TOLEDO—A community of cloistered nuns gave a Catholic production company rare access inside their Toledo monastery to shoot scenes for an upcoming movie that features one of their own.
The movie, “Leonie!” tells the life story of Leonie Martin, an older sister of St. Therese of Lisieux, who overcame numerous struggles to become a Visitation nun.
In August, a cast and crew from the Archdiocese of Detroit spent more than three weeks filming behind the secluded walls of the Monastery of the Visitation in Toledo, which was used as the set for the Visitation Monastery in Caen, France, where Leonie spent much of her life.
“It’s such a privilege to be here in a cloister,” said Mary Rose Maher, 17, the actress playing Leonie. “You always see through the grille, you always wonder what it’s like inside, and here we are inside, all over the place filming.”
The groundwork for the unusual arrangement was laid three years ago when Barbara Middleton, a member of SS. Cyril & Methodius in Sterling Heights, Mich., first visited the Toledo monastery to discuss her idea for a documentary on Leonie Martin with the mother superior at that time, Visitation Sister Sharon Elizabeth Gworek.
Mrs. Middleton, the executive producer of “Leonie!” and founder of Holy Trinity Productions, LLC, the company behind the movie, said she had read a biography of this “forgotten sister” of St. Therese and wanted to share her story with others.
Leonie was born June 3, 1863, the third of five girls in the Martin family. As a child, she struggled with poor physical health, learning disabilities and outbursts of anger, and Mrs. Middleton noted many parents with difficult children pray for Leonie’s intercession today.
After three failed attempts at entering religious life, Leonie was able to profess her final vows as a Sister of the Visitation in 1900. She lived in the cloistered community until her death at age 78.
Mrs. Middleton’s project gradually evolved from a documentary to a feature film involving a cast and crew of more than 100 volunteers, and her initial request for three days in the monastery turned into three and a half weeks.
“Just that they allowed us in here like this is unbelievable,” said Mrs. Middleton. “It’s truly breathtaking back here … it puts you in the presence of God.”
The nuns generally avoided areas of the monastery where filming was taking place, but Visitation Sister Mary Bernard Grote, the mother superior, was on hand each day to assist the cast and crew.
She took on tasks such as finding props, suggesting locations for scenes and helping the actresses adjust their habits, which they borrowed from the sisters.
“She’s our co-director, I’m her assistant,” joked Joe Maher, the director, while sitting beside the mother superior.
“Not really,” piped up Sr. Grote. “But when I see things that I don’t think would be right and would happen in the 1800s, I get up on my perch and I tell Joe.”
Mr. Maher, a member of Assumpution Grotto in Detroit, called “Leonie!” a “phenomenal opportunity” for the world to see inside one of the most fascinating religious communities in the world.
“I think that this film will be the first film that really shows the life inside a religious monastery,” said Mr. Maher.
Scenes for “Leonie!” were also shot at four sites in Michigan, including a Carmelite monastery, and all filming was to be completed by the end of September.
Mr. Maher said the movie is due to be released in theaters next summer, hopefully in June to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Visitation Order.
Sr. Grote said all of the sisters in the community would be able view the movie. “We’re looking forward to it,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it, because he’s shooting scenes in all different sequence, you know — I’m waiting to see the whole thing, one after another.”
Though members of her community are well acquainted with Leonie Martin, Sr. Grote said she believes many people are unaware of her existence.
“So I think this is good that they get to know Leonie, too,” she said.
Sr. Grote added she is happy Bishop Leonard P. Blair gave the sisters permission to allow the filmmakers into the monastery.
“I said to Barbara yesterday, I’m very happy to be a part of this and I’m glad we could do it, but I don’t think I would ever do it again,” she added with a chuckle. “Because it’s a little disruptive to your cloistered life, but I think it’s for a very good cause, and hopefully God will be pleased with it.”