For actress Sr. Nancy Murray, the dinner table was her first stage.
Growing up, the Dominican sister and her eight siblings, including actor Bill Murray, spent mealtime trying to make their father laugh.
“My father had a fragile stomach, so eating was not a favorite thing of his, but being entertained was,” she said.
These suppertime jokes with her family paved the way for the rest of Murray’s theatre-filled life—and influenced her biggest role yet: portraying St. Catherine of Siena in a traveling one-woman play.
Murray has performed the life of her order’s foundress, St. Catherine of Siena, more than 600 times all over the world: in Scotland at the world’s largest arts festival, in Spain and Germany for World Youth Day, in grade schools, hospitals, a medieval studies class, and even a fraternity.
Both Murray and St. Catherine grew up in large families—Catherine was the 24th of 25 children—and Murray chose to focus on Catherine’s family as the crux of her play.
“I think it’s important that families prepare us for life,” she said. “There’s not a perfect one. She [Catherine] drove her mother crazy. God knows, maybe her mother would’ve preferred not to have 25 children.”
Murray performs the role of St. Catherine
of Siena in her one-woman play.
The 90-minute, humorous play, called St. Catherine: A Woman for Our Times, has 14 characters, including Catherine’s father, brother, and two popes. Murray plays all of them. The actress says she tries to give the audience a feel for the saint’s whole life, including the fact that many people did not like her, and some made assassination attempts on her life.
“People are surprised this isn’t just a chick flick, you know?” she says. “[I] want to give the saints an image of more vitality…[You] hope that saints are still being made today, and that you can be a saint.”
Murray, who’s based at her convent in Adrian, Mich., began playing the role of Catherine in 2000, after her mentor, Sr. Kathleen Harkins, who had been playing the role, passed away. Murray’s order asked her to take the reins, and she happily agreed.
For the past 13 years, the one-woman plays have become Sr. Murray’s ministry, or, as she puts it, “Catherine is my bread and butter.”
Sr. Nancy Murray with a poster of
Sr. Dorothy Stang, S.N.D., who was killed in Brazil in 2005 and was just declared a martyr by the Vatican.
Other orders have taken notice. In 2010, the sisters of Notre Dame asked Murray to write two scripts about one of their sisters, Dorothy Stang, S.N.D., who was killed in Brazil in 2005 and was just declared a martyr by the Vatican (Actress Glenn Close has signed on to play Dorothy in a separate feature film next year.) Sr. Murray performed the play about Sr. Dorothy for the first time in 2010 in front of 4,000 teenagers at Xavier University Stadium.
Murray was asked to write a play about the foundress of the Domincan sisters order, Mother Pia. Additionally, Murray is performing the life of Venerable Mary Potter, who helped serve many of the sick and dying, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Little Company of Mary Sisters.
Needless to say, Sr. Murray keeps busy. She’s currently in the process of writing and portraying Sr. Karen Klimczak, who served newly-released prisoners in Buffalo, NY, and was killed by one of the parolees on Good Friday, 2006.
“It is a new form of preaching; it’s storytelling, telling the lives of the saints,” she said.
Although not all of these women are saints; many are just one of the group, doing the mission they were sent to do. “But they cooperated with God’s grace and made a difference,” Murray adds. Sr. Murray says she feels a sense of reverence and honor in portraying these heroic women.
“There’s a sense of taking on the life of someone else that requires a great reverence for them and a certain awe because they are people who you didn’t know but were dearly loved,” she says. “So it’s a holy privilege. And it’s a new way of connecting with the communion of saints, because they’re not ancient, long-ago saints.”
Sr. Murray found her own spirituality deepened by digging through the lives of the sisters—by reading diaries, biographies, and talking with family members.
“I think it makes you realize that God is the potter, and we are the clay,” she said.
In addition to the family dinner table, Murray grew up honing her talents: she directed neighborhood plays—she remembers climbing up in a tree in fourth grade to write a play, which she says was probably about a mix between Cinderella and Rapunzel. After joining the convent at age 18, Murray studied drama at Siena College and taught drama and theology at Regina Dominican High School in Chicago for 13 years.
When Murray joined the Dominican sisters at age 18, she was afraid she’d have to give up her singing, acting, and directing. But her fear was unfounded. The day after she entered, Murray chose to be a drama major at Siena College. She began working in a habit behind the scenes in costumes, props, and lighting.
“I never did a performance because I never got out of the habit,” she said. “Ironically, now I’m in a habit traveling all over the world [performing]. Who would’ve guessed.”
She hopes that all of the plays she performs convey the message of peace.
“Believing that God is working in you can do more than you can infinitely ask or imagine,” she said. “It is up to artists to convey a message that the world needs to hear. Storytelling works, I’ve learned.”