May 17, 2015 - 8:25 AM
BETHLEHEM, Conn. - Mother Dolores Hart finds it miraculous that she was able to turn one kiss with Elvis Presley into the spark that helped save an abbey.
The former starlet who walked away from Hollywood in 1963 to become a nun spun her tale into a fundraising campaign for her crumbling monastery in rural Connecticut.
But the pot boiler about Presley's first on-screen kiss and the girl who turned from the screen to sisterhood has done more than keep open the doors of Abbey of Regina Laudis. It has inspired new interest in its monastic work. Now she and the other nuns hope to raise up to $9 million to restore the order's former brass factory for future generations.
Mother Dolores, now 76, first shared her story with The Associated Press in 2011 as she and about 40 other members of her Benedictine order faced the possibility that their abbey in Bethlehem would close
Fire officials had found numerous fire code and safety issues in what was a ramshackle collection of factory buildings, barns and sheds that were linked together in 1947 after the nuns purchased the old industrial site.
Mother Dolores went on to write an autobiography, embark on a speaking tour, and make TV appearances. In 2012, she returned to Hollywood to attend the Academy Awards when a documentary short about her life, "God is the Bigger Elvis," was nominated for an Oscar.
"Of course it was only a nomination," she joked. "I'm still waiting for the real thing."
But the bigger reward, she said, came as an answer to her prayers for the abbey.
Shortly after her autobiography was published, the monastery began receiving letters and donations from across the world. One man began sending $100 a month. A woman in New Zealand sent $3,000.
"The Elvis fans didn't have a lot of money, but they sent quite a few dollars and all their love," she said.
The nuns quickly raised more than $1 million. The abbey's main building now has new alarm and sprinkler systems, an elevator and other safety improvements.
What was once a project designed to keep the abbey from closing has become a fundraising effort to renovate the abbey for a long future.
The most recent version of the renovation plan, dubbed New Horizons, calls for a new chapel (the ceiling is sagging), housing and other environmentally friendly and disabled accessible spaces to live and pray.
Among other things, the nuns need to install new wiring and insulation to prevent the constant freezing of pipes in the winter, fix the falling gutters, replace rotting wood and get rid of the black mould that can be seen growing on the ceiling of the former barn that now houses the print shop, bakery and sewing room.
More than anything, they need more space — common areas and places where people can reflect without bumping into one another. They have no conference room and currently no way to walk inside from one end of the monastery to the other without going through the chapel and disturbing those who are praying there.
The nuns estimate the work will cost between $7.5 million and $9 million. They have so far raised more than $3 million.
"That first phase was more of an urgency, a survival thing," said Sister Angele Arbib, who serves as the abbey's spokeswoman. "But this is all needed. We have to continue, because we aren't going to be in a position to do this ever again. We are doing this for the future."
Mother Abbess Lucia Kuppens said it has been hard for the nuns, who were used to living a cloistered life, to reach out to the public and ask for assistance. But with Mother Dolores as an inspiration, they have all found a way to help, each using her unique talents.
They have set up a website, organized fundraisers, begun speaking to the media and increasing sales of their handcrafted pottery, artisan cheeses, and choir recordings.
"We now know we can do it," the mother abbess said. "We've gained courage and confidence."
Mother Dolores' story has attracted more than money, Mother Lucia said. Other professional women have connected with the idea of leaving their hectic lives for the monastery. Some come to the abbey to visit, working in their dairy and learning how to live a more self-sufficient life on the abbey's organic farm.
Judith Pinco, a former singer from Hollywood, read about Mother Dolores and decided to visit the abbey. She ended up joining the church and now serves as Mother Dolores' assistant and liaison to the outside world.
"I thought I was coming here for a contemplative life, but this is my way of giving back," she said.
There has also been a steady stream of young people, many inspired by Mother Dolores' story, showing up and looking for direction. Every room where the novices live is currently filled.
"So there has been more than just donations," Mother Lucia said. "People have really been finding spiritual renewal."
That has put even more strain on the abbey already cramped housing, helping make the planned renovations a necessity, Mother Lucia said.
The changes will make it possible for the abbey to grow and continue its service, she said — like a movie with a happy ending.
"I couldn't ask for a better legacy," said Mother Dolores.
Tax-deductible donations to New Horizons may be sent to the Abbey of Regina Laudis, 73 Flanders Road, Bethlehem, Connecticut, 06751. Or online at http://abbeyofreginalaudis.org
News from © The Associated Press, 2015