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St. Catherine of Siena: A Feisty Role for Sister Nancy Murray
Barbara Beckwith
Source: St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Published: Sunday, April 29, 2012
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Nancy Murray portrays St. Catherine of Siena.
With a hearty voice, an over-the-top Italian accent and old-fashioned Dominican habit, Sister Nancy Murray, O.P., strides up the aisle from the back door into the Cincinnati church named for St. Catherine of Siena. She greets everyone with “Buon giorno!” and instantly draws her audience into Catherine’s life story. Dramatizing vignettes from Catherine’s life, Sister Nancy uses minimal props, but somehow in the magic of theater, she conjures a believable Catherine who understood that love of God is love of neighbor: “On two feet you must walk my way; on two wings you will fly to heaven.”
Sister Nancy’s one-woman, bravura performances enchant, inform and inspire adult parishioners and schoolchildren as part of the parish’s 100th-anniversary celebration last year. The Dominican sister has performed this play 280 times all over the world.

Catherine Benincasa’s life is both thoroughly medieval and surprisingly modern. She became the “Mamma” of a band of friends and disciples, including some saints in their own right, such as Blessed Raymond of Capua. She was a nurse, a mystic and one of the most influential women of her—or any other—time. Through her letters and visits, she advised princes and popes on social and political issues, and is credited with ending the Avignon “captivity” of the papacy in the 14th century.

Catherine’s story speaks to Sister Nancy’s audience. They throng around her for nearly half an hour after each performance. People might think of AIDS when Catherine is talking about her approach to patients suffering from Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) and bubonic plague (the Black Death). Parishioners connect the fractured Church and civil unrest of Catherine’s time to our own politicized Church and terrorized world. They see a strong woman, standing up to power, speaking out against injustice, in a time which did not appreciate forthright women.

At the end of the performances, Sister Nancy’s Catherine assures everyone that God is not blind and hears all prayers. “If you could only believe how much God loves you, you can change many things.” She received standing ovations.

Besides her impressive dramatic skills, Nancy uses her teaching and pastoral skills with her admirers. One learning-disabled young man who has attended the play with his mother is going to be part of the crowd in a passion play a week later and approaches Sister Nancy for advice. “Breathe deep,” she says, “before you say, ‘Free Barabbas.’ And say it strong.” And then she smiles.

I jumped at the chance to interview Nancy Murray. She’s part of a famous acting family. Her brothers include Bill Murray (Saturday Night Live, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Scrooged, Rushmore, Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Broken Flowers, the voice of Garfield in the 3-D movie of the same name), Brian Doyle-Murray, John Murray and Joel Murray, with many credits to each of their names, too. Their brother Andy now runs the brothers’ restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, named for Caddyshack (1980), the movie that four of the brothers, including Ed, worked on together.

Nancy is also a schoolmate of mine: She was a sophomore when I entered Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, Illinois. (Her sisters, Peggy and Laura, also went there.) Nancy and I participated in Sodality activities together and shared a journalism class. I had not seen her since her graduation in 1965, but did know through the alumnae newsletter that, in 1966, she had joined the Adrian Dominican sisters, the congregation that sponsors our high school.

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