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The film follows Father Charles “Chuck” O’Malley (Bing Crosby), an incoming priest whose unconventional style transforms the parish life of St. Dominic’s church in New York City.
We meet O’Malley on his first day at the new parish. O'Malley gets into a series of mishaps on his way to the church, and his informal appearance and attitude make a very poor impression with the elder pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald). The highly-traditional Fitzgibbon is further put off by O’Malley’s recreational habits – particularly his golf-playing – and his friendship with the even more casual pastor Timmy O’Dowd. In a discussion between O'Malley and O'Dowd without Fitzgibbon present, it is revealed that O’Malley was sent by the bishop to take charge of the affairs of the parish, but that Fitzgibbon is to remain as pastor. To spare Fitzgibbon’s feelings, the older pastor is kept unaware of this arrangement and believes that O’Malley is simply his assistant.
A series of events in the first half of the film highlight the differences between O’Malley and Fitzgibbon’s styles, as they deal with events like a parishioner being evicted and a young woman coming to the church having run away from home. The most consequential difference of opinion between O’Malley and Fitzgibbon arises in their handling of the youth of the church, many of whom are consistently getting into trouble with the law in a gang led by Tony Scaponi (Stanley Clements). Fitzgibbon is inclined to look the other way, siding with the boys because of their frequent church attendance. O’Malley instead seeks to make inroads into the boys’ lives, befriending Scaponi and eventually using this connection to convince the boys, against some initial reluctance, to become a church choir.
The noise of the practicing choir annoys Fitzgibbon, who finally decides to go to the bishop and ask for O’Malley to be transferred away. In the course of the conversation, Fitzgibbon infers the bishop’s intention to put O’Malley in charge of the parish. To avoid an uncomfortable situation, instead of making his initial request, Fitzgibbon asks the bishop to put O’Malley in charge, and then, resigned to his fate of losing control over the church, he informs O’Malley of his new role.
Distressed, Fitzgibbon then runs away from the parish, leading to a search. He returns late at night, and as O’Malley puts the older priest to bed, the two begin to bond, discussing Fitzgibbon’s long-put-off desire to go to Ireland and see his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in 45 years, and who is now over 90. O’Malley puts Fitzgibbon to sleep with an Irish lullaby, “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral”.
We now meet Jenny Linden, an old girlfriend of O'Malley's whom he left in order to join the priesthood, but who has since risen to a highly successful acting and singing career. O'Malley and Jenny discuss their past, and he then watches from the side of the stage as she performs a number for her starring role as Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera.
O'Malley next pays a visit to the young woman who was earlier seen running away from home, who is now suspected of living in sin with the son of the church's mortgage-holder. On this visit, O’Malley describes to the young couple his calling in life to “go his way”, which to him means to follow after the joyous side of religion and lead others to do the same. He performs for them the song “Going My Way”, which he wrote on this theme.
The elements of the story now begin to come together. Jenny visits O’Malley at the church, sees the boys’ choir, and reads the sheet music of “Going My Way”. She, O'Malley, and Father O’Dowd devise a plan to rent out the Metropolitan, perform “Going My Way” with the choir and a full orchestra, and sell the rights to the song, thereby saving the church from its financial woes. The plan fails, as the music executive brought on to listen to the song does not believe that it will sell. As the executive (William Frawley) is leaving, the choir decides to make the most of its opportunity on the grand stage, and sings another song, “Swinging on a Star”. The executive overhears the song and decides to buy it, providing enough money to pay off the church mortgage.
With the church affairs in order, O’Malley and Fitzgibbon begin to bond more closely, and even go out on the golf course together. Just as everything seems to have fallen into place, though, the parish church is damaged in a massive fire. At about the same time, O'Malley prepares to move on to a new assignment from the bishop. He leaves O’Dowd as Fitzgibbon’s new assistant, and puts Tony Scaponi in charge of the choir. On Christmas Eve the people gather in a temporary church, in a service that also serves as O'Malley's farewell. As a going away present to Fitzgibbon, O’Malley flies Fitzgibbon’s mother in from Ireland. As mother and son embrace in front of the church while the choir sings “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral”, Father O’Malley quietly slips away.