Catholic schools are the perfect setting for a film. There are preset costumes with uniforms and habits, clear hierarchies and social orders—not to mention characters at the ripe spot in their lives, ready to come of age. James Joyce, the godfather of Catholic school storytelling, said of his writing “that in the particular is contained the universal.” Through the specificity of their storytelling, the movies compiled on this list capture the Catholic school experience and convey universal truths about our faith and the world around us. Some are serious and some are silly—some theologically sound and others, well, not so much.
I have spent just about my entire life in Catholic schools. Starting with the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, ‘10, in suburban New Jersey, moving to Saint Peter’s Prep, ‘14, in downtown Jersey City, and then off to California for college at Santa Clara University, ‘18. From clip-on ties to navy blue socks, crucifixes over blackboards, First Friday Mass and the May Crowning—every phase of my educational experience has been linked directly to the faith I was brought up in.
This year, the tables have turned. For the first time I find myself at the front of the class, beginning a career in Catholic education as an art teacher at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. As I spent the summer preparing for this new role, new career—new vocation—I looked to the movies for inspiration. I turned to my former colleagues at America Media to help me compile a definitive list of the greatest Catholic School movies of all time.
One thing that we began to notice was the way these films contributed to and challenged the stereotypes we hold about men and women in religious life. To keep track, I developed a new version of the Bechdel test known as the Sister Regina Meehan Test. It is affectionately named after my beloved longtime gin rummy partner and first grade teacher. To pass the Sister Regina Meehan test the movie must include a man or woman religious who talks about something unrelated to dogma, rules, religion or guilt. Simply put, it must present religious life as something more complicated and human than just a simple caricature.
10. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
[NOT “RUDY”—“RUDY” IS NOT ON THIS LIST]
Directed by Scott Kalvert
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruno Kirby, Lorraine Bracco and Mark Wahlberg
For many, Catholic schools are known as athletic powerhouses, often dominating statewide competitions. What would a list of great Catholic school movies be without at least one sports film?
While many would assume “Rudy” (1993) would earn a spot on the list, my colleague James T. Keane made it clear that “Rudy” is actually a “a terrible, infuriating movie.” He explained that the 78 percent it received on Rotten Tomatoes “is entirely the result of every single Notre Dame alumnus ranking it as the greatest movie ever.” What became abundantly clear to me from this interaction is that part of the Catholic imagination in America continues to be the dream of going to Notre Dame, and, for some, dealing with the outcome of that broken dream.
Instead of “Rudy,” Keane recommends “The Basketball Diaries.” Jim (DiCaprio) is the star of the basketball team at St. Vitus, a Catholic school for well-to-do young men in Manhattan, until he gets involved with drugs and spirals into addiction. There are redeeming elements to find amid what is essentially a flawed, voyeuristic film. Jim and one of his sidekicks and basketball teammates, Mickey (Wahlburg) capture a lot of the angst of teenage Catholic boys, and the film vividly captures the underside of mid-1960s New York City in ways that, if not entirely realistic, gave the film some moments worth watching.
Sister Regina Meehan Test: I asked Keane if the film passes the Sister Regina Meehan test. “Not by a long shot,” he responded. “The priests come off mostly as caricatures—with Father McNulty (Roy Cooper) playing a cruel, violent, Irish priest-teacher who seems more out of a Maria Monk novel than reality—he is profoundly angry, violent and sadistic throughout.”
From the narrator: “When I was young, eight or so, I tried making friends with God by inviting him to my house to watch the World Series. He never showed.”
WHERE TO WATCH: Amazon Prime
9. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)
Directed by Peter Care
Starring Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin
Set in 1977, this film follows a group of young 8th grade troublemakers led by Francis (Hirsch) and Tim (Culkin) as they rebel against the repression of their parish school. In one scene the kids are lined up—donning the iconic blue pants, white shirts and black or brown shoes—and interrogated by a stern Sister Assumpta.
Sister Regina Meehan Test: The movie fails with flying colors. Although religious life is depicted as one-dimensional, it is shown through the perspective of middle school boys who, more often than not, tend to unfairly view religious in such a way. Told in the absence of adult influence, the film is interesting and dynamic, but also heartbreaking to watch these kids struggle on their own.
Father Casey: “Jesus H Christ!”
Tim Sullivan: What does the 'H' stand for Father?”
WHERE TO WATCH: YouTube
8. Funeral Kings (2012)
Written and directed by Kevin and Matthew McManus
Starring Dylan Hartigan and Alex Maizus.
I was an altar server in middle school. I loved it not for spiritual or pious reasons but instead for reasons of the self-serving variety. Somehow, I was placed on the roster exclusively for funerals—the prized jewels of altar boys everywhere. Roughly once a week in sixth, seventh and eight grade, I was pulled from class for about an hour, given matches to play with and then slipped a 10 dollar bill at the end of Mass by the funeral director. It was the first racket I ever had going for me.
I imagine Kevin and Matthew McManus had similar experiences. Although I never got up to anywhere near the amount of shenanigans as the protagonists in this film, I can relate deeply to the early angst of the difficult middle school years captured here. The film is fun, a bit outlandish and perfectly loose in a way that only a low-budget film can be.
In what I assume could have only been a moment of divine intervention, while revisiting the film this summer I looked at one of the side characters and thought I might have recognized him. “Wait, was he in my college orientation group at Santa Clara?” I said out loud while watching this alone in the middle of the night. After a few minutes of Googling and sending a couple of texts I realized I literally went to Catholic school with Charles Kwame Odei, one of the kids in this movie.
Charlie Waters: “How old are you?”
David Mason: Whispers: “13.”
Charlie: “You smoke?”
David: “Uhhhh. No.”
Charlie: “You drink?”
David: “Should you be talking on the altar?”
Sister Regina Meehan Test: Religious play such a minor role in this film that they are really just relegated into the background of a few scenes. Of course, when the boys are altar serving there is a priest present, but that is about it. “Funeral Kings” doesn’t really get into it, and thus it fails the test.
WHERE TO WATCH: iTunes
7. Superstar (1999)
Directed by Bruce McCulloch
Starring Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell and Glynis Johns
Let me preface this by telling you that “Superstar” is a terrible, awful film that you likely will regret watching. It is bad in the way that every Saturday Night Live sketch turned into a movie is bad. Even so, I have watched it about a hundred times throughout my life, it is a staple of my early childhood. My siblings and I know just about every line from memory. If this list was self-published and not in the pages of America, it might just have taken the number one spot.
Superstar tells the story of Mary Katherine Gallagher (Shannon), a supremely awkward Catholic schoolgirl attending St. Monica’s in search of a kiss. “Please God send me someone to make out with” the young child prays at her bedside. Now in high school, Mary deduces that the only way to kiss like they do in the movies is to become a superstar. How to become one? The first step is to win the school talent show. Aided by a special group of outcasts and misfits Mary finds her home and self confidence along the way.
You just have to go along with the silliness of the film while watching. Mary, in confession, tells the priest that her sins would best be conveyed through a monologue from the 1976 made-for-TV movie “Sybil,” starring Sally Field as a young woman with multiple personality disorder. In another scene a nun catches Mary flirting with a tree, before entering into a deep embrace, tongue on bark. Will Ferrell appears to Mary as Jesus, floating in to “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. “You know this song is about me Mary,” he tells her flirtatiously. Yet for all of its absurdity it is actually quite sweet, and absolutely hilarious.
Sister Regina Meehan Test: Does it pass? It’s hard to say: all of the characters in this movie are caricatures. At least once in a while we catch a glimpse of a priest teaching questionable science to a special ed class or a nun coaching gymnastics. In one of my favorite bits, Father Ritley (Mark McKinney) struggles to chew a piece of charred toast. Between elongated, dramatized bites he looks up at the group of sisters in his office and asks simply “Who broke the good toaster?”
Mary Katherine Gallagher: Oh my God!
Jesus: Oh my Me! How are you?
Mary Katherine Gallagher: It’s going OK. Are you the Lord?
Jesus: Well, to you I am. See, technically, you’re, like, in this REM sleep state, and I’m a mixture of your mind’s images of God, some past authority figures, uh, Skye, and your dad. Basically, your subconscious came up with me to help you deal. Dig?
Mary Katherine Gallagher: Yeah... uh, you want a glass of water or something?
Jesus: No, I’m good. I’m God!
Mary Katherine Gallagher: Oh. Right.
6. The Trouble with Angels (1966)
Directed by Ida Lupino
Starring Hayley Mills, June Harding and Rosalind Russell
Mary Clancy (Mills) and Rachel Devery (Harding), are somewhat reluctant students and largely lovable troublemakers at St. Francis Academy, an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Pennsylvania run by a charming order of women religious. The film follows them through three years at the school, during which time they meet their match in the mother superior played by Rosalind Russell.
Much of my experience in Catholic education has been of the all-male variety. I turned to executive editor Kerry Weber to find out if this film accurately reflects the experience of women in Catholic schools. She told me, “While some of the scenes might be a bit glossier than everyday life in Catholic schools, the heart of each conflict and encounter is generally true to the charitable, loving (and sometimes strict) spirit Catholic schools strive for.
“The film also shows respect for the multi-faceted, complicated, generous lives of so many women religious who served in Catholic schools. The women religious in the film are clever, loving and forgiving, and their characters are rightly treated as people who led full lives before their religious life and who show deep love for the life they chose.”
But is it a good film? Weber told me that it “scored 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which means that the other 14 percent of people who watched it have terrible taste in films.”
Sister Regina Meehan Test: I asked Kerry Weber if it passes my test. “Yep, Mother Superior fondly recalls her life in Paris and love of fashion as a girl. She also tells Mary about the extraordinary lives of her fellow women religious.”
Mary Clancy: Rache! I need something to stuff in the window. The snow’s coming in.
[Rachel gives Mary a magazine with an image of the pope]
Mary Clancy: I can’t stuff His Holiness in the window!
Rachel Devery: Well, I’m not going to give you Burt Lancaster!
5. Millions (2004)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Alex Etel, Lewis Owen McGibbon, and James Nesbitt
“Millions” is essentially a movie about a Catholic school boy who just wants to do good. He’s a little boy who recently lost his mother, sees apparitions of the Saints, and gets hit upside the head one day with a big old bag filled with cash. It is set just days before the United Kingdom is set to join the Eurozone (which feels particularly outdated for our current geopolitical climate) and Damian (Etel) has to decide what to do with the money while traversing obstacles like his shrewd older brother, the criminals intent on getting their cash back, and his widowed father trying his best.
It is a movie that deals with Catholic themes without relying on tired tropes or stereotypes. The school is staffed by laypeople, just like those who ran the schools I attended. There are no mean old nuns—or really any religious represented at all—manipulating Damian into feeling guilt, or guiding him on his little path to sainthood. Instead there is just Damian’s own curiosity, piety, imagination and iron will to help the poor that forge the moral backbone of the story.
Sister Regina Meehan Test:
The only men and women religious in the film are the saints that appear to Damian. Clare of Assisi pops in while smoking a cigarette, telling Damian, “You can do what you like up there, it’s here where you have to make the effort.” Saint Nick helps him give some cash to the poor. The martyrs of Uganda tell him about how access to clean drinking water can improve the lives of people living in rural poverty. The apparitions of these historical figures are wonderful, but they seem unrelated to what the Sister Regina Meehan test is about.
In excluding contemporary men and women religious from the film, the movie props up lay leadership in a way that feels true to my own experience in the church. I think Sister Regina would be proud to give it a pass.
Damian: St. Peter! Died AD 64
St. Peter: Alright, don’t remind us.
4. Doubt (2008)
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis
Written in the aftermath of the 2002 revelations of sexual abuse and its cover up in the Catholic Church, first as a stage play in 2004 and then adapted as a film in 2008, “Doubt” addresses the institutional crisis head on. The film is a period drama set at a Catholic elementary school in the Bronx in 1964. Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), the archetypal rigid nun and parish school principle, begins to suspect Father Flynn (Hoffman) is guilty of wrongdoing in his relationship with Donald Miller, an altar boy and one of the school’s first black students. The heightened tension drives the narrative, all underscored by a sense of doubt. The story is a parable without a singular prescribed meaning.
There are a handful of issues with the production of the film here and there, some that can be particularly irksome to the trained Catholic eye (a few anachronistic vestments and hymns). Note to costume designers everywhere: bring your clerical consultant in before shooting begins. James Martin, S.J., has a great story about visiting the set and telling four-time Academy Award nominated costume designer Ann Roth about a few inaccuracies. “They used post-Vatican II priestly vestments in a pre-Vatican II film, and had already shot the scenes, so that’s what you see in the final cut of that otherwise superb film.”
Guerric DeBona, O.S.B., aptly summarized the greatness of the film for America in 2009:
“The potent ‘doubt’ we are left with at the end of the film is a reminder that priests are not messiahs but flawed (and sometimes tragic) human beings who nonetheless seek to bring faith, hope and love to their congregation.”
Sister Regina Meehan Test: The writing and acting are of the highest quality, making the watching experience riveting. Shanley, Streep, Hoffman, Adams and Davis were all nominated for Academy Awards for this project. “Doubt” passes the Sister Regina Meehan test with its nuanced portrayals of men and women religious.
Father Brendan Flynn: You have no right to act on your own! You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us! You have no right to step outside the church!
Sister Aloysius Beauvier: I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, 'til the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me.
3. St. Vincent (2014)
Written and directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd
In “St. Vincent” Bill Murray shines at his Bill Murrayist. He plays the titular Vincent, a curmudgeonly retiree forced to look out for his new neighbor, a quiet sensitive preteen named Oliver (Lieberher) dealing with the fall out of his parent’s divorce. Vincent’s harsh exterior deteriorates over the course of the film and a tender relationship begins to form between the boy and his gruff after-school caretaker.
The odd couple storyline is familiar and unsurprising, but Melfie uses it as a vehicle to tell a heartwarming, enjoyable, funny story. He innovates elsewhere, challenging the way Catholic education is represented on the big screen. In a post-Vatican II, post-sex-abuse-scandal church, what do our schools look like?
On his first day at his new school, a warm, compassionate, young cleric asks Oliver to lead the class in morning prayer. As his classmates bow their heads, the nervous boy whispers to his teacher “I think… I think I’m Jewish.” Brother Geraghty (O’Dowd) responds:
We celebrate all the religions of the world in this room, Oliver. I’m a Catholic, which is the best of all the religions, really, because we have the most rules. And the best clothes. But among us, there is also a Buddhist, agnostic, we have a Baptist, and we have a “I don't know,” which seems to be the fastest growing religion in the world. And now, we have “I think I'm Jewish,” which is a new one for the class, Oliver, so thanks for that.
Catholic schools in the 21st century, especially those in urban areas, are diverse. They celebrate religious pluralism. Although rooted in one specific tradition, they welcome all.
In another scene, Brother Geraghty assigns the class the “Saints Among Us” project reminding them that “saints are human beings we celebrate for their dedication and commitment to other human beings. For their sacrifices. Their work to make society better for those around them and those that’ll come after them.” Oliver chooses Vincent as his saint, and throughout the film we watch these characteristics begin to reveal themselves in Vincent. Towards the end of the film, Oliver gives an emotional, heart-stirring speech where he canonizes his babysitter: Saint Vincent of Sheepshead Bay. Keep a pack of tissues nearby.
Sister Regina Meehan Test: Brother Geraghty is frankly one of my all time favorite representations of religious life on screen. In one scene, what we expect to be a classic disciplinary meeting with Oliver’s mother, Brother Geraghty and the head priest in the school end up compassionately counseling her. It’s sad how surprisingly refreshing it is to see that on screen. He is sweet and tender with the children and their parents, genuinely a good guy. If the test wasn’t named for the real Sister Regina, it might have been named after the fictional Brother Geraghty.
MORE: A Spark of Goodness: Holiness and humanity in ‘St. Vincent’
WHERE TO WATCH: Amazon Prime
2. The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman
When Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) is sent in to save an inner city parochial school he begins to butt heads with the school’s headmistress, Sister Mary Benedict (Ingrid Bergman). Although both are dedicated to saving St. Mary’s school, Father O’Malley is more keen to rely on the ways of man while the sisters rely on the grace of God.
Some young people might be skeptical of a black and white film from 1945 (I was), so I asked my colleague Nick Sawicki: “Is it any good?” He assured me that it holds a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is considered one of the highest grossing films of all time (when adjusted for inflation). More importantly he told me that the film is “delightfully charming—it is cinematically simple and the plot is uncomplicated, but there is a warmth and classic Catholic Americana goodness that brings the viewer to an irrepressible hopefulness.”
Does it pass the Sister Regina Meehan Test: “Yes. Fr. O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict discuss their personal histories, their hopes for the children in the school and the best ways to address very particular issues,” Sawicki told me.
Sister Mary Benedict: You don’t become a nun to run away from life, Patsy. It’s not because you’ve lost something. It’s because you’ve found something.
MORE: From 1945: ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’ is a gift to religious sisters
WHERE TO WATCH: YouTube
1. Lady Bird (2017)
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, and Timothée Chalamet
“Lady Bird” is a film I saw in the theater with my best friends as soon as it came out during my senior year of college. A week later I went again, that time with my mother and sisters, while home for Thanksgiving break. It is the only film I own on my Amazon account, a film I’ve seen probably a dozen times. I even own a printed hard copy of the screenplay, highlighted with my annotations in a binder.
It is the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her senior year at Immaculate Heart High School in Sacramento, Calif. She’s an angsty teen who can’t wait to leave Northern California behind and go “where culture is, like New York. Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire. Where writers live in the woods.”
Gerwig’s characters are of a clearly defined time and place. True to Joyce’s dictum, she captures universal themes through heightened specificity. Captured viscerally, the story almost begins to feel like memory. For those of us who had the privilege of attending Catholic schools, it's almost weird and eerie how the memories feel so much like they could be our own. America producer Eloise Blondiau wrote of “Lady Bird,” “I saw for the first time in film a Catholic girls’ school as I remember it—brimming with kindness, weirdness, friendship and rebellion.’”
Sister Regina Meehan Test: Many have noted the complexity of Lady Bird’s world. Gerwig’s characters have depth. One sensitive, old soul priest suffers from depression (It’s suggested that before becoming a priest, he had a son pass away, possibly of suicide). Another jockish priest coaches football, but is happy to jump in when they need a new director for the play, running routes for the dancers on a chalkboard. Sister Sarah-Joan fawns over Kierkegaard: “Wait until you hear his love story—it will make you swoon.” They all pass my test easily.
Beyond its setting, the film’s themes are Catholic too. “I was so interested in...taking something that just looks like...an annoying teenage girl and then giving her the experience of what I think of as grace,” Gerwig told America. This mysterious concept of grace animates the film, rendering it endlessly rewatchable.
There’s a montage about halfway through where Gerwig cuts rapidly from one emotional climax to another, then to students lining up and receiving their ashes. Over a delicate, sentimental score tying the disparate scenes together, we hear the priest repeat “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” while marking the sign of the cross on their foreheads. For me this simple, humbling, somewhat morbid line, is the root of my faith.
For all the drama that high school brings, the heightened theatrics that go with coming-of-age, Catholic school reminds us that we’re just a small part in a much bigger whole. “Lady Bird” captures this truth beautifully. It is the greatest Catholic School movie of all time.
Lady Bird on her first night at college in a dorm room party to a guy she’s just met: “Do you believe in God?”