Father Hamilton reflects on life of Catholic convert

Hollywood star, 'The Blonde Bombshell,' lived at St. Anthony's


WARWICK - Father James J. Hamilton, pastor emeritus of St. Timothy Church, remembers the late Hollywood actress Betty Hutton as a faith-filled woman who struggled all of her life to overcome many obstacles.

Hutton recently died at age 86 in Palms Springs, Calif. No date or cause of death was given. The Associated Press reported March 13 that a friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the entertainer's death.

Known as "The Blonde Bombshell," the late actress made headlines in 1974 when she moved into the rectory of St. Anthony Church, Portsmouth, where Father Hamilton was serving as assistant pastor.

While published reports vary about how the once-popular movie star came to Rhode Island, the priest said that Hutton, who suffered from long-term substance abuse, befriended the parish housekeeper, who was receiving help for alcoholism at a Massachusetts treatment facility.

Father Hamilton recalled that Hutton checked into the medical center after performing in a Framingham, Mass., dinner theater. The actress continued her recovery at St. Anthony's, where she was counseled by the pastor, the late Father Peter J. Maguire, who was well-known for his work with people recovering from addictions.

During her stay at the Portsmouth parish, Hutton helped with housekeeping chores, and inspired by her new surroundings and friends, decided to convert to Catholicism.

"She was a very real person," Father Hamilton remembers. "What you saw was what you got.."

The priest remembers Hutton initially was somewhat skeptical of her new friends, but later came to often say "that this was the first time she had met people who didn't want something from her."

He added that Hutton often told him that "in Hollywood, they chew you up and spit you out."

The actress, who starred in many of Hollywood's top film comedies and musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, was quoted in a 1974 interview that becoming a Catholic was one of the high points of her life.

"Nothing has brought me true happiness until I discovered Catholicism," she said.

Father Hamilton instructed Hutton for the sacraments of baptism and first communion.

"She was very sharp, very intelligent, very faithful," Father Hamilton recalled, adding that Hutton became a daily communicant at the former parish chapel in Island Park, and often addressed local parish and civic groups, offering her inspirational story of recovery and conversion. She never drove, and depended on rectory staff and her parish friends for transportation.

In late spring of 1974, Father Hamilton and Father Maquire accompanied Hutton and several parishioners to New York City to attend a celebrity benefit for the actress, staged by many of her Hollywood friends, including Henny Youngman. Hutton agreed to attend on the condition she would not perform, and donated the proceeds to the Portsmouth parish.

Father Hamilton said at the time, the actress was estranged from her three daughters, with whom the priest spoke via telephone on numerous occasions.

"For them, she was an embarrassment," the priest said, adding that Hutton tried desperately over the years to rebuild a relationship with her children.

Two of Father Hamilton's fondest remembrances of the film star are of her cooking her specialty roast lamb for the priests, and helping the actress to wash the supper dishes.

"We used to sing a duet together of 'What (Anything) You Can Do, I Can Do Better,'" he laughed.

The priest said that once she had regained her life, Hutton moved into an apartment on Aquidneck Island. She later worked as a celebrity greeter at Newport J'ai L'ai.

While she had many offers to return to the screen after her recovery, she accepted only one guest role on the Robert Blake crime drama "Baretta" in 1977.

Hutton also enjoyed a brief Broadway revival in 1980, appearing for three weeks in a replacement stint in the musical "Annie."

With Father Maguire's guidance, Hutton enrolled at Salve Regina College [now University] in Newport, where she was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1984. The actress was given credit for life experience and earned a master's degree in liberal studies in 1986.

She served as an artist-in-residence in the college's theater department from January to June, 1986, before accepting a teaching position at Emerson College, Boston.

Hutton later returned to California, where she lived in obscurity in Palm Springs until her death.

(This article originally appeared in The Providence Journal)