter back.  The subterfuge worked, and few suspected that the girl Young was left with was indeed her own daughter.  The truth was not revealed until more than a half-century later.

Young followed such a course to avoid both abortion and being the bad example Father Ward had warned her about.  When abortion was legalized, Young became an active participant in the pro-life movement, and her car displayed a bumper sticker that read, “Your Mama was Pro-life, Dawlin’.”  She was an important supporter of St. Anne’s Maternity Hospital for Unmarried Mothers in Los Angeles.  She served seven years as president of the St. Anne’s Foundation, which also established the Holy Family Adoption Service.  Young was recognized in 1961 for her “noble contribution to the unknown world of the unwed mother and her baby” for her work with St. Anne’s.

Including a few appearances as a child in silent movies, Young was in 103 films.  In 1948, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), and, in 1950, she was nominated in the same category for her role as a nun in Come to the Stable (1949).  She moved to television with her own show in 1953 and took the new medium by storm, ultimately winning the Golden Globe and the Emmy three times each.  Her show topped the ratings for nine seasons.

In her book The Things I Had to Learn (1961), she wrote,

I believe that a life without religion is, truly, an impoverished existence.  I believe in the efficacy of prayer and I have a deep and sorrowful sympathy for one who is without faith.  I believe our Father answers every prayer—all prayers—with His matchless, inscrutable wisdom, with infinite compassion and with love.

She shared her own faith and love during the last three decades of her life by working as a volunteer at a hospice in Palm Springs and by supporting Catholic charities.  For a time, she also funded and ran the Loretta Young Youth Project of Phoenix.

Irene Dunne, known for her many madcap comedies, also took her religion seriously.  In 1960, the Los Angeles Examiner reported that she “is a devout member of the Catholic faith and has dedicated her life to the highest Christian ideals.”  During the 50’s, she initiated a Communion breakfast in her home.  Attendance reached such proportions that the breakfast was moved to the Grand Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.  “People in Hollywood need spiritual guidance,” said Dunne, “because of the pedestal they are on.”  While marriages in Hollywood are often of short duration, she wed Dr. Francis J. Griffin in 1928 and remained his wife until he died in 1965.  At the same time, she made movies that won critical and popular acclaim and earned five Oscar nominations for best actress.

Educated by the Sisters of Loretto at St. Benedict’s Academy in Louisville and, later, at the Loretto Convent in St. Louis, Dunne was forced to finish her schooling at a public high school in Indiana following her father’s death.  After winning a scholarship and graduating from the Chicago Music College, she worked in the theater in New York and on the road.  By 1930, she was under contract to RKO and appeared in Leather-necking, a musical comedy.  The next year, she starred opposite the handsome Richard Dix in Cimarron, which was to become a classic.  For her role as Sabra, the courageous and long-suffering wife, she received her first nomination for best actress.

Cimarron was only one of four movies she made in 1931, and others followed at the rate of three or four per year throughout the 30’s.  Her co-stars—a who’s who of Hollywood—included Adophe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Joel McCrea, Charles Bickford, Walter Houston, Ralph Bellamy, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, and Randolph Scott.  Although she had already appeared in several comedies, Theodora Goes Wild (1936) established her as Hollywood’s premier comedienne and won her a second nomination for best actress.  In 1937, she was paired with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth, a comedy that was one of the best of its generation and won Dunne her third nomination.  The chemistry between Dunne and Grant was perfect, and they were teamed again in My Favorite Wife (1940) and Penny Serenade (1941).  Because she was so creative and delightful on the set, Grant called Dunne his favorite leading lady.  Between her films with Grant, Dunne made Love Affair (1939) with Charles Boyer and was nominated a fourth time for best actress for her portrayal of Terry McKay.  Some argue that Love Affair was better than its 1957 remake, An Affair to Remember, generally considered one of the best movies of all time.

The war years saw her make two classics, A Guy Named Joe (1943) with Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) with Alan Marshal.  She starred in three comedies as well.  Following the war, her work slowed to one film per year, and, although she was now approaching 50 years old, these movies were some of her best.  Anna and the King of Siam (1946), with Rex Harrison, was followed by Life With Father (1947), with William Powell, and, in 1948, she received her fifth nomination for her role in I Remember Mama.  She made her last movie in 1952, followed by numerous appearances in television dramas.  In 1985, she was a Kennedy Center honoree for her long and critically acclaimed career.

Throughout her movie career and beyond, she worked tirelessly on behalf of the Catholic Church.  In 1949, she was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by St. Mary’s College as well as the Laetare Medal, presented annually by the University of Notre Dame to the American Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”  In 1951, she was elected president of St. John’s Hospital Foundation in Santa Monica and awarded the Lateran Cross by the Lateran Basilica Chapter of Canons for her “exemplary life and service to the Roman Catholic Church.”  In 1953, she received the Award of Merit from the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation, and, in 1957, she was given the Pro Deo at Juventute Award from the National Council of Catholic Youth.  In 1965, she became the first woman to receive the Bellarmine College Medal for work in the arts and “a variety of civic and philanthropic activities.”

Born in 1907, Rosalind Russell remained a devout Catholic all her life.  She appeared in 48 movies and was a leading lady in all but a few of them.  She made her first films in 1934; the next year, she was cast in her first lead in The Casino Murder Case, a movie that she later dismissed as her worst.  She made three other movies in 1935, including China Seas with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, and then made four movies in 1936.  For the next decade, she made two or three movies per year.  In 1940, she was teamed with Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, a film many critics consider her best.  Although Russell and Grant worked perfectly together, including extemporizing dialogue as they went, and the movie was a hit, they were never paired again.  They remained close friends, though, and Grant was best man for Frederick Brisson when he married Russell.  His Girl Friday was one of nearly two-dozen movies in which Russell played a successful professional woman or, as she herself called them, “boss-lady pictures.”

My Sister Eileen (1942) brought Russell the first of four nominations for best actress.  She was nominated a second time for her performance in Sister Kenny (1946), the true story of an Australian nurse who developed a new method for treating polio.  Through her charity work, Russell had made the acquaintance of Kenny and was so inspired by the nurse’s work that she fought to bring Kenny’s life to the screen.  In 1947, Russell gave another brilliant dramatic performance in Mourning Becomes Electra and was nominated for best actress for a third time.  Many thought that the third time would be the charm, but fellow Catholic Loretta Young took the Oscar in 1948.  Russell’s film career was in decline by the 1950’s, and, although she continued to make movies, she spent more time on the stage in New York.  She starred in Auntie Mame on Broadway for two years and then won her fourth nomination for best actress for the movie version of the play, which came to the screen in 1958.

In addition to her Academy Award nominations, she won the Golden Globe award five times and the Golden Laurel once.  In 1973, she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her years of charitable activities.  Among those activities was the creation of the Rosalind Russell Arthritis Foundation.

The short but brilliant career of the incomparably beautiful Grace Kelly has become a Hollywood legend.  In five years, the blond-haired, blue-eyed former model made 11 films; more than half of them are considered classics.  After a small role in Fourteen Hours (1951), she teamed with Gary Cooper the following year in one of the greatest Westerns ever, High Noon.  Her exquisite beauty, seductive grace, and fine performance made the 22-year-old a star overnight.  In 1953, she appeared in Mogambo with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner, which won her a nomination for best supporting actress, and then starred in five films in 1954—Rear Window with James Stewart, Green Fire with Stuart Granger, Dial M for Murder with Ray Milland, The Country Girl with Bing Crosby, and The Bridges at Toko-Ri with William Holden.  For her work in The Country Girl, she won the Academy Award for best actress.  In 1955, she was paired with Cary Grant in her third Alfred Hitchcock thriller, To Catch a Thief.  The next year, she starred in her final two films, The Swan with Alec Guinness and High Society with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.  In the latter picture, a musical version of The Philadelphia Story, she sang “True Love” with Crosby, which earned her a gold record.

While filming To Catch a Thief, Kelly met Prince Rainier of Monaco.  He courted her for a year, and, in April 1956, they were wed at the Cathedral of St. Nicholas.  With marriage, at Rainier’s insistence, came retirement from Hollywood.  Until her death in a car accident in 1982, Princess Grace worked tirelessly for a long list of charitable organizations and read biblical narratives on television to raise money for Christian causes.  She was particularly helpful to her good friend Fr. Patrick Peyton and his Rosary Crusade.  All her life, she herself prayed daily and on one occasion made a pilgrimage to Lourdes.  Even when making movies, she made it a point to attend Mass.  When in Hollywood, she could be found at Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills or at Corpus Christi in Pacific Palisades on Sundays.

The princess served as president of the Red Cross in Monaco and held an annual fundraising ball that featured performances by such Hollywood friends as Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.  She also established a yearly Christmas party for the children of Monaco and served in an organization that provided medicine and educational materials to undeveloped countries.  The mother of two daughters and a son, she became an important supporter of the La Leche League, a group devoted to the promotion of breast feeding.

While Grace Kelly had a short but spectacular career in movies, Maureen O’Hara’s career spanned more than 60 years, perhaps the longest of anybody in the business.  Standing over 5’8″ and having been an outstanding athlete as a girl, the strong and well-proportioned O’Hara was a match for her tall and imposing leading men, including Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Rex Harrison, and John Wayne.  Called the “Queen of Technicolor,” her large, lustrous green eyes; perfectly sculptured bone structure; flawless, fair skin; and red hair made the Irish colleen a stunning presence on the screen.

O’Hara began to attract widespread attention in her third film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), but it was in her eighth film, How Green Was My Valley (1941), that she first worked with the legendary director John Ford, a relationship that would continue for decades.  Ford said she was the “best bloody actress in Hollywood.”  He cast her opposite John Wayne three times, resulting in the classics Rio Grande (1950); The Quiet Man (1952), which won the Academy Award for best picture; and The Wings of Eagles (1957).  She later worked with Wayne in McLintock (1963) and Big Jake (1972).  O’Hara played the female lead in more than 50 motion pictures before retiring in 1973.  She came out of retirement to make several films during the 1990’s.  Her last appearance was in a made-for-television movie in 2000, 52 years after her first two films, Kicking the Moon Around and My Irish Molly.  Despite an outstanding body of work, including the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, she was never nominated for an Oscar, although she was twice nominated for the Golden Laurel.  She has received several lifetime-achievement awards, the Newspaper Critics Award, the Photoplay Gold Medal, the Box Office Award, the Redbook Gold Medal, the Exhibitors Laurel, the Golden Boot, and the Western Heritage Wrangler Award.

Maureen O’Hara came from a devoutly Catholic family.  An older sister, Peggy, took her vows as a nun with the Irish Sisters of Charity.  When Maureen, at 17 years of age, signed her first movie contract, the event was witnessed by her parish priest.  She has been an active supporter of numerous charities throughout her career, including the Boys Club, the City of Hope, and the Ireland Fund.  For her philanthropic work, she has received dozen of awards that range from the Military Order of the Purple Heart Award to the Diamond Halo Award of Operation Moral Upgrade to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Award for her outstanding “service to God and Country.”

Although known as the “First Lady of the American Theater,” Helen Hayes made more than a dozen films and appeared in a dozen more made-for-television movies.  She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1932 for her lead in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1971, for her comedic efforts in Airport (1970).  She was nominated for the Golden Globe for her role in Herbie Rides Again (1974) and twice won the Emmy for her work in television.  She won the Tony three times for her performances on stage.  She also won the Grammy in 1976 for Best Spoken Word Recording.

A devout Catholic all her long life, Hayes was schooled at Holy Cross and Sacred Heart academies in Washington, D.C.  Although her mother pushed her onto the stage at the age of five, Hayes dreamed for a time of becoming a nun.  As a successful actress, she supported several Catholic charities by word, deed, and money, and helped establish a Catholic orphanage in Mexico.  In 1961, she was honored by the Spanish Order of St. Isabella the Catholic.  In 1971, she received the Sisters of St. Joseph of Los Angeles Medal and, the next year, the St. Genesius Medal of the Santa Susanna Church in Rome.  In 1973, she was awarded the Cardinal Gibbons Alumni Medal from the Catholic University of America and, in 1979, the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame.  In 1985, she received the St. Clara Medal from Santa Clara University and, the next year, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in a ceremony at the White House.  In 1988, the President honored her again with the National Medal of the Arts.

Hayes and her husband, Charles MacArthur, had no children of their own but adopted a son and a daughter.  The son, James MacArthur, is best known for his role in the television series Hawaii Five-O.  The daughter, an aspiring actress, died of polio at age 19 in 1949. Hayes became an active supporter of the March of Dimes and created the Mary MacArthur Fund to aid children stricken with polio.  She persuaded Nyack Hospital in New York to establish the first treatment and therapy department for the paralyzed survivors of polio, and the hospital was later renamed the Helen Hayes MacArthur Hospital.

Like Helen Hayes, Jane Wyatt was a star on Broadway before she came to Hollywood in 1934 to play a supporting role in One More River, quickly followed by her first lead in Great Expectations.  She starred again in We’re Only Human (1936), but it was Lost Horizon (1937) that became a classic.  Playing opposite Ronald Coleman and directed by Frank Capra, she contributed an excellent performance in the mythical tale of the journey to Shangri-La.  Not finding any scripts that excited her, Wyatt spent the next three years on Broadway.  She returned to Hollywood in 1940 to become one of the busiest actresses in the industry, making 21 films over the next 11 years and starring with Cary Grant in None But the Lonely Heart (1944), Dana Andrews in Boomerang (1947), Randolph Scott in Canadian Pacific (1948), Dick Powell in Pitfall (1948), and Gary Cooper in Task Force (1949).

Turning to television in 1952, Wyatt made several appearances in dramas before landing the part of the homemaking wife, Margaret Anderson, in the long-running series Father Knows Best.  Criticized by many on the cultural left today, the series, Wyatt argued, upheld her Catholic virtues.  “Just name them,” she said, “they were all there: honesty, charity, family cooperation, respect for Dad.  At the time, most other TV shows were making fun of Dad, but not ours.”  Critics rewarded her for her fine performances with three Emmys.  She continued working in television after Father Knows Best went off the air in 1960, and she gained fame for a third time with the role of Amanda, the human mother of the Vulcan Mr. Spock, in Star Trek.  She also made an appearance in the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).  She says she is now recognized as Mr. Spock’s mother by Trekkies around the world.

Wyatt’s mother was a member of the famous Van Rensselaer family and a convert to Catholicism.  For many years, she was a drama critic for Catholic World, published by the Paulists.  Wyatt was reared with a strong Catholic faith, and she did the same with her own children, educating sons Christopher and Michael at Catholic schools.  She attended Mass regularly at St. Victor’s in Hollywood and was one of the staunchest supporters of Fr. Patrick Peyton’s Family Theater, dedicated to creating radio and television programming that encouraged family unity and prayer.  She starred in eight of his radio dramas and appeared in several of his television shows.  In 1997, she was honored by Fr. John Phalen, Peyton’s successor, “for her witness, her greatness of heart and spirit, her saying yes to the powerful influence that her craft of acting could bring to the lives of thousands.”  When asked about her legacy, the star of motion pictures and television replied, “I would like to be remembered for my happy marriage and for my marvelous children.”

The actors and, especially, the actresses who formed a robust and active Christian community in Hollywood are, for the most part, long gone.  It would be easy to blame their departure and the failure to replace them on the entertainment industry itself, a putatively immoral or at least amoral business concerned only with profits.  However, isn’t this the nature of business in general, and hasn’t it always been so?  Then, too, Hollywood clearly attracts those people starved for approbation, affection, and adulation—and fame and wealth.  Becoming a moral beacon for mankind is not their heart’s desire.  But that was the case in the golden era of the 1930’s and 40’s as surely as it is today.  I cannot help but conclude that America has changed, that we once took our Christianity seriously, and that, therefore, many of the directors, actors, and actresses that we sent to Hollywood took their Faith seriously.  Moreover, the movie moguls understood this and gave Americans what they demanded.  I am afraid that they still do.  Heaven help us.