A nun comes to life on stage

  • Medill News Service
  • November 21, 2006 @ 7:20 AM
"Buona sera!" she beamed. "How are you tonight?"

A Roman Catholic nun dressed in an old-fashioned, voluminous habit strolled down the church's aisle. The rosary hanging from her hips swayed as she stopped to greet people in the pews. With a crisp white wimple covering her head, only the center of her expressive face could be seen.

"It is surprising that you would want to hear a story from a girl from the 14th century -- you modern people in your modern times," Sister Nancy Murray said, as she began her one-woman performance as St. Catherine of Siena.

Sister Murray was in character from the moment she appeared at the back of St. Bonaventure Church in Lakeview for the two-hour performance recently, yet she managed to find parallels between St. Catherine's 14th century Siena and 21st century Chicago..

A member of the Adrian Dominican order since 1966, and sister of the actor Bill Murray, Sister Murray is in Chicago last week performing "Catherine of Siena -- A Woman for Our Times." Raised in Wilmette, she attended Regina Dominican High School, served in the youth ministry of St. Sylvester Parish in Logan Square and taught at Loyola University in Chicago.

Sister Murray wrote "Catherine of Siena'' in 2000 with Sister Kathy Harkins, also a Dominican nun and a drama teacher, and since 2003 has traveled the world doing the show as her full-time ministry.

Never breaking character, she entertained the crowd, often drawing laughter as she played the role of Catherine from birth to death as well as members of the saint's family, of her religious order, and finally Pope Gregory XI.

"It's wonderful to be back in this neighborhood," Sister Murray's St. Catherine observed, confiding that she had enjoyed some Italian pizza before the performance. "I had a little slice. It helps the accent, you know," she said as her accent grew thicker.

"Are you ready to go on a journey?" she asked the crowd that had braved cold weather to be there. "Yes!" they replied.

"Let's start here -- at Diversey and Ashland," St. Catherine announced. "We'll fly over your city to my city in Italy." Standing at the altar, she began the process of time travel. "From the 21st century -- we will rrrrrrrr-rewind like those little machines in your house," she said.

The audience counted out loud, ticking off the centuries from the 21st to the 14th when St. Catherine was born Caterina Benincasa in Siena, Italy.

"I was number 24 in my famiglia -- so nobody was giving my mom a baby shower," St. Catherine said. It was the time of the bubonic plague, which killed her twin sister and more than one million others, approximately one-third the population of Europe at the time.

Later in the performance, she said, "Your generation has known the plague -- called AIDS. We must do all that we can to get rid of the disease. Everyone must."

Sister Murray portrayed St. Catherine receiving a religious vision as a young girl. In her teens, the saint heard God calling her to go forth and serve him and her neighbor. In 1370, at age 23, she joined the Mantellate, an order of Dominican sisters who served the poor and hospitalized.

During her ministry, the charismatic St. Catherine attracted numerous followers throughout Europe. She corresponded with the leaders of her time, calling on them to remember their vocations and the plight of the poor.

From her vantage point of St. Bonaventure's altar, St. Catherine saw ages-old problems. "People are still fighting over land, water and oil,'' she said. "People are still confused about what to do as leaders."

She cited the December 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina as examples of the suffering that comes when governments ignore the poor. "They are still our brothers and our sisters," she said.

Despite today's "plagues," church scandals and lack of leadership, "God still is present in the goodness and love of his people," St. Catherine observed. "But there must be no silence. We must speak out as if we had 10,000 voices."

Several nuns from the Sisters of Christian Charity in Wilmette attended the performance, including Sister Margaritis who said Sister Murray had lived across the street from the order's mother house. "Growing up, she and her family lived in a cottage there," she said.

Sister Margaritis said the performance was wonderful as Sister Murray "tied the old world and today's world together."