Chicagoland

Local Catholics portray lives of the saints on stage

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
May 14, 2017

Local Catholics portray lives of the saints on stage

Chicago-area Catholics can learn about saints through theater presentations
Wearing her St. Catherine of Siena costume, Adrian Dominican Sister Nancy Murray holds an award in recognition of her 50th jubillee that she received from Adrian Domincan Sister Ann Fallon, former principal, at Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette on May 1. Photo provided
Wayne Messmer portrays St. Damien of Molokai in his one-man play. Photo provided

It’s a little unusual to have as part of your ministry portraying the life of a saint, but that’s what two Chicago natives do.

Since 2000, Adrian Dominican Sister Nancy Murray, sibling to actor and comedian Bill Murray, has performed the life of St. Catherine of Siena as a one-woman play. Since 2002, Wayne Messmer, who sings the national anthem for the Chicago Cubs, has performed the life of St. Damien of Molokai as a one-man play. Both plays are set up as a series of stories in the saints’ lives.

Sister Nancy was first introduced to playing St. Catherine of Siena through her old drama teacher, fellow Adrian Dominican Sister Kathleen Harkens, also a Chicago native. Harkens wrote a play on St. Catherine of Siena and performed it.

St. Catherine of Siena is a doctor of the church born in Italy in 1347. She was a layperson and member of the Third Order Dominicans who had austere spiritual practices and several mystical experiences with Christ. People from all over came to her for prayer and healing. St. Catherine famously convinced Pope Gregory XI, who was living in exile in Avignon, France, to return to Rome.

When Harkens died in 2000, Sister Nancy spoke at her funeral in Chicago and at the Adrian Dominican motherhouse in Michigan. She did some of Sister Kathleen’s play on St. Catherine, complete with the Italian accent, and was later asked to take up the ministry and be vocation director of the community.

Sister Nancy developed her own version of a one-woman play and first performed as Catherine in 2000. It’s been a full-time ministry since 2003.

"They [Adrian Dominican leadership] thought I would do it five or six times. Then after three years they said, ‘Ok, more requests are coming in,’" Sister Nancy said.

The performances raise money for the community. It costs $1,500 to book a show plus travel, expenses and accommodations. Accommodations aren’t fancy for her. She stays with families, at convents, seminaries and rectories

She also performs plays as Mary Potter, founder of Little Company of Mary Sisters, and Notre Dame de Namur Sister Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in the Amazon. Both communities asked Sister Nancy to put together plays about the women.

Sister Nancy calls St. Catherine "a woman for our times."

"I think because you see her and the feisty things like brothers and sisters annoying her … and family situations that are wild and crazy, but that somehow it was the prayer that she took time for herself and really developed this relationship with God. From that she was able to respond to things," Sister Nancy said. "She literally listened carefully. She didn’t read. She didn’t write, but she was a sponge to learning things."

St. Catherine thrived on relationships.

"I try to show at the end of her life that she really becomes a blend of her mother and father and home is boot camp for life. There is not a perfect family but God can make saints and makes them still. But you’ve got to take time for prayer. That’s the inner work that prepares you."

For Wayne Messmer, his lifelong devotion to Father Damien made the journey toward playing him on stage natural.

St. Damien of Molokai was a Belgian priest who volunteered to serve in the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. He died of Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, in 1889.

"At Five Holy Martyrs, where I went to grade school, we had the Franciscan nuns. And the Franciscans are the ones who went over to Molokai with Father Damien," Messmer said.

The sisters at his school frequently held up Father Damien as a model.

"He was always my hero because I thought, think of somebody who did something just amazing, that you really wonder if you’d be able to do. He was always my guy," Messmer said.

He prayed to Father Damien while he was recovering from a shooting during an armed robbery in 1984. Messmer was shot in the throat and thought he’d never sing again. He considers his recovery "miraculous."

Eventually a friend encouraged him to perform the play on Father Damien. It was a natural thing to do, he said. Messmer charges $2,500 for a single performance and $3,500 for two performances. He provides a marketing guide for groups including posters and the playbill. He also provides a study guide for children and homily suggestions for priests.

Since he first performed the play there have been many revisions to the text. For example, when Father Damien was canonized in 2009, "I said he would probably have a comment or two about becoming a saint. Knowing his own self-image, one day I just hit ‘record’ and just went nine and a half minutes straight first-person about what’s all this stuff about sainthood … and just made up a monologue."

Messmer’s wife, Kathleen, has a theatrical background and helps with the production and writing. The original play he uses was written in 1977.

"I now do it in churches, which is, I think, the most effective place," Messmer said of the play.

"What’s interesting is after the play is over I will always be in the back of the church thanking people for coming and Wayne still isn’t there. It’s still Damien," he said. "People come by and touch my arm or touch the sleeve of the garment and say ‘Thank you.’ I have to take this seriously because it touches people very deeply."

Messmer believes in what St. Damien went through at Molokai.

"I will tell you that portraying him for an hour and a half is humbling because I absolutely become him. I look like the guy too," Messmer said. "When I don’t do the play for a number of months, I miss the guy."

For more information about Sister Nancy Murray’s play, visit nancymurray.adriandominicans.org. For information about Wayne Messmer and his play, visit waynemessmer.com.

Topics:

  • sister nancy murray
  • bill murray
  • wayne messmer
  • saint catherine of siena
  • saint damien of molokai
  • saint catherine
  • saint damien
  • regina dominican high school

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