St. Catherine of Siena: A Saint For Our Times

By Barbara M. Bannon

Buongiorno, a voice salutes us from the back of the chapel, and Sister Nancy Murray makes her way down the aisle in the familiar Dominican black-and-white habit, pausing to greet people in the audience along the way. Or is it Saint Catherine of Siena, coming to visit her namesake church?

Sister Nancy traveled west from her Dominican motherhouse in Adrian, Michigan, and presented her one-woman show on the life of St. Catherine to an appreciative audience on Sunday, December 11. Her program, which runs about two hours, is based on the nearly 400 letters that St. Catherine wrote during her lifetime; since she didn’t learn to read or write until late in her life, many of them were dictated to others, but they had amazing influence on the recipients, including Pope Gregory XI. Catherine journeyed to Avignon, France, where the pope was in exile and helped persuade him to return to Rome.

Although Sister Nancy has a script, she improvises from it freely. Her performance at the Newman Center was sprinkled with references to Salt Lake City, the Utah Jazz, and the current political climate, and she interacted continually with the audience, even inviting some children to come up, play a game, and dance with her.

Her portrait of St. Catherine’s life fell into two parts; the first chronicled her early life when she established herself as a resourceful and independent young woman. One of the youngest in a very large Italian family, she refused to marry, even cutting off her hair to make herself less attractive. Instead of entering a convent, she begged to join the Mantellate, a group of older widows who went around Siena doing good works. The second part depicted her travels throughout Italy and France, trying to heal political and religious divisions. Whether at home or abroad, she was an outspoken woman with strong convictions but also loving and loyal to her family and friends.

Sister Nancy tells St. Catherine’s story by creating little scenes where she acts out all the parts. She is always in motion, and her lively sense of humor keeps the audience laughing throughout the performance, but she also knows how to capture viewers’ attention for more serious moments. Her dramatic flair comes naturally; she is part of a theatrical family. Her younger brother is actor/comedian Bill Murray, whom she refers to fondly as Billy, and a couple of her other siblings are actors as well. She grew up in a large family in Wilmette near Chicago and remains close to her siblings and their families.

Sister Nancy began performing her one-woman show in 2000, and it has become very popular. She spends at least half the year on the road and has traveled as far as Australia and Vietnam with the program, which she can also perform in Spanish and Italian. She is also a delightful person. The Lay Dominicans were lucky enough to have dinner with her the night before her show, and she regaled us with anecdotes about her life and travels. And what a gift to be able to have her come and present her show in this jubilee year of the founding of the Dominican order.