My latest book, a Spring 2007 publication of Ignatius Press, is Mother Benedict, Foundress of Regina Laudis Abbey. This is a Benedictine Abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
I knew Mother Benedict dating back to the early '80's, and her story amazed me.
Back in the early 50’s, Hollywood made a movie called "Come to the Stable," with Loretta Young and Celeste Holm playing two penniless nuns who came to America from France at the end of World War II to found a hospital for children.
It was a fictionalized version of a story that was much more powerful in fact than it was in fiction. The real life woman, played by the famed actress Loretta Young, was Mother Benedict Duss, an American-born graduate of a medical school in Paris, a nun at the Benedictine Abbey at Jouarre in France, and a fugitive from the Gestapo.
More than that, she was truly a faith-motivated, courageous pioneer determined to found a Benedictine monastery for women in America as her way of thanking this country for liberating her Abbey in France. Her real story is a page turner. I know, because I spent several years interviewing her, learning from her, and writing her story so her legacy would never be misunderstood or forgotten.
In the decades that followed the making of that movie, until her death at age 94 on October 2, 1995, Mother Benedict Duss was the first to acknowledge what a tempestuous 60-plus years this had been for her as the maverick foundress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Ct. She had to face poverty, trauma, setbacks, success, failure, physical illness, sometimes harsh accusations-- but always she had fidelity and love from her daughters.
I call every one of them "my sisters." I visit them often at their Abbey, which is the home of these women, some 40 of them, all professionals who have taken vows making them members of this first Benedictine cloistered community of women to be established in the United States. Each of these women wears a traditional habit and lives according to a rule written for community life by St. Benedict back in the sixth century.
But that’s just the overview. What has been established here is a model that was expected to fail--building a monastery on American ground for American women, based on a 1500 year old rule.
But Mother Benedict was no ordinary woman. The work she did as a nun/doctor for her community and the villagers of Jouarre put her in great jeopardy after the Americans entered the war and the Germans occupying France declared all Americans there as "enemies." She became a fugitive from the Gestapo, and somehow escaped arrest. At the liberation of Jouarre by the Americans, riding their tanks with white stars and American flags, Mother Benedict had something of a mystical experience, that made her promise then and there that she would thank her birth country for this liberation by founding a monastery in America.
How she was able to convince the Vatican that this was a viable project is a tale of a strong woman facing up to powerful men, and winning. She also had the coincidental luck of finding some American women, notably artist Lauren Ford, who offered her and her companion, Mother Mary Aline, hospitality and a place to start, at their home in a tiny town called, appropriately, Bethlehem in the hills of Connecticut.
Much attention came their way after Hollywood made the movie, and even more eyes were on this Abbey when a beautiful blonde star named Dolores Hart left Hollywood and entered the community in 1963—known and beloved these many years as Mother Dolores.
In a time when religious orders are dying, Regina Laudis, founded by a strong woman, who so respected the individuality of women, swims against the tide, with a thriving community. I am honored to have been able to record the life work of this fascinating, maverick nun/doctor who stood her ground and followed her white star, surviving all the forces that would have put down a weaker woman. God gave her nearly 95 years of life. She never stopped doing his work.