A new way of preaching

Aug. 17-30, 2006
A new way of preaching
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Chuck Wainwright
St. Joseph’s Church hosts St. Catherine of Siena presentation

Sister Nancy Murray, OP, had just pulled off another successful presentation of the play St. Catherine of Siena, A Woman for Our Times.
Kate Connor, a parishioner at both St. Augustine’s in Baldwinsville and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Warners, thought the show was very engaging. “You really felt like you were a part of the story,” commented Connor. “It was very good.”

Sister Nancy has been offering a glimpse of St. Catherine of Siena, a 14th century saint and patroness of the Dominican Order, for the past five years. The play tells the story of St. Catherine’s tumultuous life and her message of peace, love, forgiveness and hope. In her one-woman show at St. Joseph’s Parish Center in Camillus on Aug. 6, Sister Nancy portrayed St. Catherine for a group of well over 200 people. Sister Nancy believes St. Catherine’s message is necessary today. “The church is in a time of struggle,” she said. “As I’ve traveled around, I’ve seen that people are hungry for a voice of truth, like Catherine’s — something that makes their faith relevant.”

As one of actor Bill Murray’s sisters, Sister Nancy’s acting skills have led her on a unique path that has taken her around the world, playing St. Catherine of Siena. She performs for parishes, schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Sister Nancy has taken the play to groups throughout the U.S., as well other parts of the world. Sister Nancy became interested in St. Catherine of Siena after reading some new translations of her life, which focused more on her funny, direct and feisty personality. Sister Nancy shared her desire to present this view of Catherine with Sister Kathy Harkins, OP, a fellow Dominican and drama teacher. Sister Kathy had traveled to Italy to research Catherine’s life and together they wrote a script, which is the basis of Sister Nancy’s performances. Sister Kathy was invited to be part of an international Dominican panel on great preachers throughout the ages, but she died of cancer not long after working on the script and before the 2000 event. Sister Nancy took Sister Kathy’s place on the panel, and first performed the play at Sister Kathy’s funeral.

The presentation at St. Joseph’s was held to promote awareness of the centennial celebration of the Home Enthronement Apostolate. The celebration (Sacred Heart Family Conference) will be held Aug. 26-26, 2007 at the Holiday Inn in Liverpool and is sponsored by the Sacred Heart Apostolate. Sister Nancy will be among the list of many speakers at the conference.

Kathie Deaver, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi in Bridgeport and her son, Renn, came to see the show. They were delighted with the presentation. When asked what he thought, Renn replied, “It was super!” Deaver said she was glad she had come. “Sister Nancy was phenomenal and her energy was inspiring,” she remarked. “She deepened my conviction of what I need to do.” Pat Ranieri also thought the presentation was inspiring. “It truly brought St. Catherine to life — it was truly moving,” she said. “It gives us all strength.”

As the play began, Sister Nancy captured everyone’s attention right away as she walked out into the audience, greeting many of the participants individually, speaking with an Italian accent. Throughout the play, Sister Nancy demonstrated the emotions that St. Catherine of Siena might have felt throughout her life. St. Catherine was born on the feast of the Annunciation, on March 25, 1347 in Siena, Italy. Originally named Caterina Benincasa, she was the 24th child of a family headed by her father, Giacomo, a prosperous wool dyer. As a child, St. Catherine had a playful and joyous personality, which she retained throughout her life. At age six, she had a mystical experience in which she saw Jesus sitting on a throne, together with Ss. Peter, Paul, and John the Evangelist in a cloud over the Dominican church in Siena. Jesus smiled at her and held out his hand to bless her. At that time, she decided to make a vow to serve God as a virgin.

As an adolescent, St. Catherine adopted a life of solitude, prayer and penance. She resisted the idea of marriage, convincing her parents by the act of cutting off her hair, thereby making her unattractive to men. Her parents were displeased; they relegated her to servile duties within her family. Her father then provided a room for her at home for meditation and prayer. This was the place where she began the austere fasting and ascetic practices that marked the rest of her life.

When she was 16, St. Catherine gained admittance to the Third Order of St. Dominic, which was then flourishing in Siena. The rules of this group allowed her to dress in the black and white habit of a Dominican nun while remaining in her own home. From age 21 until her death at 33, she nursed the sick in hospitals, distributed alms to the poor and visited prisoners. While praying in front of a crucifix in a church in Pisa in 1375, Catherine received the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ), signs of her identification with Jesus’ suffering. The wounds of Christ remained invisible to others until after her death.

St. Catherine was also drawn into politics in that same year. She tried to end a war between Florence and the Avignon papacy, and in the next year persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return the papal headquarters from Avignon to Rome. While attempting to organize spiritual help towards ending the Great Western Schism, St. Catherine dictated a book called The Dialogue of St. Catherine, an account of her conversations with God. Sacrificing her health from a lack of sleep, Catherine sent letters all over Europe, beseeching help for the restoration of unity and for peace. In 1380, Catherine suffered a stroke. Partially recovering, she lived in a mystical agony, convinced she was wrestling physically with demons. Catherine had a second stroke three weeks later on April 29, 1380, at age 33. She was buried under the high altar in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, but her head was afterwards removed and taken to Siena, where it is enshrined in the Dominican church. She was canonized 81 years after her death. Her feast is celebrated in Siena on April 29th, but elsewhere in the church on the next day. In her portrayal of St. Catherine of Siena, Sister Nancy urged those who had come to see the play that night to speak out about God’s mercy and love. “He will show us the way,” she said.

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