There will be a day, Sister Nancy Murray knows, when she will have to return to her order, when being a globe-trotting superstar nun who performs a one-woman show dozens of times a year will no longer be practical, and her congregation, based in southern Michigan, will call her home at last. She will no longer be in demand. But that day is certainly not now.
Still, worry lines etch into her face when the subject of the nuns back home comes up -- home being Adrian, Mich., where Murray entered the Adrian Dominican Sisters in 1966, a year after high school.
"Does it make me uncomfortable, the attention?" she asks. "Sometimes. At the end of the day, I can't alienate the others. And what I do can look cushy."
In the last week alone, Murray has gone from Adrian to Chicago to El Paso, Texas, to Las Cruces, N.M., to Mexico, then back to Chicago. On Thursday, she performs in Whitefish Bay, Wis. This weekend, she's in Wilmette, where she will perform Saturday afternoon to mark the 50th anniversary of Regina Dominican High School.
She taught at the school for 13 years, and was a student there in the '60s.
She grew up a few blocks away, third oldest in a family of nine children. Her first year as a nun was rough.
She was 18 then.
She is 60 now but looks 10 years younger than little brother Bill, 58, the fifth Murray -- that Bill Murray.
Her show is called "St. Catherine of Siena: A Woman for Our Times," and though it began nine years ago as a handful of benefit performances, it bloomed into a cottage industry for Murray and the nuns back in Adrian. It is not a hip show or even particularly spectacular theater: It tells the story of the 14th Century Italian Dominican teenager who served the needy and sick and lobbied (successfully) to restore the pope's seat to Rome. It has 14 characters; Murray plays all of them, wrapped in a white tunic, her faux Italian accent slipping into that famous Murray deadpan.
"St. Catherine" has been so popular -- with requests for performances coming in daily from church groups in Australia and Vietnam, parishes in Florida and East Timor -- that, in 2004, Adrian Dominican asked Murray to make the show her outreach, her way of bringing a paycheck into the congregation.
Other sisters work in hospitals. Some do social work. Performance has become Murray's ministry. She has been so busy at it, the show has its own office, with an intern. Indeed, Murray has been so in demand that she spends at least half the year on the road. And she almost never says no, even to performing other sister's shows: When Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking," couldn't attend one of her readings at the University of North Carolina, she asked Murray to be her understudy.
"She's amazing, but I never want her life," said her (familial) sister Peggy Crane, who lives in Elgin. "Her refusal to let anyone down means she's late for everything. Even if that means showing up at someone's house at 11:30 at night for a party that ran until 6 o'clock. Her attitude is, they wouldn't have asked if they didn't want her there."
"Nope, I have not heard of another sister like Nancy," said Sister Mary Margaret Pachucki, president of Regina Dominican. "Not many would take on a ministry like hers. Not many can. But she comes from a family of talent and used that well."
And the Murray siblings are perfectly fine with their sister the nun -- they introduce her as "our sister the sister," "the white sheep of the family." The last time Bill attended her show, he grabbed a DVD of Murray's performance. "Let me have one of those," he said, "for canonization purposes."
Still, that kind of joshing acceptance was not immediate: "I remember when I was a kid a bunch of us drove to Adrian," said Joel, the youngest Murray sibling. "We were staying at this hotel and some of the brothers went to get fast food. But while we were out we decided instead to swing by where Nancy lived. The younger [nuns] were in this one house. We pulled behind the building and we parked beneath the bathroom windows and just started shouting.
"These 18- and 19-year-old nuns are looking out the window and giggling and Billy is just screaming at the top of his lungs: 'NAAAN-CY! We have a bag packed! You can leave! Come on! We'll drive away! We'll take off! NAAAN-CY!'"
On a bright February day in Michigan, the rectangular sign for the Adrian sisters offices glows white. The buildings are old, red brick. In a corner of the sign, however, is a hint of the progressive views inside. Tiny lettering reads "Nuclear-Free Zone." They keep an organic garden. Water is carried in glasses (and bottles frowned upon). It's a signature Vatican II campus: Sisters answer to the pope, not local clergy. You rarely spot a traditional black habit. And because sisters are not allowed to preach in Catholic church, Murray's show is seen as a surreptitious preaching.
That said, they put a premium on silence -- one reason Murray's family was not initially convinced she could stomach the years it takes to become an ordained Dominican nun.
There's a rollicking Mr. Magoo quality about her. No conversation with her is short; even at her desk, she reads her schedule aloud to herself. And she talks to siblings off and on, unceasingly -- Bill on the phone about their Easter plans and with older brother Brian through e-mail about a recent bicycle accident.
In Wilmette, the family lived across the street from St. Joseph's church, near the corner of Lake and Ridge. The boys went to Loyola Academy and New Trier; after school, they hit golf balls onto the convent grounds and worked at Indian Hill Golf Club. The girls went to Regina. The Murrays all say the family's performing streak came from trying to impress their father at dinner:
"It was a floor show," said Ed, the oldest. "People in the neighborhood came to see it."