In a ministry of more than 35 years, as a member of the Adrian-based Dominican order of Catholic nuns, Sister Nancy Murray has taught grade school and high school. She established outreach programs to prisoners, AIDS patients and Latino immigrants in Chicago. Sister Nancy grew up in Chicago, one of the nine Murray siblings, who include actor/comedian Bill Murray. She was once known as Sister Marie Erin and taught third-graders at St. Norbert Catholic school in Inkster. Proving that there is a dominant acting gene in the Murray family DNA (brothers Brian Doyle, John and Joel Murray also are thespians), Sister Nancy's main ministry now is a touring show in which she portrays St. Catherine of Siena, the Italian Dominican nun who influenced popes and became the patroness saint of Italy. Thousands have caught Sister Nancy's one-woman play, including brother Bill.
What motivated her to become a Catholic nun: She was inspired by the sisters who taught her at Regina Dominican High School, and the sisters who worked in an orphanage in the St. Lucia Islands, which she visited while working for Rotary Clubs after high school.
"I wouldn't have guessed the changes that have come and the variety of ministries that I have done," says Sister Nancy. "I have been able to do so many things, even missionary work."
The Murray acting gene: She is the oldest daughter and the third sibling, and, she says, the first to show acting chops in community theater programs and high school productions when she was a kid.
Habits of a nun's life: When she first entered the order, she attended Siena Heights University in Adrian. She studied drama, but could work only offstage jobs - crew, box office, costumes - because she was dressed in a nun's habit. Later, after more and more Catholic sisters adopted layperson's dress, she attended Barry University in Florida and auditioned for roles - among them as a singer and dancer in "Fiddler on the Roof.""It's the irony of my beginnings in theater. I could only work backstage because I was in habit. And now I'm onstage because of the habit."
How she developed the show: Sister Nancy worked with another sister to distill the writings of St. Catherine, born Caterina Benincasa and the 24th child born into her family in 1347. Catherine was a prolific letter writer after she entered the Dominican order to care for deathly ill patients and prisoners. Revised translations of Catherine's letters, says Sister Nancy, revealed a "personality that comes out" on stage.
Taking it on the road: From her base in Chicago, she's traveled all over the country, and in Europe and Australia. She's performed it more than 350 times since 2003 - in English and Spanish. Last month, she performed the show at St. Mary Magdalen in Brighton. "I tell everybody I need a candle, a crucifix, a table and a chair. And a small bouquet of flowers, and it works all over the world."
Family in the audience: The siblings tend to critique each other's performances when they get together. After seeing Bill in his Oscar-nominated performance in "Lost in Translation," she remembers telling him that he looked out of it, which was fitting for his role as an American businessman in Japan. He told her, "I never got out of jet lag the whole time I was there."
What did Bill say about his sister's performance? He's seen it twice and lauded her acting chops. He has suggested that her academic tendencies have led her to keep adding more material to the play. She says he's told her to guard against it becoming stale, and to get honest critiques "from professionals, not just academics."
Her goal for the show: Catherine, as a young woman, thought she'd be content to live a quiet, contemplative life. Instead, she felt called to challenge convention and church leaders, and to be a peacemaker, mediator and healer during a time of war.
"What I try to do in this performance is to shed light again on the significance in believing in how much God loves them and the truth that's in their own soul to speak the truth. And truth leads to action."PERFORMANCES
Copyright © 2005 Detroit Free Press Inc.