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Lilies of the Field is a 1962 book by William Edmund Barrett which was made into a 1963 film and adapted for the musical stage with the title Look to the Lilies. It tells the story of a Black-American itinerant worker who encounters a group of East Germanmarker nuns who are convinced he has been sent to them by God to help them build a new chapel.

The film, which stars Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch, Stanley Adams and Dan Frazer, was adapted by James Poe from the novel. It was produced and directed by Ralph Nelson. The title comes from a portion of the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament.

Poitier won the 1963 Academy Award for Best Actor, the first time a black man won a competitive Oscar in the USA. The film was also nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lilia Skala), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.


Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), is an itinerant handyman/jack-of-all-trades who stops at a farm in the Arizonamarker desert to get some water for his car radiator. The farm is run by a group of German nuns. He is persuaded to do a small roofing repair by Mother Maria. He stays overnight, believing that he will be paid in the morning. He tries to persuade Mother Maria by quoting Luke 10:7, "The laborer is worthy of his hire," but Mother Maria Marthe (Lilia Skala, called "Mother Maria"), responds with a verse saying, Look at the lilies of the field, they continue to appear beautiful even though they get no payment. The bloom is to honor God, but not to get paid for their work.

The head nun Mother Maria Marthe is a kind old women who likes things done her way. In fact, the nuns have no money and subsist only by living off the land, on what vegetables the arid climate provides, and some milk and eggs. Even after being stalled/stonewalled when asking for payment, and after being persuaded to stay for a meal, and against his better judgment, Smith agrees to stay another day to help them with other small jobs, always with the faint hope that Mother Maria, the head nun will settle with him.

As Smith's strength and many construction skills, and tools, are revealed to the small order of nuns as he finishes the repairs needed, they come to believe that he has been sent by God to help them in their dream of building a chapel for the nearby townsfolk.

Soon, the weekend is upon them, and Smith is told by Mother Maria that he will be driving them to mass in the morning. He is invited to attend the Catholic mass, but he declines because he is a Baptist. Instead, he takes the opportunity to get proper breakfast fare from the service station/cafe/store adjacent to where the religious service is held. In talking to the proprietor Juan (Stanley Adams), Smith learns about the hardships that the nuns, led by the unyielding Mother Maria, overcame in order to emigrate from Eastern Europe -- over the Berlin Wallmarker -- only to barely scratch out a meager living on the farm that was willed to their order.

Despite the unlikelihood of his ever getting paid for his work and partly out of respect for all the order has overcome, Smith stays longer and finds himself driven to work further on at least clearing the construction site for the chapel. He rationalizes that it would be too hard for the women of the order to move the heavy beams and so he is willing to do at least this much for them.

At one point, after losing a Bible-quoting duel with Mother Maria where he attempted to prove the point that she should settle with him, he confesses that he had always wanted to be an architect, but couldn't afford the schooling, and this impels him to finally agree to undertake the job of building them a chapel.

To earn money to buy some "real food" to supplement the spartan diet the nuns are able to provide him, Smith gets a part-time job with the nearby construction contractor, Mr. Ashton (director Ralph Nelson, uncredited), who is impressed that Smith can handle nearly every manner of heavy equipment he owns.

To pass the evenings, Smith teaches the nuns some basic English and even joins them in singing. They share their different musical traditions with one another: their Catholic chants and his Baptist hymns. At one point, he sings the song "Amen" by Jester Hairston, (in the film, dubbed by Hairston).

Smith, determined that the building will be constructed to the highest standards, insists that work be done by him and only him. As word spreads about the endeavor, locals begin to show up to give materials and to help in construction, but Smith rebuffs all offers of assistance in the labor. After a long interval of Smith gaining a larger and larger audience for his efforts, the locals, impressed with his determination, but no less dogged than he, will content themselves no longer with just watching but find minuscule ways to lend a hand which cannot be easily turned down - the lifting of a bucket or brick to an elevated Smith, for example. Once the process is in motion, they end up doing as they intended and as Smith tried in vain to resist, assisting in every aspect of the construction in addition to contributing materials. This greatly accelerates the progress, much to the delight of everyone but Smith.

Even Ashton, who had long ignored Mother Maria's pleas, finds an excuse to deliver some more materials, and almost overnight, Smith finds that he's become a building foreman and contractor. Enduring the hassles of coordinating the work of so many, the constant disputes with Mother Maria, and the trial of getting enough materials for the building, Smith brings the chapel, finally, to completion.

The evening before the Sunday when the chapel is to be dedicated arrives. All the work has been done and Smith is exhausted. Unintentionally, as part of a sentence Smith uses to help teach Mother Maria more English, she thanks Smith. Up until that moment, it had been her practice to thank only God for the work, assistance and gifts that Smith had provided to the nuns. It is a touching moment between two strong personalities.

Later, as the nuns sing their nightly hymns, and after taking one last look at the chapel he built, Smith, knowing that his work is done, slips out of the house and drives quietly off into the night.

The book version relates how Homer Smith and what he did became mythologized into something miraculous by the townsfolk, and the oil painting which the nuns place on the back wall of the chapel is of a saint who bears a striking resemblance to Homer Smith.

A sequel, Christmas Lilies of the Field, was made in 1979 for television.

The movie was filmed on the eastern edge of the City of Tucson. The church doors were borrowed from the Chapel in Sasabe, Arizonamarker and were carved by local Tucson artist Charles Bolsius.


  1. Sidney Poitier - Awards, Internet Movie Database
  2. James Baskett won a USA Honorary Academy Award for his performance in Walt Disney's Song of the South (1946). It was not a competitive award. See Awards for James Baskett, IMDB. The first black person to win a competitive Oscar in the USA was Hattie McDaniel, who won the 1939 Award for Best Supporting Actress as Mammy in Gone With the Wind: Hattie McDaniel, Awards, IMDB
  3. Lilies of the Field (1963), Awards & Nominations at Internet Movie Database

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