Acting, traveling nun brings woman-power saint to Valley, talks about women’s role in church

Dominican Sister Nancy Murray performing “Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times.” She will be in Visalia on Saturday, Sept. 10.
Dominican Sister Nancy Murray performing “Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times.” She will be in Visalia on Saturday, Sept. 10. Special to The Bee

Dominican Sister Nancy Murray is an extraordinary nun.

She has spent the past 13 years traveling the world performing her one-woman show, “Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times,” about one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most influential women.

In the 14th century at the age of 27, the laywoman showed up unannounced at the doorstep of the pope, who was then living a kingly life in France, and persuaded him to return to the Vatican in Rome – a contribution to the faith that later earned her sainthood and being named a doctor of the church. She is one of only four Catholic women to earn this rank, given to saints recognized as having special importance.

Murray – sibling of well-known actor and comedian Bill Murray – is bringing St. Catherine’s tale to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Visalia on Saturday to help Serra Club Kings-Tulare celebrate its 10th anniversary of supporting people in religious vocations. The majority of club members are women, and many see St. Catherine as an inspiration.

St. Catherine “was very feisty in her day,” says program chairwoman Jan Rose. “Women didn’t do those things. They didn’t have the voice they have today, and she had a voice. When you think that was over 700 years ago that she lived, it was an amazing accomplishment for someone so young.”

Murray loves to share this trailblazer. The Michigan woman has now done close to 800 Catherine of Siena performances. After doing her first in 2000, the Adrian Dominican Sisters asked her three years later to start touring full time after receiving a flood of requests for performances.

Interestingly enough, Murray became a nun 50 years ago partially because she longed to travel, at a time when a traveling, acting nun was an inconceivable thought.

She suspects her traveling-nun idea was influenced by growing up across from a convent. She would watch with reverence when the nuns lined the street, waving their handkerchiefs down the road at a departing nun. Murray knew that meant one was headed back to Europe. As a young woman, she sent out applications to join the Peace Corps and the Dominican sisters, and the nuns accepted her first.

Over the past 50 years, she has seen a number of changes within the Roman Catholic Church, with women increasingly given more opportunities to serve in leadership roles. She is excited to perform in Visalia for a group that supports these positions for men and women in the church. She hopes opportunities for Catholic women continue to expand, but recognizes some change comes slowly.

What is scarier for people, she asks with a laugh, allowing priests to be married, or female priests? She suspects the church will allow priests to marry before it allows female priests, “but they might happen at the same time, who knows?”

Is there any evidence within the Christian faith that women should be allowed to be priests? Yes, Murray says. A closer examination of Mary Magdalene makes this clear.

“She was the first to preach the good news of the Resurrection …there was something about the way she spoke that stuck in the hearts of those Apostles,” Murray says. “She was the apostle to the Apostles.”

St. Catherine was similarly convincing. Before embarking for France to bring her pope back to Rome – against the wishes of many closest to her – she already had gained a reputation as a persuasive diplomat. The pope, learning of this, wrote letters to her, dispatching her across the region to help stop conflicts, where she persuaded people to lay down their arms and live in peace, Murray says.

Rose says women continue to play an important role: “The sisters and laywomen in the church are very influential. If (people) want something done, that’s where they go. … I think women have always carried the banner for the church. They are the ones who have the families and carry the faith in the family, and I think that’s the biggest contribution.”

Rose has no problem with an all-male priesthood. She says it’s tradition, and changing that would stray too far from tradition.

But over the past century, there have been a number of other permitted changes for Catholic women, who can now serve as parish administrators and chaplains.

Serra Club secretary Patty Fawkes says, “There are multiple ministries in our church that women can be a part of – most importantly, serving as a Eucharist minister at the altar.”

For Murray, her acting is a new form of ministry.

Serra club historian Bernadette Miller is ready to be inspired by the Catherine of Siena performance.

“It’s also a way for women to see different roles throughout history in the church,” Miller says, “I hope some younger members are in the audience.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Catherine of Siena

A one-woman play, “Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times,” by Dominican Sister Nancy Murray will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday at St. Mary’s Parish Center, 506 N. Garden St., Visalia. Buy tickets at the door for $20, or $10 for children ages 11 to 17. No cost for children younger than 11.