Get into the Habit: The Top 10 Movie Nuns on the Big Screen

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Spirituality in cinema has been expressed in various ways where the feel-good aspect of faith-based films are put to great use for emotional manipulation. The triumph and tragedy of religious themes in the movies have never been championed as much as when the protagonist at the helm is a loving nun. Film nuns come in all varieties: nurturing, helpful, complex, obstinate, crusading and flawed.

Get into the Habit: The Top 10 Movie Nuns on the Big Screen will take a look at some of the movies most colorful and notable women of the cloth. You decide…will these God-serving maidens give you a sense of uplifting forethought?

Get into the Habit: The Top 10 Movie Nuns on the Big Screen selections are (in alphabetical order according to film title):

1.)  Sister Agnes from Agnes of God (1985)

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An unlikely religious murder mystery surrounds a novice nun in Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) as questions begging for answers are due surrounding the death of a strangled infant. Just what role does the confused Sister Agnes, the mother, play in the deceased infant’s demise?

Sister Agnes insists that she never had an intimate moment with a man nor does she recall giving birth to the murdered baby. However, Sister Agnes does believe in the miracle of immaculately conceiving…or at least this is the explanation for her role in becoming the maternal source for the jeopardized child. Is the mental capacity of Sister Agnes bordering on the verge of insanity or is she actually the recipient of a faith-based occurrence?

Agnes and her questionable “virgin conception” becomes the controversial centerpiece in a back-and-forth clashing between psychologist Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) and head nun in Mother Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft). Director Norman Jewison’s Agnes of God presents a thrilling quandary in that age-old argument regarding the battle of scientific forethought versus religious conviction.

2.)  Sister Mary Benedict from The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

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There is nothing like a great session of innocuous sparring between two devoted servants of God at a dilapidated Catholic parochial school. The religious rivals are Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) and Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) in the faith-based drama The Bells of St. Mary’s. 

Normally the conflicting philosophies between priest and nun would make for an unsettling scene but both Bergman’s Sister Benedict and Crosby’s Father O’Malley are so endearing and invested in their pupils and the deteriorating school that the mild disagreements are constructively entertaining,

Bergman’s radiance and stance on what her characterization perceives as resourceful input in the spiritual lives of her charges and their schooling needs makes The Bells of St. Mary’s a timeless classic. Thankfully, Bergman scored an Oscar nod as the stickball-playing nun with the proverbial heart of gold.

3.)  Sister Michelle Gallagher from Change of Habit (1969)

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What do you get when you team together the King of Rock n’ Roll and the former Emmy-winning queen of a classic sophisticated early 60’s sitcom? Well if you guessed Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore as a charitable combo performing good work in the inner city in director William A. Graham’s 1969 drama A Change of Habit then give yourself a point for trivial quick recall.

Moore plays a very pretty plainclothes nun named Sister Michelle Gallagher whose incognito routine is to ensure not scaring off the impoverished residents who may not respond to her had she been dressed in her habit. Presley’s Dr. John Carpenter lives in the city ghetto where he tends to the health needs of the surrounding poor folks.

Although the good doctor and caring nun want to provide comfort to the urban plight surrounding them can they resist each other’s attractiveness and charms? Will the lovely Sister Michelle be able to concentrate on her calling or entertain an intimate bedside manner for her fancied physician? Try repeating The Thornbirds ten times fast.

4.)  Sister Helen Prejean from Dead Man Walking (1995)

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Susan Sarandon won her best actress Oscar portraying the compassionate Sister Helen Prejean, the real-life devoted nun who is stuck in the middle between her support and eventual friendship for the Death Row inmate Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) and the sympathies for the family of the victim that Poncelet’s murdered.

Poncelet is a despicable soul and the time is running out until he faces his inevitable bout at death’s door. Sister Helen is determined to fight for Poncelet’s stay of execution and support the plagued “dead man walking”.

Despite the brutality of Poncele’s heinous crime and his repugnance as a vile offender Sarandon’s Sister Helen Prejean still saw the humanity in him and the inhumanity within a judicial system that did not agree with her personal philosophies. Whatever one’s stance is towards the death penalty and the reform of convicted felons Dead Man Walking and Sarandon’s Sister Prejean is the driving force behind this absorbing, thought-provoking prison melodrama.

5.) Sister Aloysius Beauvier from Doubt (2008)

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One could possible draw parallels between the premise of 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s and 2008’s Doubt where the themes of clashing ideologies between a Catholic school’s stern nun and unshakable priest at the expense of  their vulnerable charges is highlighted.

Whereas The Bells of St. Mary’s was more of a lighthearted and whimsical religious fable the tension between Doubt’s heroine in Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) and Father Brendan Flynn (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is more touchy and confrontational.

In the mid 60’s at the Bronx’s St. Nicholas Catholic school Sister James (Amy Adams) questions the closeness that Father Flynn pays to the school’s first black student in Donald Miller. The possible inappropriateness of Father Flynn’s undivided attention towards Donald raises the red flag in the school’s principal Sister Aloysius as she has to measure the doubt surrounding Father Flynn’s “friendliness” while relying on the cautious word of the novice Sister James. In the meantime Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) is uncomfortable with her son’s involvement in the church-going tug-of-war between policy-driven Sister Aloysius and the under-the-microscope scrutiny of Father Flynn’s tutelage.

6.) Mother Maria from Lilies of the Field (1963)

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Head East European Sister Maria (Lilia Shala) and her accompanying nuns in Gertrude, Agnes, Elizabeth and Albertine have an unfinished mission to complete in the desolate desert where they chose to do God’s work.  The intent: to build a chapel in the middle of the desert. The problem remains is that Sister Maria and her faithful flock need that special individual to help them realize the construction of their beloved chapel.

Enter wandering handyman Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), an ex-GI and unemployed engineer who happens to stumble upon the firm Mother Maria and her underlings. Basically, Sister Maria finds her salvation in Homer and anoints him “a gift from God” as his presence and expertise guarantees the miracle that they have long waited for…the symbolic chapel in the middle of nowhere that can serve as the unifying inspiration for both Sister Maria and the traveling Homer.

7.) Sister Ursula from The Nun a.k.a. La Monja (2005)

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Director Luis de la Madrid’s Spanish horror film The Nun (” La Monja”) tells more of a sinister tale of an avenging nun in Sister Ursula (Cristina Piaget) who detests the so-called sins of her boarding school female charges. To say that Sister Ursula is a terror in the halls of her school for the girls is an understatement to say the least. She can be easily labeled as demented, insane, obsessive and wicked.

Sister Ursula gets caught up in the plight of one particular pregnant schoolgirl whom she brutalizes as she attempts to force an abortion on the expecting student. Sister Ursula goes overboard in the bathroom as the impregnated girl is in fear of her life. Thankfully, her fellow students come to the frightened girl’s aid and overpower Sister Ursula resulting in a fatal accident for the maniacal nun. With Ursula’s death the girls decide to cover up her demise and put the ugly incident behind them.  The students claim that Sister Ursula is “missing” to the authorities while tossing away the truth behind her absence.

However, many years later the girls responsible for Sister Ursula’s passing may regret their explosive secret as one by one they are meeting their Maker under suspicious circumstances. Has Sister Ursula returned from the dead to get back at her wayward wards from yesteryear? The return to the scene of the crime at the boarding school may reveal the raging Sister Ursula if her detractors are still around to silence the nihilistic nun.

8.) Sister Luke a.k.a. Gabrielle van der Mal from The Nun’s Story (1959)

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In 1930 with Belgium serving as the backdrop we find Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) nursing the need to join the convent as she yearns to escape the comfortable life being the privileged daughter of Dr. Pascin van der Mal. Thus, Gabrielle waved goodbye to her upper class family as her next destination is in the Congo where she now assumes the role as Sister Luke. Sister Luke’s hope is to help combat diseases and assist in comforting the sickly people.

Sister Luke has the challenging task of working side by side with the capable Dr. Fortunati whose outlook on life seems somewhat pessimistic. Nevertheless, Sister Luke needs to be resilient and perform her instinctive duties as a wonderful caretaker to the foreign community she is committed to serving at the moment. However, Sister Luke’s adversity in the Congo stretches back to her homeland in Belgium where personal tragedy strikes both her family and countrymen. The Nun’s Story drips with its dramatic spiritual foundation guided by Hepburn’s conscientious Sister Luke.

9.) Saint Bernadette Soubirous from The Song of Bernadette (1943)

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Jennifer Jones won her best actress Oscar playing Saint Bernadette Soubirous in director Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette. 

It is circa 1858 in Lourdes, France where peasant girl Bernadette experiences a miracle of a lifetime–she receives miraculous visitations from the sacred Virgin Mary in the shadowy caves of the countryside. At first the Catholic Church and the townsfolk were skeptical to Bernadette’s claims of her Virgin Mary sightings. When miraculous happenings start to materialize in the cave where Bernadette has her golden brushes with the revered Virgin Mary then she finally makes a believer out of the Catholic church and the surrounding community. Finally, she is deemed a saint and assigned a position in the convent where unfortunately Saint Bernadette succumbs to tuberculosis. The Song of Bernadette is another religious vehicle where faith and the miracle of godly presence is inspired.

10.) Sister Sara from Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

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In the rollicking western Two Mules for Sister Sara we get a dose of high-flying deception in Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), a fake “fun nun” whose backstory is as wild as the rugged Mexican mountains she travels.

Drifter Hogan (Clint Eastwood) saves Sister Sara from a trio of troublesome cowboys en route to capturing a French fort. As for Sara, her allegiance to Mexico in their battle against the intrusive French is staunch. Also, Sara’s posing as a nun (she’s a prostitute by trade) is one of the many secrets she is keeping to herself as she and Hogan embark on a mission involving possible riches. Sister Sara is wanted by the French and her hire-wire sensual nun would add to the gun-toting exploits in Don Siegel’s western wonderland.

Honorable Mention

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Sister Mary Clarence a.k.a. Deloris Van Cartier from Sister Act (1992)

 

 

 

 

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Maria from The Sound of Music (1965)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Brian Hope and Charlie McManus from Nuns on the Run (1990)

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