To Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), an overheated engine is just an overheated engine; to Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), it’s divine intervention.
Either way, it disrupts Homer’s drive through the Arizona desert at the beginning of the 1963 film Lilies of the Field and prompts him to seek water at the nearest building. This turns out to be a convent, home to Mother Maria and four other nuns (Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch) who have come to the United States from East Germany. “God is good. He has sent me a big strong man,” Mother Maria declares upon seeing Homer, then informs him that she has work for him to do. Although he’s not interested at first and starts to drive away, the nuns’ sad faces bother him, and a glance into his wallet reminds him that he could use the money; he is, in fact, an itinerant laborer, and this job is probably no worse than any other he might encounter. As such, he agrees to fix their roof, intending to leave as soon as he’s finished — but Mother Maria has other plans for him.
He soon learns that the nuns want a chapel built on their property, because as things currently stand, they and the other local Catholics have to attend Mass held out of the back of a station wagon. Mother Maria is certain that “Schmitt,” as she calls Homer, is the answer to their prayers; he disagrees. A battle of wills ensues: she insists, he resists, especially when he hears that the nuns have no money and can’t even pay him for the work he’s already done. He’s a kind man, a generous man, happy to teach them English and help them out within reason, but he’s also too practical and too proud to take on such an overwhelming task for free. Still, the flinty, faithful Mother Maria is unwavering in her conviction, and at last, Homer finds a way to make the project feasible. He obtains a job at a nearby construction company, where he’ll work two days a week for a Mr. Ashton (Ralph Nelson, the film’s director); the rest of his time will be devoted to building the chapel.
Of course, agreeing to build the chapel and actually doing it are two very different things, and hard physical labor and a shortage of materials aren’t Homer’s only problems. His greatest challenge may be Mother Maria herself. It’s natural enough that they should fail to understand each other and even clash, separated as they are by religion (she’s Catholic, he’s a Baptist), by race (she’s white, he’s black), by language, by background, and by countless other differences. Moreover, they both have strong personalities, and Homer, accustomed to independence, doesn’t take kindly to being ordered around and scolded for waking up late and criticized for buying unnecessary food. He goes so far as to compare himself to a slave and tell Mother Maria that she sounds like Hitler; not surprisingly, she doesn’t take kindly to that.
For a while, the tension between them threatens to derail the project entirely. Salvaging it requires forgiveness, humility, cooperation — divine qualities, one might say — and this extends beyond Homer and Mother Maria. Members of the local Catholic population eventually provide the necessary materials, and although a stubborn Homer insists that he wants to do the whole job himself, they also join in the labor. It doesn’t always go smoothly. Because the vast majority of them are Hispanic, there are still more language and other cultural barriers to overcome, not to mention the sorts of conflicts that inevitably ensue when people try to work together; even so, the advantages outweigh the problems in the end, and the chapel is all the more significant because it was built through a community effort.
The construction process and the building itself mean different things to different people. To the nuns and the other Catholics, it’s a place where they can worship and receive the sacraments; to restaurateur Juan (Stanley Adams), an ex-Catholic, his work on the chapel is insurance in the event that there’s an afterlife; to Mr. Ashton, who donated the first bricks, it’s a tax deduction. And to Homer? What was once an unwanted job forced upon him becomes a deeply rewarding experience — not a pleasant one sometimes, but one that he’s not likely to forget anytime soon, no matter where the road takes him next.
This post is part of the 90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.