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Mary Pat Kelly with Martin Scorsese in 1990. The pair formed a friendship while Kelly was in formation to become a nun. Martin Sheerin
“Saint Mary-of-the-Woods,” Martin Scorsese says to me, the words coming spontaneously over the clamor of excited voices discussing his documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. We are at the Tavern on the Green party, following the film’s premiere at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York. It is June 11, 2019.
“You still remember,” I say, “after more than 50 years!”
He nods and smiles. I wonder if the evocative name of the convent where I lived and studied was what inspired him to respond to my letter and begin the correspondence that changed my life.
It was 1966. I was 21, in formation to become a Sister of Providence on the campus of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute, Indiana. Of the 100 members of my high school graduating class at Marywood School for Girls in Evanston, Illinois, 14 of us entered the convent. By 1975, everyone in our group had left.
I was a senior, preparing to teach English and Drama at one of the Order’s high schools, and I loved hanging out in the “green room” of Sister Mary Olive O’Connell, head of the Drama Department.
One fall afternoon, while in the green room, I picked up a reprint of an article from Harper’s Magazine from the coffee table. “The Movies Students Make” discussed the new phenomenon of film schools and the young director, Martin Scorsese, whose student film It’s Not Just You, Murray! had won the 1964 Producers Guild Award.
The photograph showed a handsome, dark-haired young man in profile, framed by a movie camera. It’s impossible to understand now, when video can be shot on a phone, how revolutionary it was for movies to be made outside of Hollywood, and by students—yet someone my own age had just done it.
I had to see this movie. As an English major, I needed a topic for my senior thesis, and thought I could compare this short film to a short story. Would NYU lend the college a print of It’s Not Just You, Murray!“?
But I couldn’t make the request—as a junior sister I could only write one letter a week, to my family, which had to be read by the Superior, approved, stamped and sent out. I went to Sister Mary Denise Sullivan, head of the English department, for help. She’d studied at Oxford and, like Sister Mary Olive, had a wider view of the world—and her own stamps.
The first letter from Martin Scorsese
A few weeks later, a brown fiberglass container arrived with the print and a note from the director. Martin Scorsese wrote that he, too, had considered a religious vocation, had spent his freshman year at the New York Archdiocese High School Seminary, and had planned to enter an Order of Priests after graduation. Instead, he went to NYU and was now pursuing filmmaking with the same sense of mission.
I remember pushing a rather rickety projector into a basement room at LeFer Hall, threading up the film and watching with Sister Marie Denise as Murray appeared on the white wall and introduced himself. Right away we knew we were in the presence of a unique sensibility. When Scorsese’s mother came out of the mist in the final scene, carrying a plate of spaghetti, Sister Marie Denise said to me, “Write to him. This young man’s on his way to becoming a genius.” She gave me paper, envelopes and stamps.
In my letter to Martin Scorsese I explained that I’d like to study his film and compare it to James Joyce’s short story, “Grace.” He answered with a 16-page letter, typed with such energy that the periods went through the paper. He suggested a number of books that could be obtained from the Gotham Book Mart. Sister Camilla, the 80-year-old college librarian, ordered them all.
Our correspondence took off. We discussed books and movies, and he shared his developing ideas on filmmaking. But when he wrote that I must, must go see Hiroshima Mon Amour, I had to explain to him that I couldn’t even go to the third floor of the convent without permission!
Meeting Scorsese and forming a friendship
I received my first teaching assignment at a high school on the west side of Chicago in September 1967. When Scorsese wrote that his first feature would premiere at the Chicago Film Festival in November, I asked my Superior if I could attend. After all, I was studying him and this would be so academically enriching and… “Don’t oversell,” she said. “You can go.”
Out at night and alone—already a kind of adventure—I crossed the Michigan Avenue Bridge in full habit, the freezing wind whipping my veil as I headed for the Playboy Theater.
The movie stunned me—the conflicts of our Catholic upbringing were there on the screen. The audience applauded like crazy, looking around the theater, hoping the director was there. But he wasn’t, and it would be another two years before he could find a commercial distributor for the picture. Roger Ebert, who was present that night, wrote that I Call First, later titled Who’s That Knocking at My Door, was a new classic.
I finally met Martin Scorsese in person in 1970. I had left the convent, worked in the poverty program and traveled through Europe. He had been in Paris, but we’d kept in touch, even when I wasn’t sure of my address. One letter he’d addressed to Providence High School, adding “FORWARD IF NECESSARY.” My family now lived in New York City and Martin Scorsese invited me to a movie.
We saw Popi together at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village. He looked exactly like his photograph, though his hair was shoulder length. He wore a starched white shirt and tailored jeans.
Afterwards we went to a café for espresso. Scorsese—or Marty, as I now called him—told me if I was really interested in film I should go to NYU and enroll in Hank Manoogian’s famous Sight and Sound course. I did—and began my career as a filmmaker, author and academic.
I worked professionally with Scorsese once, as a consultant during Paramount Pictures’ effort to make The Last Temptation of Christ in 1983. The cancellation of that project inspired me to start the interviews that became the book Martin Scorsese: A Journey, a 1990 oral history that is now in a new edition.
Because Marty and I have birthdays just two years and one day apart, over the years we have always exchanged greetings and gifts, which keeps the bonds of friendship strong.
I recently returned to St. Mary-of-the-Woods to launch the book on a bright blue October day, the trees alive with crimson and gold. The college is thriving. The President of the College, Dottie L. King, often uses the story of my reaching out to Martin Scorsese with the support of my teachers as an example for students to, as the college motto puts it, “aspire higher.”
In the message Scorsese sent to the college on the occasion of the launch, he wrote that our correspondence all those years ago “led to a connection that endures to this day.” Recently, we agreed that looking back at our lives, we are ever more grateful to our parents.
When Marty’s parents passed, I attended both funerals, but when my mother died during Covid we could have no service for her. However, Marty arranged for a Mass to be said in her honor at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York City, on the first anniversary of her death, October 22, 2021. As I followed the familiar ritual in the beautiful church, so central to Marty’s life and so important in his movies, I felt immense gratitude for the way our lives have been intertwined.
Mary Pat Kelly is a film-maker and author. The new edition of her book, Martin Scorsese: A Journey, is out now.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.