Movie: Change of Habit (1969)

A Christmas tradition for me and my kids is the gift of laze…. We do nothing all Christmas day except enjoy our gifts and watch movies.This Christmas is just like the ones which came before.Amanda and I started with watching a movie on cable.It was called Change of Habit and was released in 1969.

IMDB : Change of Habit

“Michelle Gallagher, Irene Hawkins and Barbara Bennett are three nuns on the verge of taking their final vows and just before they do, they are sent into a particularly rough neighborhood to see if they are ready to take that step. However, they must do so by pretending to be lay missionaries sent to work at an inner city clinic for a young doctor by the name of John Carpenter. The three nuns go about their duties without a hitch until Michelle begins to fall for John. Now Michelle must choose between her love for the young doctor or her life as a nun.

Spoiler Alert – I am going to speak at length about this movie and will be discussing all of its content. If you are planning a movie marathon and including Elvis and this particular movie, I would suggest you not read this first unless you want to know how the movie ends….

Ok, reading the above synopsis, I realize that there are so many things that have been omitted. There are so many things in this movie which are ironically relevant to the temperature of our current culture and society.

We are introduced to three nuns who are out of their habits and who are given jobs with a local doctor in a covert way to infuse goodness in a downtrodden community. No one is aware they are nuns. It is believed they are missionaries. The community is a Latino community with (as the black nun called herself) “negroes”. It is a community plagued with crime and corruption.

As they make their way into their new apartment, the nuns are confronted by the nosy next door neighbor who talks loudly about how she KNOWS what kind of women these are moving into her building and that she is calling the local priest, Father Gibbons. And she was going to tell him that one of the women was “as black as the ace of spades”. Wow. I heard that and thought of how socially conscious we are in today’s day and time when discussing the topic of race. Yet in this movie (set and made during our biggest time of social unrest – well, the biggest until now) it is referenced on many levels in very blunt dialogue. In one scene a little girl tells a Mother Superior, “I don’t want to be another nigger on the street.” It made me jump a little. That word has always been one that makes my ears hurt. Then to hear it said like that, so unexpectedly, by a little white girl – well, it was unsettling in the least. Sister Irene Hawkins (played by Barbara McNair) is a nun who grew up in a similar community. She is approached by two men that we can only assume are in a movement to help “show the man in power the new black power”. When they ask her which “side are you on”, she tells them it should be obvious as she is a negro. They then inform her they are now called “black” and go on to tell her she is more or less beholden to the white people around her and more or less not black but just “dipped in maple syrup”. So, not only is there racial conflict between black and white but there is also conflict within the black community itself.

On their first day working for the doctor, Sister Michelle (played by Mary Tyler Moore) helps Dr Elvis….sorry, I mean Dr. John Carpenter (played by Elvis Presley and from what I can find, this was his last film) clean up the injury of a street urchin. She notices that the patient does not flinch while being treated for a serious injury. When she mentions it to the good doctor, he replies that the kid is on “the stuff” then proceeds to pull up the kids sleeve to show track marks. The track marks looked like a TB test (ok, this movie was made in 1969, I know they were limited on the graphics…). He then goes on to tell her the kid is hooked on “H”. Heroin referred to as H. And it being “the stuff”. I just watched a documentary on “H” and even today it still prevails as a cheap narcotic that is of epidemic proportions in many areas of the nation.

We are also introduced to Amanda, a little girl whose Aunt (and caretaker) believes to be deaf. She has never muttered a word since her mother dumped her and left her a few years earlier. However, she was heard to whistle. Whistle? How can one whistle unless they have HEARD whistling before? She is finally diagnosed with Autism. It is said that this is a disease that plagues young children that are tossed aside, neglected or have not received love – which erroneously makes it sound that only orphans or abused kids are capable of being Autistic. Dr. Carpenter “treats” Amanda by holding her until she gets all of the “rage” out of her system. The hours of treatment go on and on and he and Sister Michelle keep repeating how they love the girl over and over again. AMAZINGLY the girl is healed and she can now talk and listens and appears to be whole. (the one aspect of the movie that irritated me yet it was set in 1969 and I am sure that there were a lot of aspects of Autism that were not understood or recognized at that time).

There are financial struggles throughout the movie. Sister Barbara Bennett (played by Jane Elliott) sees a white store owner overcharge a Spanish woman who spoke broken English. We also meet The Banker (played by Robert Emhardt). He is the local loan shark who has the impoverished residents in his greedy grasp. He is responsible for a number of injuries that find their way into Dr. Carpenter’s office. The store owner is confronted by a picketing Sister Bennett (which provides little in the way of movement to justice) and The Banker is confronted by Sister Hawkins during a festival put together by the nuns for the Latin community.

In the midst of all of this social unrest, we realize that the church is unyielding and will not allow the nuns the ability to continue their services which appear to be working. The church forces them back into their habits. This does not stop them – even Sister Michelle who has since realized she has feelings for Dr. Carpenter though she does not act on the feelings. The three nuns return to the community in full habit. As the people around them realize “what” they are, they take their religious identification and uses it to their advantage. They call down The Banker, the stand up to the Market Owner, they bring together a community in a cohesive manner. It all makes for a great crescendo – we are ready for the happily ever after. However, that would not come to light. Mother Superior (played by Leora Dana) pays the community a visit and frowns upon the unconventional methods of the nuns and tells them to come back to the Convent, their time is up. Only two return, Sister Michelle and Sister Hawkins. Sister Bennett, now just Jane, decides that the conformity of the Convent will not allow her to grow and express herself in a way that makes sense to her. She leaves the Order to continue her help with the community and her Political Action Committee.

Dr Carpenter pursues Sister Michelle to the convent to tell her that even though it may be a sin, he loves her and wants to marry her. She responds by explaining that in marriage you can only serve one whereas when you are a nun you can serve the masses. And she could not see how, through marriage, she would be able to reach all of the people she wants to help. In the end, after much pining away by Sister Michelle, we see her return to the church in the community which is now teeming with a full congregation and being sung to by Elvis Presley. The credits roll, fade to black. I am left with a number of questions – Does she leave the Order? Do they get married? Does he become a priest and realize that all of his black suits come in handy?

This movie was one that touched upon:

· Race and the war for equality

· Financial strife and being at the mercy of The Banker

· Drugs and the effects of addiction on a community

· Young people in conflict

· The unwillingness of the Church to consider ideas outside of their own rigors which may be beneficial to the community at large

· The lack of knowledge and workings of medical conditions

After exactly forty years you would think that the challenges we face would have changed or taken different paths. To watch this movie and to realize how (even through some cheesy acting) many of the themes run parallel to what we see on the local news – it was kind of eye opening and a little disappointing. And I am left wondering – will things ever change?

One of the final statements is given by the yenta from next door. She is sitting among a thriving congregation with Elvis singing a hymn and she looks to her partner in crime and says, “Give me the old days when you could go to Mass and not think about a blessed thing.”

Watch the movie if you get a chance, let me know what you think.



  1. Sister Michelle would never leave the convent. If she was going to, she would have stayed w/Sister Bennet. She smiles because she knows he is reaching out to the sisters, like they reached out to her. I think they stay platonic friends. As a man who left his abbey as a novice, I can tell you the anguish and tears of Sister bennet expresses as she tells Michele she’s leaving are very true to life. There are very few words to describe the grief, even if it’s your own idea.

  2. I have sen this movie more times than I can count. I keep watching it hoping to notice something in the end that I missed the numerous times that I watched it before. Does Siste Michele leave the order for the Doctor.

    At first when you see the smile on her face as the movie draws to a close when she looks at the good Doctor, it seems certain her mind and heart have made the decision to love the Doctor and leave the order. Then confusion once again plagues her facial expressions, leaving me frustrated and wanting shake the charachters and say, “Come on! Give us a happy ending!”

    So, I tell myself that of course it had a happy ending to. After all, I did get a favorite song out of it!

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