During his speech at St. Mary’s graduation service, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) tells the assembled, “St. Mary’s is founded on faith, hope, and charity.” He might as well have added lies to this list of building blocks. Throughout the course of the film, the major characters lie to one another and others they encounter. Father O’Malley lies to Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) about his knowledge of Patricia’s background. Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict constantly lie to (or hoodwink) Mr. Bogardus about obtaining his newly constructed building. Furthermore, as O’Malley gives the graduation speech, he lies concerning Mr. Bogardus’ generosity. Of course, we laugh at these half-truths as the filmmakers no doubt intended us to do. However, years of secularization and scandal have tarnished the glow of O’Malley’s luminous halo of a hat (it is doubtful the same could ever be done to Bergman’s Sister Benedict), and audiences are not so enamored of the devoted pastor/priest. Yet The Bells of St. Mary’s endures as a beloved classic despite ecclesial troubles and its characters’ less than honest personalities. Perhaps, in these half-truths, we find the key to its popularity, then and now.
Father O’Malley and Sister Benedict both embody the age-old Christian dilemma of faith vs. works. Though Mary Gordon has offered an insightful gender reading of the film in which she finds that Sister Benedict plays a secondary role to Father O’Malley (and as such, so do all Sisters to Fathers and women to men), we can still se that Sister Benedict is very active where Father O’Malley is passive and vice versa. The combination of this leads to the renewal of St. Mary’s, even while the film itself seems to stress the more “practical” side of the equation, works.
First and foremost, Sister Benedict’s emphasis on faith in and prayer for the acquisition of Mr. Bogardus’ new building is met with skepticism from not only the secular community (most notably Dr. McKay), but form her own religious community as well. Father O’Malley takes either a more active approach (manipulating Mr. Bogardus) or a far more passive one (tearing down St. Mary’s altogether). In the end, along with Sister Benedict’s prayer, her and Father O’Malley’s manipulations accomplish the task.
Secondly, Sister Benedict and Father O’Malley take different approaches to Eddie and Tommy’s fight. Sister Benedict hilariously trains Eddie in the art of pugilism while Father O’Malley simply praises Tommy’s “victory.” Not only does Sister Benedict’s training improve Eddie’s fighting skills, it strengthens him spiritually and morally as well as, after he defeats Tommy, he suggests they never fight again and be friends and offers to buy him an ice cream cone (two scoops).
The character of Patricia Gallagher is an interesting one. She certainly plays the “patsy” in the film but also gets the best of Sister Benedict and Father O’Malley as well. When she has trouble with her schoolwork, Sister Benedict simply tells her to “work harder” to improve her grades. On the other hand, Father O’Malley takes a more active approach that Patricia exploits in her presentation the following day, making a “patsy” of him in the process. Nevertheless, Father O’Malley cares little for schoolwork as his story of Mr. Hathaway shows. Rather than “book smarts,” Father O’Malley seems to appreciate “street smarts” which can be put to good work for self-improvement and the benefit of others. In fact, Father O’Malley almost convinces Sister Benedict to do away with the grading system altogether.
One can easily detect the emphasis of works over faith in Father O’Malley’s advice to Mr. Bogardus’ doctor. Doing good for others is the best medicine for a bad heart. Father O’Malley has spent a lifetime in service to others: the result, a good heart. However, the film betrays any blind faith in good works as Mr. Bogardus is hit by a truck immediately after agreeing to give his building to St. Mary’s. Moreover, the doctor assures Father O’Malley that Sister Benedict’s faith, optimism, and vitality are the best cures for her “touch of tuberculosis.”
While The Bells of St. Mary’s might occasionally betray its emphasis of works over faith, perhaps this very emphasis resulted in its popularity, especially in a time of world war and the rise of the social gospel. Scandals aside, the Catholic church has always taken a progressive stance on numerous social ills, and perhaps audiences saw the pro-action of Sister Benedict and Father O’Malley, despite their minor flaws. Of course, the on-screen chemistry could have gone a long way too. While faith and prayer are important, living these out in service to others is paramount as well. If all else fails…dial “O” for O’Malley.