TV and movies have always been fascinated with Catholic nuns -- with mixed results. Here are some of the good ones, and the actresses who played them ...
Peggy Wood as Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music
When we think of nuns on the screen, perhaps the vision of Julie Andrews running through the meadow comes to mind.
Although Julie’s character of Maria in the fact-inspired 1965 film The Sound of Music is memorable in the film, she's actually only a postulant. No, she never became a fully-fledged nun, so it is the Reverend Mother who stands out among those in the abbey.
Peggy Wood’s portrayal of Mother Abbess not only provided a song that will forever be one of the call-to-arms songs (Climb Every Mountain), but her dedication to the abbey and those under her care is heartwarming.
When many of the other nuns are calling for Maria’s dismissal, (after all, she didn’t really fit in, did she?) it was the Mother Abbess who proclaimed, “She’s a girl.”
Knowing this, she was not too eager to release Maria from her calling. Instead, she realized by sending Maria out into the world, there was a chance she would either find her true calling outside or return to the abbey ready to join her fellow nuns.
And, as we all know, Maria did find her true calling. She married Captain von Trapp and became the mother to his children as well as their own.
It was Mother Abbess’ patience that allowed Maria to grow. She was not quick to pull the plug on the young novitiate. Her patience and understanding make her an indomitable character.
Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior in The Trouble with Angels
The 1966 film The Trouble with Angels (directed by Ida Lupino, and based on a true story) pits Rosalind Russell as the Mother Superior of a Catholic girls boarding school against two headstrong and troublesome teens.
Hayley Mills and June Harding co-star as Mary and Rachel, who do their best to disrupt the calm and peace of the school, while at the same time eventually coming to an understanding about the lives and devotion of the nuns who live and teach there.
Mother Superior is a devoted woman to both her vows and her school. She holds her school and her students in high esteem and does everything in her power to help them and help the institution. With Mary and Rachel in tow, that is a humongous undertaking.
While the two teens are perhaps the main focus of the storyline, it is the instinct, intuition, and love from Mother Superior that stands out. She is a tough woman, but she proves she can bend when it is in the best interest of her flock.
Maggie Smith in Sister Act
In 1992 Whoopi Goldberg was a lounge singer who is under witness protection in Sister Act. So where does a flamboyant songstress hide from the mob? A convent, of course.
Delores does not fit in, but Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) makes sure she follows the uniform and the rules. Unfortunately, Delores has other ideas. She intends on spicing things up a bit. And boy, does she do that!
While the music, atmosphere, and even the outlook of the nuns changes, Mother Superior holds fast to her staunch old-fashioned ideas.
This is a case where the old meets the new and while the old decides she won’t budge, eventually she knows it is for the best that she takes the leap of faith and joins the rest of the convent in modernizing. What a gal!
(And yes, Maggie Smith also plays the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey, with the same sharp wit and aplomb.)
Lorna Watson as the title character in Sister Boniface Mysteries
In 2022 Lorna Watson donned the traditional habit in the new Sister Boniface Mysteries, streaming in the U.S. on BritBox (and returning for a second season). Sister Boniface is not your traditional nun, however.
Firstly, she rides a scooter. Secondly, she is more of a detective than a nun. The latter is a bone of contention for the Reverend Mother, who doesn’t understand why the heads of the Church sanction Boniface’s extracurricular activities.
Nevertheless, this vivacious nun manages to help the police solve many crimes.
Along, the way her perky demeanor wins friends; her knowledge of science adds to the investigations; and her winemaking abilities round out her life.
Oh, let’s not forget her devotion to her calling.
Watson reflected about her character when talking to the media this year:
“I feel like she has this sort of childlike element to her. She asks lots of questions. She’s quite sort of wide-eyed, puppy dog about the world. And I think I'm a little bit like that. I can be also quite surprisingly naïve, which I also think that she is.
And there is an element of the silly about her at times as well.”
She also said, "Something sort of takes over when I put the habit on. It’s one of those quite transformative costumes where you just sort of immediately become someone other [than myself].”
By combining her childlike qualities with her devotion to her faith, Lorna Watson has made Sister Boniface an endearing character.
Ingrid Bergman as Sister Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s
Ingrid Bergman stars with Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary’s. Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict disagree over the future of the school. While the father wants the dilapidated building torn down, Sister Benedict does everything in her power to save it.
After all, she knows it is an important place for the students. These kids need the school, and Sister Benedict needs the kids. But there are problems that arise that could spell disaster for both Benedict and the school.
Crosby reprises his role from the 1944 film Going My Way. The 1945 The Bells of St. Mary’s delves more into the dedication of Sister Benedict to her students and the school.
She is a tough woman with a soft heart. She is not a steadfast, stodgy nun. She is willing to learn to play ball and even to box in order to teach the students. Her loyalty is only surpassed by her big heart.
Sally Field as Sister Bertrille in The Flying Nun
And last but not least, we have Sally Field in the TV sitcom The Flying Nun (1967-1970). Sister Bertrille was the perfect weight, so that, when combined with the shape of her cornette-style wimple, she was able to fly.
Sister Bertrille is a perky young nun with a rosy outlook on life.
The cuteness of the star managed to overcome the more farcical aspects of the show.
Field had previously played the spunky Gidget in another sitcom. Trading in her bikini for a habit, and surfing the waves for flying with the birds. was a good choice for the actor.
Today her portrayal of Bertrille is often mocked, but at the time it served to bring young viewers into the lives of the nuns in the convent.
Field stated in a July 3, 2019 interview with Closer Weekly that even in this turbulent time in the country’s history, “people really turned in to [the show], because this country has a very large religious community, obviously.
"They tuned in because they wanted to see something that they thought was wholesome and had a Christian aspect to it.”
Image: Sister Boniface Mysteries/BritBox