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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

Spencer Tracy, Hollywood priest

By
Kurt Jensen
Source: Catholic News Service

Screen legend Spencer Tracy (1900-1967), who won one of his two Academy Awards for portraying a priest during Hollywood's golden age, played Catholic clergymen three other times, but was never comfortable with it, reveals a forthcoming book about the star.

In "Spencer Tracy: A Biography," to be published this fall by Alfred A. Knopf, James Curtis writes that MGM director W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke had to talk Tracy into taking the role of Father Tim Mullin, the pugilistic childhood friend of Clark Gable's character Blackie Norton, in the 1936 film "San Francisco." Before then, clerical roles in films had always been assigned to character players, not leading men.

"If he had any fear," Curtis writes, "it was the fear of artificiality, the fear that lifelong Catholics would look at Father Tim and see a movie star pretending to be a priest and not the soul of a real priest." As it turned out, Tracy's portrayal was so convincing, his fan mail began to include requests for spiritual advice, leading him to reflect to his secretary, "You can't live up to an idealistic role."

Tracy, a lifelong Catholic whose boyhood parish was St. Rose of Lima in Milwaukee, played a priest for the last time as Father Matthew Doonan, rescuing children from a doomed hospital in 1961's "The Devil at 4 O'Clock."

But he's best remembered for two portrayals of a real-life cleric, Father Edward J. Flanagan (1886-1948), in 1938's "Boys Town" and its 1941 sequel, "Men of Boys Town"—winning an Oscar for the first film.

It took another Catholic—Eddie Mannix, production manager at MGM—to persuade Tracy to take the part of Father Flanagan. "Your name is written in gold in the heart of every homeless boy in Boys Town," Father Flanagan eventually wrote Tracy from the Omaha, Neb., headquarters of the charity he had founded in 1917, "because of the anticipated picture you are going to make for us."

Tracy and co-star Mickey Rooney, who played would-be tough guy Whitey Marsh, were never close. Curtis writes that on the first day of shooting, Tracy growled at Rooney: "The moment I catch you trying to louse up a scene I'm in, I'll send you to purgatory."

Tracy learned of one unexpected result of the famous part in 1967 while making his last film, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." With the help of a studio plumber, an outsider, a man in his mid-30s, sneaked onto the set.

"Uncle Spencer?" he said. "I'm Bobs Watson. I played Pee Wee in 'Boys Town.'"

Watson, then occasionally working as an actor, told Tracy of his plans to become a Methodist minister. "And I wanted to tell you that though I know it was a role, the way you were as Father Flanagan—the warmth and loving and caring I felt—was a major influence on my decision to enter the ministry."

Tracy, Watson remembered years later, "was very moved."

Tracy never resolved his real-life conflicts about his faith: Though his Catholic sensibilities—perhaps along with other factors—prevented him from divorcing his wife, actress Louise Treadwell, with whom he had two children, he nonetheless engaged in a number of extramarital affairs, most famously a longtime relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Yet Curtis writes that the actor still acknowledged his spiritual needs.

One occasion for doing so occurred during a 1966 visit from then-Maryknoll Father Eugene Kennedy, after Tracy's health had begun its final decline. Tracy, the former priest recalled, embraced a wooden statue of the Madonna he had found in Chamonix, France, and told Kennedy, "This is something I truly love. It's so simple."

Just before dinner that evening, Tracy confided, "You know, I thought about being a priest once; I guess every Catholic kid does, or did, anyway. I don't know how they feel with all these changes taking place. Now Pope John XXIII, he was my kind of pope. But with this Vatican II, I'm not sure that priests believe in sin anymore or still hear confessions."

He paused, then asked Kennedy, "You still know how to?"

*****
Kurt Jensen is a guest film reviewer for Catholic News Service.



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Jeanne Jugan: 
		<p>Born in northern France during the French Revolution—a time when congregations of women and men religious were being suppressed by the national government, Jeanne would eventually be highly praised in the French academy for her community's compassionate care of elderly poor people.</p>
		<p>When Jeanne was three and a half years old, her father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. Her widowed mother was hard pressed to raise her eight children (four died young) alone. At the age of 15 or 16, Jeanne became a kitchen maid for a family that not only cared for its own members, but also served poor, elderly people nearby. Ten years later, Jeanne became a nurse at the hospital in Le Rosais. Soon thereafter she joined a third order group founded by St. John Eudes (August 19).</p>
		<p>After six years she became a servant and friend of a woman she met through the third order. They prayed, visited the poor and taught catechism to children. After her friend's death, Jeanne and two other women continued a similar life in the city of Saint-Sevran. In 1839, they brought in their first permanent guest. They began an association, received more members and more guests. Mother Marie of the Cross, as Jeanne was now known, founded six more houses for the elderly by the end of 1849, all staffed by members of her association—the Little Sisters of the Poor. By 1853 the association numbered 500 and had houses as far away as England.</p>
		<p>Abbé Le Pailleur, a chaplain, had prevented Jeanne's reelection as superior in 1843; nine year later, he had her assigned to duties within the congregation, but would not allow her to be recognized as its founder. He was removed from office by the Holy See in 1890. </p>
		<p>By the time Pope Leo XIII gave her final approval to the community's constitutions in 1879, there were 2,400 Little Sisters of the Poor. Jeanne died later that same year, on August 30. Her cause was introduced in Rome in 1970, and she was beatified in 1982 and canonized in 2009. </p>
		<p> </p>
American Catholic Blog The people who know God well—the hermits, the prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator. God is never found to be an abusive father or a manipulative mother, but a lover who is more than we dared hope for.

 
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