Sister Nancy Murray of the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Mich., will portray the life of the 14th-century Italian saint Catherine of Siena. The sister of actor-comedian Bill Murray said she intends to inspire people to relate St. Catherine's struggles to their own and see similarities between her time and the world today.
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The play, and some more recent representations of other famous saints, have become a full-time ministry for the nun, who is a member of the Adrian Dominican Sisters religious order. Her growing success is increasingly coming to the attention of her brother too, she said.
"The funniest thing is people now send him articles about me," Sister Nancy said, laughing as she explained that normally it's she who receives word every time her brother is in the paper. "I was glad to hear that."
This Sunday, people in the Toledo area will have the chance to see Sister Nancy in dramatic action themselves. She will perform her play Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times, at St. Ursula Academy.
The play portrays the life of St. Catherine from childhood to her death at the age of 33. The saint is best known for persuading the pope to move back to Rome from Avignon, but there is much more to her life and personality, Sister Nancy said. St. Catherine was outspoken and determined, defying restrictions placed on her because of her gender, poverty, and illiteracy, she explained.
In her show, Sister Nancy draws special attention to St. Catherine's rowdy family life -- she was the 24th of 25 children -- and how her faith in God led her from rebellious teen to becoming an exemplary champion of the poor.
"Every saint started in a family. Family life is the basis of it," she said. She described how struggles between St. Catherine and her siblings often led to jealousy as they vied for their mothers' attention.
It's a situation Sister Nancy can relate to, as she too grew up in a big family. She was the third of nine children -- Bill was the fifth -- born to Edward and Lucille Murray of Wilmette, Ill. Three other siblings, John Murray, Joel Murray, and Brian Doyle-Murray, also became actors.
The nun credits her family's proclivity for acting to her father's lively and dramatic personality. As children he would often make fun of Sister Nancy and her siblings and perform imitations of them, she said. It was a great source of entertainment, unless you happened to be the subject of the joke, the nun noted.
"Improvisation was at the dining-room table … it was situation comedy," she said. "There was a lot of drama."
Sister Nancy became a nun in 1966 at the age of 18. She then obtained a bachelor's degree in theater from Barry University in Miami, and later a master's in pastoral studies from Loyola University in Chicago. She spent time working as a high school drama teacher, serving as a youth minister, and engaging with Chicago's Latino community.
Her involvement in the St. Catherine of Siena show began over a decade ago when the nun's then-drama teacher asked her to direct it. Sister Nancy eventually took the show over, writing her own script. In 2003, the Adrian sisters asked her to dedicate herself full time to performing as St. Catherine. Since that time she has expanded her repertoire to include other saints and has traveled all over the world and the United States to perform.
The Catherine of Siena performance uses simple props, enabling Sister Nancy to travel easily from place to place without an elaborate stage set. A writing table, chair, candle, crucifix, small vase of flowers, bench, and CD player are all she needs to perform. Her costume throughout the show is a nun's habit.
Sister Nancy plays 14 different characters during the show, an experience she seems to live even while not on stage. Speaking about the show, she switched frequently to an Italian accent and recited lines from the play.
St. Ursula's president, Sister Mary Kay Homan, who is also a longtime friend of Sister Nancy, joked that the nun's portrayal of St. Catherine is so convincing and such an integral part of her life that sometimes the line between them blurs.
"She becomes Catherine," Sister Mary Kay said. "I worry sometimes she has a little bit of an identity problem."
The school president met Sister Nancy over 30 years ago when they were teachers in Wilmette. Sister Mary Kay said she has watched Sister Nancy perform St. Catherine three times and begged her to visit St. Ursula's.
"I think it fits so beautifully," Sister Mary Kay said. "I'm just really thrilled, because we really are best friends."
Although Sister Nancy has performed the show more than 500 times, she said she continues to find new inspiration for the play and is constantly reading about St. Catherine and adding new elements to her performance. She also enjoys meeting new people and performing to different audiences, she said.
Then there are the quirks and adventures that happen along the way.
Following a performance she gave in the Peruvian capital, Lima, Sister Nancy recounted how she ventured out in her habit to look at the garden that had belonged to another famous saint -- St. Rose of Lima -- across the street. A crowd mistakenly identified her as St. Rose herself and gathered around Sister Nancy to ask for her blessing. Although she explained she wasn't St. Rose, the crowd insisted on receiving blessings and Sister Nancy spent three hours with them in the garden.
During other performances, Sister Nancy said she has dealt with everything from sudden electricity outages, to interruptions from fire alarms or inquisitive toddlers, to a stray bat flying around her head onstage.
"You've got to think fast," Sister Nancy noted. "There are things that happen in the middle of programs that are totally crazy or unexpected."
Drama, the sister insisted, is as relevant to religion as it is to Hollywood movies.
"I think that a lot of theology is rooted in the drama of lives and relationships," she said. "It's God loving his people and learning to express that in as many ways as possible."
Ultimately, Sister Nancy said she intends for the play to inspire people young and old as they relate St. Catherine's struggles to their own and see similarities between her time and the difficulties in the world today.
"That they see God continues to bring each generation through horrible situations -- wars, plagues, scandals -- and that each person has the power to make a difference," she said. "Their relationship [with God] enables them to love and serve."
Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times will be performed at 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Ursula Academy, 4025 Indian Rd. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students. Priority seating is $25. Tickets are available at toledosua.org or by calling 419-531-1693. Proceeds go to St. Ursula Academy to buy SMARTboards.
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272.
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