Dominican sister brings St. Catherine to life

Dominican Sister Nancy Murray has been portraying St. Catherine of Siena in her one-woman show since 2000. She recently performed the show at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Austin. (Photo courtesy St. Catherine of Siena Parish)

By Michele Chan Santos
Senior Correspondent

Sister Nancy Murray has performed the role of St. Catherine of Siena more than 780 times. Her one-woman show, “Catherine of Siena: A Woman of Our Times,” has delighted and moved audiences in 36 states and many foreign countries since the year 2000.
And each time, the show is different.
Sister Nancy has written many hours of scenes of the life of St. Catherine of Siena, who lived between 1347 and 1380. St. Catherine was originally named Caterina Benincasa, and was the 24th child born into her family in Siena, Italy. During her two-hour performances, Sister Nancy plays many different roles. She memorably brings to life Caterina’s strong-willed mother and exasperated father, and mesmerizes the audience with scenes showing how this young girl grew in her faith and had conversations with God.
Depending on the audience, the scenes she includes might focus more on Caterina’s youth, or more on her struggles with the papacy, or emphasize her relationship with her family. St. Catherine cared for terminally ill patients and ministered to prisoners on death row.
Sister Nancy began performing this role as a memorial for her good friend, Sister Kathleen Harkins, who died in 2000. Sister Kathleen had performed a show about St. Catherine of Siena, and after she died, Sister Nancy was asked to take her place. Since then, Sister Nancy has rewritten the script extensively, and expanded it, basing her script partly on translations of 400 letters written by St. Catherine.
In the Diocese of Austin, Sister Nancy’s most recent performances took place May 10-12 at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Austin. 
Her famous brother
Sister Nancy is a member of the Adrian Dominicans, based in Adrian, Michigan. Several months a year, she travels performing her show, which raises money for the order. While it might seem unusual for a religious sister to be such a talented actress, it’s not unusual for someone in the Murray family. Sister Nancy’s most famous sibling is actor Bill Murray and three of her other brothers are actors too.
There are nine siblings in their Irish-American Catholic family. One of her favorites of Bill’s movies is “Scrooged,” because her other acting brothers are in it too, and because it’s set at Christmastime and emphasizes helping the homeless. 
In their family, she is the only sibling with a college degree in drama. “Nancy, if I have to hear one more time that you’re the only one with a theater degree,” Bill told her recently. 
After one of her performances in Austin, a parishioner told her, “You look just like your famous brother.” Sister Nancy laughed and said, “I either get ‘you look just like him’ or ‘you don’t look like him at all.’”
Form of prayer
While some may know the basic facts about St. Catherine –– she is the patron saint of Italy and a patron saint of Europe –– to many people, she feels remote, a figure from long ago with no relevance to their modern lives.
Through her show, Sister Nancy wants to change that. She wants audiences to meet the young Caterina who cut off her beautiful hair so she wouldn’t have to be in an arranged marriage at the age of 12; to get to know the teenager who visited the sick, giving them comfort and blessings even though she was very young; to meet the woman who traveled five months to visit Pope Gregory XI, only to be turned away at the door.
When she acts, is it a form of prayer? “Yes,” Sister Nancy said, “and it’s always an act of hope, too. You want families to say, look at this family arguing, there is hope for our family too. If you have jealous kids, teens who are fighting –– the Benincasas (St. Catherine’s family) did that too.”
St. Catherine’s relationship with God was a conversation, Sister Nancy said.
“God calls us by name and wants us. We think of him as the judge, but he is mercy and kindness,” she said.
Giving a blessing
One of the most moving parts of Sister Nancy’s performance is when she reenacts St. Catherine laying her hands on the ill and blessing them. She does this by walking around the audience, placing her hands on people’s heads and praying over them. In Austin at one of her May performances, the church was completely silent when she did this, and many of the audience members were moved to tears.
Sister Nancy said this reaction is common. She recently gave a performance at a nursing home, and the residents hugged her and cried because they were so happy about her show.
Even children sometimes have tears in their eyes when she places her hands on their head, she said.
Her ministry can be tiring, flying all over the country –– all over the world –– with knees that have been through four surgeries. In addition to her performances as St. Catherine, she also has a show where she performs as Sister Dorothy Stang, a nun who was murdered in 2005 in Brazil.
Nevertheless, Sister Nancy finds the strength to keep going. She hopes her audiences will take St. Catherine’s message of peace into their hearts.
“If it is something God wants you to do, he will give you the strength,” she said.
For more information about having Sister Nancy Murray perform for a parish or organization, visit http://nancymurray.adriandominicans.org. Please note that she is generally booked months in advance.