It tells the story of an African American itinerant worker who encounters a group of East German nuns, who believe he has been sent to them by God to build them a new chapel.
Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) is an itinerant handyman/jack-of-all-trades who stops at a farm in the Arizona desert to obtain some water for his car. There he sees several women working on a fence, very ineptly. The women, who speak very little English, introduce themselves as German, Austrian and Hungarian nuns. The mother superior, the leader of the nuns, persuades him to do a small roofing repair. He stays overnight, assuming that he will be paid in the morning. Next day, Smith tries to persuade the mother superior to pay him by quoting Luke 10:7, "The laborer is worthy of his hire." Mother Maria Marthe (Lilia Skala, called "Mother Maria"), responds by asking him to read another Bible verse from the Sermon on the Mount: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
Mother Maria likes things done her way. The nuns have essentially no money and subsist by living off the land, on what vegetables the arid climate provides, and some milk and eggs. Even after being 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 will pay him for his work.
As Smith's skills and strengths become apparent to the nuns, they come to believe that he has been sent by God to fulfill their dream of building a chapel for the townsfolk—who are Latino and impoverished—as the nearest church is miles away.
When Sunday comes, Mother Maria informs Smith that he will be driving the sisters to Mass in his station wagon. (The nuns have no vehicle and thus ordinarily would walk the long distance to church.) Smith is invited to attend the Catholic Mass, celebrated by a roving priest not in a church but outdoors, but he declines because he is a Baptist. Instead, he takes the opportunity to get a proper breakfast from the trading post next door. In talking to the proprietor, Juan (Stanley Adams), Smith learns about the hardships that the nuns, led by the unyielding Mother Maria, overcame to emigrate from Eastern Europe – over the Berlin Wall – only to barely scratch out a meager living on the farm that was willed to their order. Juan humorously tells Homer that he considers prayer and belief in religion a form of "insurance", and suggests that is why Homer is helping the nuns without being paid.
Though he has come to realize how unlikely it is that he will be paid, and partly out of respect for all the women have overcome, Smith stays longer and finds himself driven to work on at least clearing the construction site for the chapel. He rationalizes that it would be too hard for the sisters to move the heavy beams. After losing another duel of Bible quotes with Mother Maria, Smith acknowledges that he has always wanted to be an architect, but couldn't afford the schooling. His unfulfilled dream impels him to agree to undertake the (unpaid) job of building the sisters 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, Ashton (director Ralph Nelson, uncredited), who is impressed that Smith can handle nearly every piece of heavy equipment he owns. Smith supplements the nuns' diet as well, shopping for groceries to stock up their kitchen and delighting them with treats such as lollipops.
To pass the evenings, Smith (whom the nuns call "Schmidt") helps the sisters improve their rudimentary English (only Mother Maria speaks the language well enough to converse with him) and joins them in singing. They share their different musical traditions with one another: their Catholic chants and his Baptist hymns. He teaches them to join him in the call-and-response song "Amen" by Jester Hairston (dubbed by Hairston in the film).
Smith, determined that the building will be constructed to the highest standards, insists that the work be done by him and only him. Meanwhile, the nuns write letters to various philanthropic organizations and charities asking for money for supplies, but all their requests are denied. As word spreads about the endeavor, locals begin to show up to contribute materials and to help in construction, but Smith rebuffs all offers of assistance in the labor. As he gains 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. They find ways to lend a hand that Smith cannot easily turn down – the lifting of a bucket or brick, for example. Once the process is in motion, they end up doing as they intended, assisting in every aspect of the construction, as well as contributing materials. This greatly accelerates the progress, much to the delight of everyone but Smith.
Even Ashton, who has long ignored Mother Maria's pleas, finds an excuse to deliver some more materials. 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 to completion, placing the cross on the spire himself and signing his work where only he and God will know.
It is the evening before the Sunday when the chapel is to be dedicated. All the work has been done and Smith is exhausted. Now that there is nothing more to keep Smith among them, Mother Maria, too proud to ask him outright to stay, insists that he attend the opening Mass next day to receive proper recognition from the congregation. She speaks enthusiastically of all that "Schmidt" still can do to aid the town, such as building a school. Making no reply to any of this, Smith tricks Mother Maria, as part of the night's English lesson, into saying "thank you" to him. Until then, she stubbornly had thanked 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 that evening, as he leads the nuns in singing "Amen" once again, Smith slips out the door and, still singing the lead, the nuns' voices chiming softly behind him, he takes one last look at the chapel he built. Mother Maria hears him start up his station wagon, but remains stolidly in her seat, singing along with the rest of the sisters, as Smith drives quietly off into the night.
The movie was filmed on the northern edge (near Sabino Canyon and Cloud Road) of Tucson. The church doors were borrowed from the Chapel in Sasabe, Arizona and were carved by local Tucson artist Charles Bolsius.
The book version closes with a chapter in which Homer Smith (remembered as "Schmidt," the nuns' name for him) and what he did have blossomed into a myth among the townsfolk which spreads throughout the state and even beyond. In the legend, Schmidt is no mere man, but an angel (complete with visible halo) sent by God with a full understanding of his mission to the nuns. As time goes on, more buildings are added, including a school, with the chapel as a sort of centerpiece with Mother Maria conducting tours of the chapel. An oil painting that the nuns place on the back wall of the chapel is of a saint who bears a striking resemblance to "Homer Schmidt", and Mother Maria always describes him as "a man of great faith, of great devotion."
A sequel, Christmas Lilies of the Field, was made in 1979 for television in which Homer Smith (now played by Billy Dee Williams), returns and is "convinced" to build a kindergarten for a group of orphans and runaways whom the sisters have taken in.
Jester Hairston, who wrote the gospel arrangement of Amen used in the film, and who arranged the vocal parts, also dubbed the vocals for Poitier, who is famously tone-deaf.Sidney Poitier – Homer Smith
Lilia Skala – Mother Maria
Lisa Mann – Sister Gertrude
Isa Crino – Sister Agnes
Francesca Jarvis – Sister Albertine
Pamela Branch – Sister Elizabeth
Stanley Adams – Juan
Dan Frazer – Father Murphy
Jester Hairston - (uncredited) Homer Smith singing - Composer of the song "Amen"
Ralph Nelson - (uncredited) Mr. Ashton
Poitier won the 1963 Academy Award for Best Actor, the first time an African-American male won a competitive Oscar. Poitier also won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival.
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.
The film was also nominated in 1965 for BAFTA Film UN Award
Also, the film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Homer Smith – Nominated Hero
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – #46