Two of McCarey's many classic films (written, produced and directed by him) was the enthusiastically pro-Catholic movies "Going My Way" and "The Bells of St. Mary's," the #1 top-grossing films in the United States in 1944 and 1945, respectively. "The Bells of St. Mary's" was based on Leo McCarey's real-life aunt, a nun named Sister Mary Benedict.
From: Susan Sackett, The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits, Billboard Publications: New York City (1990), page 54:
Wouldn't it be great if we could all "Just dial 'O' for 'O'Malley' "? Bing Crosby's revival of the kindly priest we first grew to love in Going My Way outshone his performance in that first film. All the ingredients are there--the struggling young student who may miss graduation, the ailing nun (sweetly portrayed by Ingrid Bergman), and, of course, the priest with the heart of gold. Makes you wish you had a clergyman like Bing for your very own.From: The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits, pages 48-49:
...The take at the box office was phenomenal. This sequel had the unique privilege of being the first to actually outgross its predecessor. It was RKO's most profitable hit so far.
Relying more on characterization than on plot... there are songfests (naturally) with the Sisters gathered around the piano, and one of the best scenes in the picture--a group of uninhibited, unrehearsed five-year-olds who re-enact the Story of Christmas. Since The Bells of St. Mary's appeared just in time for the holiday season, the sketch was a natural. Bobby Dolan, son of the picture's musical director, doubles as the Narrator and Joseph. His wheezing, ad-libbed lines are classic: "Oh, this is Mary and I'm Joseph and we came to Bethlehem to see if we can have some palce . . . find some place to stay. And that's all you have to know really." In the stable, an angel perches atop a ladder, surrounded by wise men and shepherds, while an 18-month-old, playing the Christ Child, waves to the audience from a clothes basket. This was all improvised by a group of kindergartners based on a rough idea given them by director Leo McCarey, who told Time Magazine that "it was one of the most difficult sequences I ever directed."
...The Hollywood Reporter's reviewer [said]: "...Bing Crosby's Father O'Malley is a casual joy and Ingrid Bergman's Sister Superior a portrait of quiet depth, highlighted by a sparkling sense of humor."
A true multiple talent (rare for those days), producer-director Leo McCarey is said to have based the original story of The Bells of St. Mary's on the real-life character of his aunt, Sister Mary Benedict of the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood. He also co-authored (with Dudley Nichols) the screenplay from his original story... There was also a real-life counterpart to Father O'Malley. Father Eugene O'Malley, a Chicago priest, directed the Old St. Mary's Church choir for more than 40 years until his death in 1989.
His full name was Charles Francis Patrick O'Malley. He was the kindest, singingest priest ever to grace the screen. And sing he did. One of the decade's best songs (and a number-one hit at that) came from Going My Way [directed by Leo McCarey], a catchy tune called "Swinging on a Star." It won a well-deserved Oscar... Bing Crosby... came into his own as an actor with Going My Way. Although both Spencer Tracy and James Cagney were approached to play the part, neither was available. It was then that director Leo McCarey decided to offer Bing his first dramatic role. He seemed to be born to the part. According to his brother Bob, interviewed for a 1989 PBS television special, "He played Bing Crosby, 'cause he went to Jesuit school all his life." It was a role that Bing embraced with his whole life, embodying the values he had grown up with, his deep religious conviction, his innate Irish charm--all combining to make his Academy Award performance an American classic...
Barry Fitzgerald's portrayal of a gruff, stubbornly aging old priest was a perfect contrast to Crosby's easy-going characterization. Fitzgerald was born William Joseph Sheilds on May 10, 1888 in Dublin, Ireland...
Despite tough competition at the Academy Awards ceremony for 1944--nominated films were Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, and Wilson -- Going My Way had no trouble finding the Best Picture Oscar going its way, along with many others, for a total of seven for this audience-pleasing film. Leo McCarey provied that like Fitzgerald, he had the luck of the Irish, and received an award for Best Director.