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The Bells of St. Mary’s

Content Caution

The Bells of St Marys


In Theaters


Home Release Date




Bob Hoose

Movie Review

Father Chuck O’Malley has recently been reassigned to St. Mary’s parish. It’s a smallish church that also includes a somewhat run-down inner-city school that’s on the verge of being condemned. In fact, that school’s condition is a large part of why the unconventional priest has been sent here with a lopsided grin on his face and a single bag in hand.

I mean, he’s not necessarily the best preacher in the world. Nor the best voice on the latest educational practices. But O’Malley is perhaps the best people-person the diocese has on its bench. When he smiles and winks, listens carefully and maybe sings a song or two, people tend to take a deep breath, relax their shoulders and set their worries aside. For a short while, at least.

And that’s exactly what this situation calls for. O’Malley has to decide whether or not to shut down this beleaguered church and its school, then shuffle everyone over to the nearby St. Victor’s. And that decision is no easy feat, let me tell ya’.  

First of all, there’s Head Sister Mary Benedict to contend with. She’s passionate and sincere, as devoted a nun as you’ll ever meet. Devoted to God first and the school’s children a close second.

Sister Benedict won’t even consider closing the school and abandoning its needy occupants. In fact, she has been leading her fellow nuns in fervent prayer that God’s hand would reveal a miracle. You see, there’s a brand-new office building being erected in the lot next to the church. And Sister Benedict is convinced that its owner—a grumpy, cigar chewing businessman named Horace P. Bogardus—will hear the Lord’s call to donate the structure for a new school building.

Father O’Malley recognizes that outcome would be a miracle indeed. And in fact, Bogardus is the other person O’Malley was called in to connect with. As soon as they first meet, the overworked and overstressed older man makes it clear that one way or the other he is going to get his hands on the church property and make a badly needed parking lot out of it.

The church will either sell, Bogardus declares, or the city council will have the school condemned. And then he’ll get it anyway. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes, Bogardus just happens to be the chairman of said city council.

Yes indeedy, Father Chuck O’Malley has his work cut out for him. But you know what? Just like the good Sister Benedict, Chuck O’Malley has found himself in many a life situation that required the grace and help of the Man upstairs.

And if God can use a guy named O’Malley, and put a song in his heart, well, you can bet He can do anything.

Positive Elements

On the surface, it might appear that Father O’Malley is just cruising casually through life. But in reality, he repeatedly reaches out to connect with and help those around him.

For instance, when a single mom whose husband abandoned her (and her daughter) years before approaches Father O’Malley, he quickly moves to support her, eventually helping to restore the marriage and family. He also finds room in the school for the woman’s daughter, Patsy, and he makes sure the girl’s needs are met.

And though O’Malley and Sister Benedict sometimes appear to be at odds when it comes to making big decisions about the school’s future, they are actually cut from the same loving cloth. We see how Sister Benedict strives to help children and repeatedly puts her faith into action.

A classroom of children earnestly pledges allegiance to the flag and nation.

Sometimes O’Malley sets some positive things in motion by simply giving someone else the responsibility to follow through on their own desires. For instance …

Spiritual Elements

… when Bogardus pushes O’Malley hard about selling the church property, O’Malley simply tells Bogardus that if the sisters agree to the sale, then he will as well. He also tells the sisters that they should personally speak with Bogardus about their prayers and faith-fueled desires. With this small move, he deftly ensures that both parties will approach one another with kindness and gentleness, even though they want completely different outcomes.

Prayer is without question held up as a powerful connection to the will of God. And we see that evidenced repeatedly through Sister Benedict. For instance, the fervently praying sister tells Bodargus, “Sometimes we don’t know why we do things. You didn’t know why you built this building. … You built it in answer to our prayers.” Elsewhere, she adds, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

In fact, one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the movie is when a prayer is answered; Sister Benedict rejoices exuberantly, but silently, over the answer that God has delivered.

Bogardus is obviously not on board with the prayer side of things, but slowly we see his changing attitude and positive choices as well.

On the other side of the equation, some bad things happen, too. And we see people of faith approach those discouraging setbacks with an earnest and sincere acceptance of the fact that God knows far better than they. For instance, Sister Benedict responds to bad news at one point by saying, “Sometimes we must do things that aren’t easy. No matter how much they hurt us, we have to do what’s right.” She also prays for God’s help in doing so: “Dear Lord, remove all bitterness from my heart. Help me to see thy holy will in all things,” the saddened sister prays.

A young girl states that she wants to run off to become a nun when something bad happens in her life. And Sister Benedict corrects her: “You don’t become a nun to run away from life,” she tells the girl. “It’s not because you lost something. It’s because you found something!”

Father O’Malley reads the Bible. He sings hymns. A group of first graders performs its own sweet play about Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem and Jesus’ subsequent birth there.

One small manipulation by Father O’Malley needs to be pointed out here. Horace Bogardus is not in good health. He has a bad heart and can’t sleep. And Father O’Malley tells the man’s doctor a story about a man who found out that he only had six months to live. And with that news the man looked for ways to do good by those around him. In turn, he found joy, better health, and lived till he was 90.

While we don’t directly witness what the doctor does with that tale, soon after Bogardus becomes increasingly concerned with what he might leave behind in his brief life. And O’Malley’s actions may then raise a question for viewers: Was it God or O’Malley who pushed Bogardus in a better, more giving direction?

At one point, Sister Benedict tells a lie to someone out of kindness. She quickly glances toward heaven with a pained expression on her face, as if apologizing for her actions.

Sexual Content

As mentioned above, Mrs. Gallagher approaches Father O’Malley about taking her daughter into the school. Nothing is ever said outright, but it’s implied that the woman has had to resort to things she’s embarrassed about to make enough money to care for the girl. Now that she’s older, Mrs. Gallagher worries that her daughter will find out that she’s “no good.” O’Malley quickly understands, without judgement, and agrees to help if he can.

While helping out the young girl, Patsy, O’Malley wipes garish makeup off her face. In a way, that act symbolically returns the girl to her more innocent state. After that, Patsy sees her mom kiss a strange man, and she grows angry and depressed in response.

[Spoiler Warning] But Patsy eventually learns that the man is really her father, who has returned home. The movie uses this as a symbol of the family renewal that can come from forgiveness and a new beginning.

Violent Content

Two boys get into a fight, and the smaller one is bloodied and bruised. After some coaching, that boy feels more confident and is able to give as good as he gets in a second fight. The boys shake hands after that and declare they’ll be friends.

During some sparring practice, however, Sister Benedict gets socked in the jaw and has to sit down to steady herself. While crossing a street, Bogardus tumbles over in front of a truck as it screeches to a stop. But he gets up unharmed.

Crude or Profane Language


Drug and Alcohol Content

Bogardus smokes a cigar.

Other Negative Elements

Someone finds out they’re suffering from the beginning stages of tuberculosis.


About 1943 or so, singer and actor Bing Crosby was offered the role of Father Chuck O’Malley. And he was, frankly, reluctant to take it. The star, who normally sang and soft-shoed his way through his many popular movie roles, feared no one could possibly believe him in the role of a Catholic priest!

But by the end of 1944, not only was the subsequent Leo McCarey-directed film, Going My Way, the top grossing film of the year, but Crosby won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his efforts.

He returns with that affable priest-next-door character in Bells of St. Mary. And this pic, also directed by McCarey, is arguably an even better movie than the first one. Actress Ingrid Bergman, playing Sister Mary Benedict, is a big part of the reason why.

Bergman and Crosby play a perfect point-counterpoint pair dressed in a traditional black habit and a priest-collared suit, respectively. Their very different acting styles—hers, classic Hollywood; his, classic, well, Crosby—are as appealing and inviting as a comfy sweater. Bergman’s gently shifting facial expressions speak volumes, even when her character isn’t saying a word.

The film itself is hopeful and uplifting. It suggests that prayer and faith are powerful, that miracles can happen, and that people only need a bit of help and understanding to make it through the tough patches of life.

As far as content is concerned, there’s not much to duck away from here. That said, a couple school kids do get into some ducking and weaving, while blooding each other’s noses. There’s an unspoken implication that a deserted and desperate single mom had to stoop to questionable means to support her daughter. And Father O’Malley doles out a light dose of kiss-the-Blarney-Stone manipulation.

Apart from those admittedly minuscule concerns from a 2023 perspective, this 1945 classic has a sweet story to tell, set in a day when faith was essential and kindness was a gift as welcome as a smiling wink and a song.

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Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.