Sister Gregory Duffy: An Asset to the Abbey and the Theater

Within our nearly 600 archival collections in the Music Division lie not only scores, sketches, correspondence and iconography, but countless untold stories. Being able to piece together these stories and uncover a stranger’s personality and contribution to our cultural history is one of the greatest joys I get to experience working here. A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine showed me some letters written by Sister Gregory of Rosary College found in the Oscar Hammerstein II Collection. Sr. Gregory served as an advisor on religious life to the creators of the 1959 musical The Sound of Music. I’ve always been fascinated by those who enter religious life, so I gladly perused the letters. What I didn’t anticipate was how Sister Gregory’s correspondence would truly touch me and even bring me to like a song I had never come to appreciate before.

Sister Gregory Duffy backstage at Rosary College’s theater, taken by Warncke’s Studio, 1972. Dominican University, Archives and Special Collections.

Sister Gregory (1912-1995) was a Dominican nun and theater professor at Rosary College in Illinois (now Dominican University). Every summer Sr. Gregory would travel to New York City to go to the theater and she developed personal relationships with several famous actors, including Mary Martin with whom she connected after seeing South Pacific in 1949. A decade later, when Rodgers and Hammerstein teamed up with writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, as well as Mary Martin and producer Richard Halliday (also Martin’s husband) for a new project about the Trapp Family Singers, Sr. Gregory was contacted to provide an inside perspective on religious life for the musical’s convent scenes.

Sister Gregory Duffy and Mary Martin, 1977. Dominican University, Archives and Special Collections.

Numerous sources have identified Sr. Gregory as a technical advisor to the creators of The Sound of Music, though many of them mention her only in passing. Her correspondence begins in early 1958 after she’s first contacted by Halliday and Martin about a project based on the Trapp story. She’s enthusiastic from the very mention of it and immediately begins offering an inside perspective on what draws women to the religious life, the numerous opportunities postulants and novices have to evaluate their decision to enter the convent, and what motivates the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. She even delves into the philosophical heart of the Trapp story when she writes, “The whole purpose of life, it seems to me, is pin-pointed in Maria’s struggle to choose between two vocations. Like every adult human being, she must find the answer to the question: ‘What does God want me to do with my life? How does He wish me to spend my love?’” This question apparently had an impact on the creative team, as Sr. Gregory’s phrasing is incorporated into Scene 13 of the published script when Maria returns to the abbey after her feelings for Captain Von Trapp complicate her life plans. Mother Abbess comforts Maria and assures her that, “…you have a great capacity to love. What you must find out is – how does God want you to spend your love?”

Sr. Gregory drew this for Hammerstein and mailed it to him on September 25, 1959 just after his surgery. Hammerstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

There are about 15 pieces of correspondence from Sr. Gregory in the Hammerstein Collection spanning from early 1958 to late 1959. The letters are mostly addressed to Richard Halliday and Mary Martin and were then forwarded to Hammerstein; however, in late 1959 Sr. Gregory started addressing Hammerstein directly, eventually offering him spiritual guidance as he faced stomach cancer. The better part of Sr. Gregory’s correspondence, however, critiques the first draft of the script for the musical where reflections of Catholic traditions and interactions of the religious could be made more authentic. A copy of Halliday’s typed notes from a phone conversation with Sr. Gregory on August 4, 1959 marks a change in her critique though – nowhere in the conversation is religious life even discussed; instead, Sr. Gregory expresses concern over the portrayal of Captain Von Trapp. In her own words, “As the script is now, the Captain is cold… The only scene where I think he is even likeable is the last scene – after they’re married. It’s unbelievable that anyone could change so quickly…As a woman, I’d much rather get my hands on Max!” Here is where the professor of drama emerges, and she cannot help but step outside the role of technical advisor of Catholic matters and assert her critique of character development.

There is a break in the correspondence until September 1959, when Rodgers and Hammerstein’s new music is mailed to Sr. Gregory (two months before opening night). She reports that, upon receiving the music, she immediately gathered around a piano with eight other nuns to sing through all of the songs. She effuses over the music and comments, “After a few practice rounds, that ALLELUIA really orbited and soared all over the place…Without question, your professionals will do a better job on the music, but I assure you they will not have nearly as much fun.” Most poignant is Sr. Gregory’s reaction to hearing “Climb Every Mountain” for the first time. She writes, “It’s a beautiful song and drove me to the Chapel…It made me acutely aware of how tremendously fortunate are those who find the dream that will absorb all their love, and finding it, embrace it to the end…So I just had to dash into Chapel, give Him a quick but heart-felt ‘thank you’ and ask that all the youngsters I love so devotedly not only find their dreams but also have the courage to follow them – wherever they lead.”

Now, in all my years watching the 1965 film, I never really came to love “Climb Every Mountain” – I suppose I always found it a little too cheesy with reaching for your dreams, following rainbows, and championing mountains all crammed into one song. However, in reading Sr. Gregory’s thoughts on the universal struggle to find one’s purpose in life, and in witnessing how her early observations and thoughts later fed into Hammerstein’s lyrical development of the song, I all of sudden find the music genuinely moving. The lyrics evolve from an inner dialogue that most every individual navigates at some point or another when considering how we fit into this remarkable universe. Life is about determining our great passion and giving 100% to that passion. It’s a simple concept, but one that resonates with any individual, no matter which rainbow you follow.

17 Comments

  1. Sharon M.
    April 16, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Great post. What a wonderful person she was! I really like knowing that the creators of the show (one of my favorites, but it’s My Favorite Things I never believed, not Climb Ev’ry Mountain) went to the appropriate source for guidance.

  2. Dennis Pauly
    April 16, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I had the good fortune of meeeting with her on several occasions while I attended Rosary College for Library Science. She was always gracious and was quite genuine. When the Hallidays lived in Brazil she visited them and when Mary was starring in a play in Chicago’s Loop, she visited Sr. Gregory at the Dominican Villa in Dubuque, Ia.

  3. Amy Asch
    April 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    I read (and greatly enjoyed) Sister Gregory’s letters in the Hammerstein collection when I was working on The Complete Lyrics. Such a lovely person. I believe she mentioned taking a class at Columbia University one summer. I’ve forgotten whether it was a drama class or a poetry class, but she told Hammerstein that she’d written a big paper about his lyrics. Someday I really want to track that down.

  4. Nigel Simeone
    April 16, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    Thanks for a fascinating and delightful post. I remember thinking what a remarkable person Sister Gregory was when I looked through some of her correspondence in the Library, and this article is a splendid reminder of someone I’d love to have met.

  5. Marilyn
    April 17, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Interesting… I wonder why they had Maria say a distinctly Protestant prayer at the dinner table: – “for what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful” – whereas Catholics say, “Bless us, o Lord, and these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from Thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord. Amen”

  6. Cait Miller
    April 17, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    I’m so glad to see that others are as interested in Sr. Gregory’s story as I am! Marilyn: The prayer you mentioned does not appear in the script for the original stage musical; the dinner table scene was added to the 1965 film. Since the materials in the Hammerstein Collection relate to the 1959 show, I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer to your question. You raise a good point, however!

  7. Cait Miller
    April 17, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Amy: Yes, Sr. Gregory wrote a letter to Halliday and Martin where she described herself as a “minor league expert on Hammerstein lyrics,” explaining how she took a seminar in Contemporary Poetry at Columbia University during the summer of 1958 and wrote a paper about the poetic imagery of Christopher Fry and Oscar Hammerstein. If I ever track down where that paper is, I’ll be sure to let you know!

  8. Janet J
    April 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Cait, what a wonderful piece. I envy you for being able to work with all of these wonderful works. Please include me in the mailings of your blog. I would like to hear more of what you think and what you uncover at the LOC.

  9. Rusty Cutchin
    April 23, 2012 at 12:33 am

    Cait,

    I second Janet J’s comments. Kudos for sharing your epiphany with us, though I found it a bit depressing at first.

    Your original impression of “Climb Every Mountain” is the same one I had growing up, though I loved “The Sound of Music” as a child. As a musician (now a magazine and book editor) developing my skills in the rock era, I couldn’t help but find Hammerstein’s most inspirational lyrics saccharine and dated.

    What a pity for me! And what a sad commentary on the state of music education in America. When you consider how dominant and important R&H’s works were to my parent’s generation (your grandparents’, I suspect) and how important Oscar was to 20th century music history, it’s galling to think most of us didn’t grow up with at least academic recognition of his work, if not emotional attraction.

    I was at the LOC in 2010 working with the Gershwin collection as editor of “Porgy and Bess: A 75th Anniversary Celebration.” To see and study the memorabilia of these composers and lyricists is to appreciate their music in totally new and enriching ways. Thanks for telling us your own experience from the inside.

    Hopefully, a significant number of people will keep appreciating these important works before they’re marginalized any further by the unforgiving advance of pop culture.

  10. Terri Cahill Mehl
    February 23, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    I am so glad I ran across this article. Sr. Greg was my professor and counselor all those years ago at Rosary now Dominican University. She effused her love of the theatre and her passionate faith with never a question about the two could meld to celebrate life and art. She was such an inspiration that my noe 35 year old son is named Gavin Gregory. She was thrilled when I told her and I am such a better person for having her as a teacher.

  11. Cait Miller
    February 25, 2013 at 8:37 am

    I’m so glad you came across this blog post too, Terri! Be sure to take a look at the post I republished last month — we’ve digitized Sr. Gregory’s correspondence found in the Hammerstein Collection and you can link to each letter at the bottom of the post at //blogs.loc.gov/music/2013/01/sister-gregory-duffy-an-asset-to-the-abbey-and-the-theater-2/

    Enjoy!

  12. Jeff K
    May 28, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    I have worked at Dominican University for the past six years and Sr. Gregory (almost always referred to as ‘Greg’ by her fellow sisters) remains a legend. Thank you for these new insights into her collaboration on “The Sound of Music.” We are aware that her deep friendship with Mary Martin led to other consulting work on Broadway — and in Hollywood. I am trying to get to the evidence of two other Sr. Gregory tales: that she advised (1) Tennessee Williams on “Night of the Iguana” and (2) director John Huston (on perhaps the film of the same play?). If you run across anything, please let me know…

  13. Jenny L
    December 6, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    I took care of Sr. Gregory when she became ill and retired to St. Dominic Villa Dubuque Iowa. What a fine person and a privilege to take care of her during her illness.

  14. Scott D.
    December 7, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    I had the very good fortune to not only take several classes with Sister Greg, but also to have her dear friend Mary Martin speak at our graduation ceremonies in 1977. Sister Greg was a true force of nature, an educator who had the magical ability to touch her students with both her incredible knowledge base and her delightful stories. Her classes were not to be missed. She could also do a mean impersonation of Ethel Merman singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

  15. Cait Miller
    December 9, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Thanks for your comments, Jenny and Scott! Be sure to see the January 2013 reprint of this blog post where we included links to Sr. Gregory’s digitized letters (link below). Enjoy!

    //blogs.loc.gov/music/2013/01/sister-gregory-duffy-an-asset-to-the-abbey-and-the-theater-2/?loclr=blogmus

  16. chuck linker
    July 29, 2016 at 3:01 am

    Great piece of little known theatre history.

    Dear friend of mine, theatre student at Rosary, said Florence Henderson visited the school when touring “SOM”, while playing months in Chicago.

    Read “The Making of the Sound of Music”.
    go to amazon.com to purchase

  17. Travis Michael Holder
    November 8, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    Sister Greg directed me as Barnaby in THE MATCHMAKER in 1963 or 64 when I was 15 or 16. Rosary College would hire its male actors to augment the cast and the production was an amazing experience. I adored Sister Greg and she put up with a little Jewish kid from Elmhurst who had never before been in the presence of a nun — let alone a nun as wonderfully eccentric as she was. My memories of her include her lifting her habit to skip down the halls of the school during rehearsals — and grabbing a brandy glass to hold like a torch singer at the cast party, leaning on the piano and delivering a torchy, Dietrich-style rendition of “St James Infirmary.” She was one of a kind and she taught this little wide-eyed kid (still an actor and professor of drama in LA at age 71) a lesson in tolerance and acceptance I have never ever forgotten and strive daily to pass on to my students.

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