World without End, Amen: Religious Propaganda in THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S

8 December 2013

Not exactly a holiday movie, more a drama with a Christmas scene, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) picks up with Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley, from Going My Way (1944), as he reaches his next assignment, the financially crippled St. Mary’s parish, which has both a church and a school.  St. Mary’s is led by Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman), a strict nun who represents traditional values.  Father O’Malley, on the other hand, is much less stern and less customary.  While the two respect each other greatly, they often disagree and frequently face off on issues effecting the church, school, and, of course, the financial instability of their parish.  However, when Sister Benedict becomes ill, Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict both put their differences aside, understanding that Sister Benedict must leave St. Mary’s in Father O’Malley’s hands.

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From a plot perspective, the traditional Sister Benedict runs St. Mary’s by the book; albeit loving and fair, she is rigid.  When Father O’Malley comes to St. Mary’s, clad in a straw hat, he represents a newer, less conventional leadership.  Where Sister Benedict looks to the past to handle the present, Father O’Malley looks toward the future to guide his decision-making.  These characters represent, for the film, conservative vs. progressive Catholics during a rapidly changing and unstable time in the world, the 1940s.  And, through these characters, the film argues what the Church must do to meet the needs of its people and evolve along with its times.

Sister Benedict is old world, to say the least.  Draped in her habit, and never once shown in any other clothing or with any, even slight, changes to her restrictive garb, Sister Benedict runs St. Mary’s order and its school.  While there are countless ways the films tries to highlight her adherence to order and tradition, some are immediately understood.  First, while she and Father O’Malley watch the children practice their Christmas play, starring Bobby—a scene-stealer as Joseph—Sister Benedict harps on how the children keep changing their dialogue, that the children keep altering the performance each time they practice it.  Although she says it with a smile, the fact that Sister Benedict repeats this point again and again subtly demonstrates her discomfort with change and her difficulty accepting things that, from her perspective, lack expected structure.   Moreover, there is Sister Benedict’s response to Patsy (Joan Carroll).  Patsy is a student at St. Mary’s who struggles academically and knows it.  The girl tries her hardest at her schoolwork, even though it does not come easy and she is often distracted by sadness over being separated from her mother.  When Patsy does not make the marks to earn graduation at St. Mary’s, Sister Benedict backs herself up with the rules and established policy to justify why Patsy should not get her degree, refusing to consider the circumstances and uniqueness of the situation.  As with the Christmas pageant, Sister Benedict relies on traditions and policy for guidance, unable to consider any other alternative.

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Father O’Malley, however, is liberal and forward-thinking; Father O’Malley is the opposite of Sister Benedict, and this is why, throughout the film, the two bump heads.  For example, when Father O’Malley watches the Christmas pageant he thinks the children are outstanding, ignoring Sister Benedict’s concerns about their inability to commit to dialogue and blocking.  Also, with Patsy, Father O’Malley pushes for her to get her diploma from St. Mary’s.  O’Malley respects Sister Benedict and refuses to override her decision to fail Patsy, but he gently and consistently encourages an exception to be made for Patsy, as she has demonstrated her intelligence and maturity in ways academics failed to recognize. In all, Father O’Malley does not get caught on rules and expectations that way Sister Benedict does.

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Juxtaposing Sister Benedict and Father O’Malley flushes out the glaring differences between conservatives and liberals, speaking politically.  In the end, an exception is made and Patsy graduates.  Also, Father O’Malley takes over St. Mary’s and Sister Benedict is sent away because of her failing health.  Reading into this ending, because Father O’Malley remains at St. Mary’s in the end and not Sister Benedict, the film suggests a liberal Catholic, not a conservative, is the stronger leader.  This is particularly interesting considering The Bells of St. Mary’s was released in 1945.  It is reported that this film is RKO Picture’s highest-earning motion picture, and it was made and released in the same year World War II ended, a time when the Catholic Church, specifically its leader, Pope Pius XII, struggled.

Today, many argue that during WWII Pope Pius XII privately acted liberally, responding to the Nazi’s Holocaust by attempting to provide sanctuary to Jews.  However, Pope Pius XII remained publicly impartial when it came to the Axis and Allied forces, causing many to criticize the Church’s perceived indifference to the Holocaust, a more traditional and backward-thinking stance.  The Bells of St. Mary’s does not dare directly address the Holocaust—nor could it with WWII still raging—; however, it captures a church in crisis due of a lack of support just as this exact situation, the Church possibly facing crisis due to its impartiality during WWII, occurred in the real world.

From one perspective, retrospectively reading into what may be the film’s unconscious, The Bells of St. Mary’s is a reaction to an unstable time, for the Church and the world.  Released at the end of WWII, when the magnitude of the war’s destruction was becoming clearer and clearer, one of the things this film does is send out a message that it is not possible for the Church to handle the present state of the world by looking back and adhering to tradition, as Sister Benedict would do.  The film argues that, like Father O’Malley, the Church must be progressive and, if necessary, disregard tradition in a time of instability and turmoil.

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That said, the film is layered with propaganda, particularly religious propaganda, and, from a certain slant, the film is a narrow metaphor for much larger and more serious problem afflicting the Catholic Church.  Still an enjoyable semi-holiday classic, The Bells of St. Mary’s is an undeniable reaction to its time, and is also, quite possibly, a call for change and religious reform in the wake of WWII.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 08/12/2013.

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