Terry Mattingly: Raquel Welch found some peace in a church pew

The statuesque film legend didn’t call attention to herself as she shared a pew with other conservative Presbyterians in their small church not far from Hollywood.

She was articulate when discussing theology and church matters and, from time to time, would offer advice on finances. She had learned a lot in the film business.

Raquel Welch wasn’t trying to hide during the later decades of her life when she faithfully attended Calvary Presbyterian Church in Glendale, California. She was simply looking for people she could trust.

“She was careful. … She wasn’t going to one of those 2,000-member churches where everyone would look at her. That wasn’t her style,” said the Rev. Christopher Neiswonger, who grew up in that congregation and attended nearby Fuller Theological Seminary. He now leads Graceview Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Southaven, Mississippi.

“She also wasn’t trying to stick her thumb in the eye of a Hollywood culture that she knew would denigrate this kind of faith commitment. … She was Raquel Welch, but she just wanted to be part of our church family.”

Welch died on Feb. 15 at the age of 82, inspiring waves of tributes focusing on her iconic beauty in “Fantastic Voyage,” “100 Rifles,” “The Three Musketeers” and dozens of other movies and television programs. The legendary poster from “One Million Years B.C.” framed her as a bombshell babe for the ages.

In a Facebook tribute shared with other believers, Neiswonger called Welch a “wonderful lady and a fine Christian” whose “faith grew more powerful and practical with age. It’s often true that the most important things become the most important to us as we’ve matured personally.”

At the end of her 2010 memoir, “Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage,” Welch described the hard questions she asked after the death of her mother, a faithful Presbyterian, and a sister’s struggle with cancer. After decades away from church, Welch offered an “awkward inept prayer” to the “God of my childhood and, lo and behold, he was still there.”

One Sunday, she drove away from Beverly Hills and found a “beautiful little church,” wrote Welch. The members “weren’t Hollywood types. They were modest, unassuming, cheerful and friendly. … Maybe I didn’t belong among these people who actually practiced their faith.” But soon, she embraced a fellowship in which “I can affirm my beliefs and worship. … I’m just Raquel, not anybody special.”

The memoir ended there. It began with witty insights into painful paradoxes surrounding her rise to stardom. “Contrary to popular myth, I didn’t just hatch out of an eagle’s nest, circa ‘One Million Years B.C.,’ clad in a doeskin bikini. … It felt like I’d stumbled into a booby trap — pun intended. I am living proof that a picture speaks a thousand words.”

The reality, she stressed, was that she was a single mother who had escaped a troubled marriage. “Can you picture the girl in the poster with a baby in one arm and pushing a stroller with the other? Kind of destroys the fantasy, doesn’t it?”

Nevertheless, Tinseltown players “niched her into that image and did everything they could to keep her there,” said screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, a former Catholic nun who spent a decade helping build a network of Christian professionals working in Hollywood. She now directs the screenwriting programs at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Studio leaders “are so afraid that audiences will not accept actors, writers or directors if they try to break outside the image that the studio and the system have created for them,” said Harrington. “Raquel Welch was a sex object and they had a vested interest in keeping her inside that box.”

The fact that Welch’s memoir says she found peace in a church pew — “after yoga, after menopause, after her divorces, after dating, after the whole nine yards” — was a Hollywood plot twist few could have predicted, said Steve Beard, who covers faith and popular culture at Thunderstruck, his website.

“Here is the ’60s sex symbol who put the va-voom in va-va-voom,” he said. “She went looking for her soul, searching for some meaning in her life, and she found it — with some ordinary church people who accepted her for who and what she was. It’s a beautiful story and an amazing story. It rings true.”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi. Send comments to [email protected]