‘Sister Act’: Still Making Our Hearts Sing After 25 Years
The View has garnered a reputation for political and feminist discourse, some of which offends certain viewers while buoying the spirits of others. Recently though, the show took a break from its more serious fare to bring us a beautiful reunion. After twenty-five years, the cast of Sister Act (1992) and its musical composer Marc Shiaman, came together to share memories and delight audiences once again. In the lead was, of course, the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg. A current View star, Goldberg essayed the role of Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence, a lounge singer hiding from the mob in a convent, back in 1992. Accompanying Goldberg were Kathy Najimy (Sister Mary Patrick), Wendy Makkena (Sister Mary Robert), and other cast members. Dame Maggie Smith (Reverend Mother) joined the reunion via satellite, and everyone shared their fond memories of the now-deceased Mary Wickes (Sister Mary Lazarus).
No matter what your political persuasion, if you tuned into The View for the Sister Act reunion, you likely laughed and perhaps cried. Viewers wrote in to social media accounts, discussion boards, and news sites like Buzzfeed for days to share their thoughts and feelings. Before and since the reunion, people have flocked to Sister Act for decades, making it a go-to feel-good film. In the twenty-five years since its debut, Sister Act has become a staple in many homes, whether via TV airings, on VHS, or on DVD. Its script has been adapted into a Broadway musical, and the soundtracks for the film and musical contain some beloved songs. Yet considering how many other uplifting films exist, what makes Sister Act so special? Any fan could offer several reasons, but a few key ones stand out.
Nuns as Women
“This is not a satire; this is not an attempt to put the Church down; this is a good-natured, good-humored view of nuns,” the Sister Act director says in a featurette found on a special edition DVD containing the film and its sequel Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Indeed, Sister Act presents a fairly uncommon view of nuns. The core group of Catholic sisters is portrayed as devout, but also as everyday women who see what they do as a true calling. They are passionate about their work and want to reach people through it. Although most of the nuns don’t admit it, they struggle with their cloistered life at St. Catherine’s Convent to varying degrees. These nuns recognize a bigger world exists. While they decline to participate in its sinful aspects, most of them see the world as good and want to influence it for Jesus in the best ways they can.
Movies that feature good-hearted nuns weren’t new in the early ’90s, nor are they now. From The Nun’s Story (1959) to The Sound of Music (1964), from Agnes of God (1985) to The Magdalen Sisters (2003), it seems Hollywood can’t get enough of Catholic sisters. Perhaps that’s because on some level, we all long for closeness to our Deities or the universe, the closeness nuns spend their entire lives cultivating. Perhaps it’s because people outside the Church and cloistered life are unfailingly curious about what it means to don a habit. However, the biggest reason might be that Hollywood, and the people who watch its movies, are eager to see nuns portrayed as multifaceted women.
Most nun-centered pictures do a fair if not excellent job of this, giving their sisters personalities and lives that remain unique inside the cloister. It could be argued, though, that Sister Act and its sequel do this in a much different way than their predecessors and descendants. Most films about nuns focus mostly on one woman and not only her spiritual journey, but her physical, emotional, and mental journeys, too. A group of other nuns will always be there, but they are not the central focus. One of the most beloved nun-centered films, for instance, is The Sound of Music. This epic musical focuses on Maria Rainer, a young postulate who loves God wholeheartedly but finds she doesn’t fit into the expected mold of abbey life. The other nuns observe this and react to it in multifaceted ways. Sister Berthe, who serves as Mistress of Novices, routinely expresses doubt Maria will ever take vows, calling her “a headache” and forcing Maria to do things like kiss the floor when the two women disagree. Mistress of Postulates Sister Margaretta, in contrast, is far gentler with the irrepressible but devout Maria. “She’s an angel!” Margaretta insists. Even when Maria gets into trouble, Sister Margaretta treats her with understanding. In the middle of the spectrum, you might find nuns such as Sisters Catherine and Sofia, who admit that it can be “difficult to like” Maria, but that they “love her very dearly.”
During Maria’s story, the Reverend Mother uses these opinions and observations to inform how she will guide our protagonist. Reverend Mother isn’t as much of a stickler as Sister Berthe, but is frank in her assessment that Maria wasn’t ready for convent life when she joined the nuns. She doesn’t shoot down Maria’s ambition to devote herself to God, but remains firm in insisting Maria try to find a place in the outside world before she takes permanent vows. In remaining warm yet firm, Reverend Mother combines the best of her spiritual “children’s” characteristics, mentoring Maria on the road to her personal happiness. Maybe because of this, the core group of nuns and their unnamed sisters eventually become eager to help Maria embrace her new life as the von Trapp governess and then stepmother. This is evident in many scenes featuring the nun’s chorus or a small group, from Maria’s wedding to a scene in which Berthe and Margaretta help save their sister and her new family, disabling a Nazi vehicle so the soldiers inside cannot give chase. Overall though, we don’t see much of the nuns in Maria’s life. The message seems to be, while these women were and are important to Maria, she ultimately belongs outside the convent. She and we should accept that, and in so doing, accept that the other nuns will not be a big part of her future.
Another well-loved example of a film focusing mostly on one nun is The Nun’s Story, starring Audrey Hepburn. Based on a true story, it follows young Gabrielle through her journey from neophyte postulate through taking her vows, becoming Sister Luke, and devoting herself entirely to religious life. Unlike other sisters, Sister Luke doesn’t remain cloistered. Much of her epic story takes place while she does missionary work, first with a local population of mental patients and then as a nurse in the Congo. Functioning outside the convent gives Sister Luke the opportunity to see and interact with the world, as well as the people in it. She struggles with her temper, self-indulgence, and at one point, sensual temptation in the form of an attractive doctor. Her reactions to these are realistic, giving her plenty of facets and room to grow.
As with Maria, other nuns help Sister Luke on her journey from naïve girl to mature woman, spiritually and otherwise. Like Maria, many of Sister Luke’s interactions are with her Mother Abbess, who helps her handle frustration, fear, unmet expectations, and questions. The two are not always on amicable terms. Mother Abbess either sanctions or personally doles out Sister Luke’s penance on a few occasions, and sometimes leaves Sister Luke with unsatisfactory answers to her questions. For instance, Sister Luke spends years praying and pleading to be sent to the Congo on a medical mission, only to be consigned to the Mother House again and again. Mother Abbess makes clear her spiritual daughter is not to ask why, which Sister Luke accepts up to a point. Yet eventually she, like Maria, makes the choice to leave convent life in favor of satisfying other convictions, such as the conviction not to remain neutral during World War II. In doing so, Sister Luke chooses to stay devout, but embrace a more self-directed worldview, which means she must ultimately leave her comrades and mentor behind.
Nuns in Friendship and Sisterhood
Sister Act then, is special and unique, not because it shows nuns with personalities and relational ties, but because it focuses on a core group of women who each get time to develop and grow. Deloris van Cartier, also known as Sister Mary Clarence, is our main character, and the film is mostly about her growth. However, the plot makes it clear she cannot grow beyond herself without the help of her group. Each member of the core group of five has different views on what it means to live a nun’s life. Deloris/Sister Mary Clarence is the audience surrogate and outsider. To her, God is a mystery, Someone to be brushed off or joked about rather than worshipped because He makes her feel uncomfortable. In her first scene with the Reverend Mother, Deloris explains she admires nuns because “You’re so…Catholic,” giving away she doesn’t have a clue what that means. She also refers to Jesus as “the big J.C.” and nuns as “His old lady,” terms that are definitely irreverent if not maliciously meant.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Sister Mary Lazarus, an older nun bordering on elderly. “She’s old school,” Mary Wickes once said in an interview. “She has very strict ideas in the beginning about how a nun should behave.” Indeed, Mary Lazarus is not the type to joke about God, her vocation, or much of anything. She embraces the idea that a religious life should be serious and difficult; if it’s not, something’s wrong and possibly sinful. She waxes eloquent about her former convent, located in Vancouver. “We didn’t have electricity. Cold water, bare feet, those were nuns. It was hell on earth, I loved it!” Mary Lazarus exclaims. Although it’s subtle, Mary Lazarus seems to enjoy a close relationship with Reverend Mother, who also feels there is no room for frivolity or ease in a nun’s life. “I will not tolerate any disruption whatsoever with [our communion with God],” Reverend Mother tells Deloris upon meeting the new “sister.” Mary Lazarus and Reverend Mother work to keep the convent’s traditions intact. The old ways may be tough and a little boring, but they’re safe. They ensure, these sisters believe, that God is pleased, and that the sisters are gleaning what they must from their lives of service.
Sisters Mary Patrick and Mary Robert, the other members of the core group, fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Sister Mary Patrick is probably the easiest for Deloris to understand and get along with, although her perpetual cheerfulness puts Deloris off at first. “Are you always this cheerful?” Deloris asks once, disbelieving. Mary Patrick confirms it, adding, “I’ve always been upbeat…my mother used to say…’she’ll either grow up to be a nun or a stewardess. Coffee?'” No matter how somber the occasion or how down a fellow nun might feel, Mary Patrick keeps that sense of humor. More importantly, she keeps a sense of wonder and almost childlike appreciation for fun. We don’t know how long she’s been cloistered, but the slightest things still delight her. She becomes positively enraptured with a jukebox, and thanks a random biker profusely for loaning her a quarter. In a montage, Mary Patrick also joins some local girls in an impromptu hip-hop routine. As Deloris and accompanying nuns learn, this sister loves to bust a move. “If my character were…out in the world, she might be more of what Whoopi’s character is,” Kathy Najimy predicted during an interview. Mary Patrick clearly throws herself into religious life; for one thing, she sings so loudly and passionately the other nuns almost find it offensive. But she never lets her habit restrict her spirit, which makes her a great candidate to befriend Deloris and reach other people.
As for Mary Robert, her personality might be the most interesting of anyone’s. We know perhaps the least about her history. She doesn’t wear the full habit, signaling she’s still a postulate “in training” for full vows. In the movie, Mary Robert claims she always knew her calling was to be a nun. The Sister Act musical however, takes a different tack. In that version, Mary Robert was left at the convent as a toddler and raised by nuns. She knows no other life and admits she doesn’t know whether she’s supposed to take vows or not. While that struggle isn’t as apparent in the movie, it certainly exists. Mary Robert tells Deloris that “there’s something inside me I want to give – something that’s only me and nobody else.” Yet Mary Robert doesn’t share those deep thoughts with anyone else. When the Sister Act story begins, she’s a shrinking violet. At choir rehearsal Deloris tells her, “You’re moving your mouth, but nothing’s coming out.” Mary Robert often hesitates to so much as look the other nuns in the eye. It’s not until “Sister Mary Clarence” gets her to sing that the young novice opens up. Once she does, Mary Robert continues as a postulate; nothing in the movie indicates she wants to leave the convent, although her big solo in the musical, “The Life I Never Led,” does. However, because Mary Robert’s personality undergoes change in the film and musical, she has the most potential of any nun. Of any sister mentioned, she can take the most control of who she will become. But unlike Maria or Sister Luke, her choice doesn’t come down to “stay or leave.” For Mary Robert, the choice is, “Go back to who you were or develop who you are. If the convent is your ultimate choice, let it be because that’s what you really want.”
At first, it might seem so many personalities and views of a nun’s life would clash horribly. Sometimes they do, as when Deloris and Reverend Mother’s desires conflict. Most of the time though, the five distinct personalities lend themselves to a more realistic and emotive arc than we see in most nun-centered stories. The question for these women, again, is not “stay or leave.” Although Sister Act begins with conflict over freedom (Deloris) vs. suppression (Rev. Mother and nuns like Mary Lazarus), it ends with a central question for each woman. “I have entered and experienced a new world. Now, what will I do with it?” These characters’ arcs mean that although most of them will stay in the convent, they will have ample opportunities to grow not only as spiritual people, but as mental and emotional people.
Lighthearted Film, Deep Themes
Sister Act is usually considered a “family” film. Despite depictions of the Mafia and references to murder (actual killing offscreen), the film received only a PG rating and is often aired on family-friendly channels. Considering this, it’s easy to write the film off as lighthearted or “fluffy,” but Sister Act contains deeper themes and arcs that stick with us long after the credits roll.
The first theme viewers might spot is the nature of true friendship and love. At the beginning of the film, Deloris appears to have friends in her fellow singers. She’s gregarious, sanguine, and fancies herself a fun and popular woman. Deloris also believes she’s in love with Vince LaRocca, a well-heeled casino customer who, unbeknownst to her, is involved in the criminal underworld. Vince apparently set up and somewhat manages Deloris’ singing career, and he showers her with expensive gifts. Meanwhile, her fellow singers act friendly when it benefits them, telling Deloris what she needs or wants to hear. But the glitter soon flakes off Deloris’ life like cheap sequins from a Vegas costume. When Deloris discovers Vince is a married man and moreover, gave her his wife’s coat, her friends have nothing to offer except canned and arguably false sympathy. After Deloris witnesses Vince killing his limo driver, those friends aren’t around to protect her. More importantly, her “lover” has turned on her, putting Deloris next on his hit list. When Deloris learns the extent of Vince’s underworld activity, she’s shocked and disillusioned but, as she tells police lieutenant Eddie Souther, she’d rather try to work it out than hide in a convent.
Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – Deloris has no choice if she wants to stay alive. She’s standoffish toward her fellow nuns, telling Lt. Souther, “I’m gonna go crazy! All these people do is work and pray!” In return, not every St. Catherine’s sister is welcoming. Reverend Mother appears to dislike Deloris from the outset; when Monsignor O’Hara reminds her she took a vow of hospitality, she says, “I lied.” Mary Lazarus is also fairly stiff at first, especially when Deloris “invades” her choir. “You’re a ringer; she brought you here to replace me,” Mary Lazarus accuses. Meanwhile, Sister Mary Robert stays in the background, while Mary Patrick’s welcomes are a bit too effusive. Mary Patrick puts Deloris in an awkward situation when she asks her fellow “sister” to say grace, and she plays “Shave and a Haircut” on “Mary Clarence’s” door at five A.M. Initially, Deloris thinks, these are the last women she’d ever want as friends. They’re too religious for one thing, and even if they weren’t, they’re either judgmental or weird.
Over time though, Deloris and the St. Catherine’s sisters grow on each other. When Reverend Mother banishes Deloris to the choir, her musical gift finally finds a place in the convent, as does she. Deloris’ expertise helps the choir go from an off-key bunch of women who don’t know vocal basics, to a talented and thriving group. Additionally, Deloris’ sanguine personality helps her challenge the nuns to “go out into the neighborhood and meet the people.” This can be worrisome at times – as Reverend Mother says, the streets of San Francisco are not “[a] delightful ongoing bake sale.” But despite Reverend Mother’s skepticism, and her decree that Deloris’ versions of sacred songs are disrespectful, she comes to respect “Mary Clarence” as a true member of her community. So too do the other sisters, who are in fact eager to embrace Deloris’ somewhat undisciplined and more modern take on life. These five women become dear friends almost without knowing it – one might argue the Divine had a hand in helping this unlikely group gel. Through her “sisters,” Deloris finds real sisterhood, as well as the value of deep and authentic friendship.
The friendship Deloris gleans from her fellow nuns lends itself to another deep theme, that of acceptance. Deloris might not be aware of it, but most if not all her actions are cries for acceptance from someone. In Sister Act‘s opening scene, we learn little Deloris Wilson was too unconventional for her strict Catholic school. She appears to use comedy to deflect her shortcomings, such as listing disciples as “John, Paul, George, and Ringo” on the blackboard in religion class. Years later, a grown Deloris, who has adopted the stage name Van Cartier, struggles to garner attention and fame for her modern “girl group,” without much success. As for her relationship with Vince LaRocca, it’s clear that’s doomed within the film’s first fifteen minutes. Deloris functions in total denial mode, telling Reverend Mother that before she came to St. Catherine’s, “I had a career, I had friends, I had clothing that fit! I was okay!” Reverend Mother doesn’t buy it, hitting Deloris with the cold, hard facts. “Your singing career was almost nonexistent and your married lover wants you dead. If you are fooling anyone, it is only yourself,” she challenges. Harsh though she may be, Mother knows best. Deloris is slow to agree, but once she opens herself to convent life, she finds the other nuns are willing to accept her as is. They appreciate and applaud her real talents, and thrive under not only her tutelage, but her latent gifts for encouraging and motivating people. They include her in their conversations and explicitly or implicitly offer to help her adjust to their lifestyle.
However, the most memorable display of acceptance doesn’t occur until the film’s climax. Vince and his henchmen have kidnapped Deloris, intending to murder her. What they didn’t count on was the sisters of St. Catherine’s showing up at the Moonlight Lounge with the intent to rescue their fellow “nun.” The other nuns’ presence provides a well-timed and hilarious decoy, until Deloris gives herself up for her friends. Vince’s cronies are reluctant to kill Deloris because, “We can’t waste a nun.” When Vince insists it’s just “Deloris in a costume,” our protagonist’s most unlikely advocate, Reverend Mother, steps forward. “She is Sister Mary Clarence…a model of generosity, virtue, and love. You have my word…she is a nun,” Reverend Mother insists. In that moment, Deloris’ character arc concludes. For the first time, her inner beauty is recognized and applauded. She is formally taken into the sisterhood, although she won’t be taking vows. Her efforts or desire for success didn’t facilitate this. Instead, because a new environment allowed Deloris’ true self to shine, acceptance and significance are freely given. One could say they are lavished on her. Through Deloris’ arc, Sister Act reminds us we must graciously accept others too, give them our friendship, and if necessary, put ourselves at risk for them.
Come for the Message, Stay for the Music
An article about Sister Act’s virtues and endurance would be remiss if it didn’t mention its music. Deloris Van Cartier is a huge fan of 1950s and ’60s bands, especially girl groups. Thus, the soundtrack is populated with hits from those decades, from “Rescue Me” to “Shout.” However, the numbers performed by “Deloris and the Sisters,” AKA the nun’s choir, are among most viewers’ favorites. They include a rollicking modernized version of “Hail Holy Queen,” a remake of “My Guy” (“My God”) and “I Will Follow Him,” dedicated ostensibly to God Himself.
What is it about these songs in particular that has captured viewers for over two decades? One could argue it’s the novelty of singing nuns – after all, musicals like The Sound of Music and Nunsense have endured partially because of their treatment of holy, talented women. But on the other hand, any actress with a good voice can also take the role of nun. What sets the music of Sister Act apart is how it reaches people, inside and outside the film, across two lifestyles. The St. Catherine’s sisters couldn’t be more different from lounge singer Deloris if they tried. They have dedicated themselves to contemplation and service; before her character development, Deloris is mostly out for herself. They put God first; to Deloris, God is the mostly uninterested Big Man Upstairs. The other sisters follow the rules, while Deloris bends and breaks them. In fact, for Deloris’ fellow sisters, the act of singing spiritualized secular songs in church is to completely flout a sacred rule. By rights, these women should try to destroy each other, but the exact opposite happens, because of the very music the Church sees as disrespectful.
It is not until they come together to sing that these nuns – real and false – understand how much they can learn from and teach each other. In learning to sing and appreciate sacred music, secularized though it may be, Deloris awakens to the possibility that Someone grander than herself has a plan for her. By the same token, Deloris gives the St. Catherine’s nuns a breath of fresh air when she peps up traditional tunes with girl group rhythms and dance moves. She brings the convent a spirit of fun and freedom, showing the nuns it’s okay to loosen up now and then. Better than that Deloris, and the choir’s new musical style, breathes new life into the church as a whole. Suddenly, St. Catherine’s is not a convent dying on the vine. It becomes a vibrant hub of love, joy, peace, and the other fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5. The choir’s new secular style doesn’t get a direct okay from Monsignor, Reverend Mother, or any other church officials. Yet because the music is so engaging, it and its singers inspire the nuns and laypeople around them to leave their comfort zones. Soon after the choir’s overhaul, St. Catherine’s becomes a huge presence in its once hope-starved neighborhood. Nuns and lay members get involved in ministries that once felt foreign or even dangerous, from day cares and soup kitchens to an outreach effort around adult entertainment shops. Even those who were hesitant or outright opposed, such as Reverend Mother, eventually see how God has used the new vibrant music, its spirit, and His followers to change things for the better.
The Final Verdict
Sister Act didn’t win any Oscars. It’s mostly considered a “feel good,” “family” film, which some Hollywood moguls consider a death knell to a decent project. But more than two decades since its premiere, this film and its subsequent musical continue charming and inspiring viewers. It’s safe to say Deloris and her sisters will continue spreading wonderful music and a wonderful message for 25 more years, minimum. By its fiftieth anniversary, it’s a safe bet Sister Act will have secured a permanent spot on the list of Hollywood’s most enduring classics.
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