Maggie Stanfield meets the feisty nun following successfully in the footsteps of her famous actor brother, Bill ister Nancy Murray has been in the.religious life for over 35 years as a member of the Dominican order. She has not lived the quiet, contemplative life, but rather has been busy as a teacher at grade and high schools in Chicago. She has established outreach programmes for prisoners. Aids patients and Latino immigrants and, unlike any of her thespian siblings, she says, "I'm the only one in the family with an academic degree in acting", but, she adds with characteristic humour, "it hasn't helped the salary".
The thespian siblings include one Bill Murray, the acclaimed Bafta-winning star of Groundhog Day, Lost in Translation, Caddyshack and Tootsie, who is fifth along the line of the nine children who make up the Murray family. There must be a dominant acting gene embedded in the DNA because brothers Brian DoyleMurray, John Murray and Joel Murray are also actors.
But Sister Nancy's route into acting is not akin to that of her brothers. Hers is a different dance to the music of time. The time is the Middle Ages. She plays out the life of St Catherine of Siena, the patron of Italy, to rather more sober audiences than her brother is accustomed to. She and a fellow Sister wrote the show together.
She has already taken her onewoman show to more than 350 churches and other venues around America, Australia and Europe. In it she brings Catherine to life through carefully revised translations of her many letters. "When I read these letters, I saw a personality that leaped forward on stage and seems to really engross people," she says. During the first half of August Sister Nancy brought St Catherine into Old St Paul's Episcopal church for 12 shows as part of the Edinburgh Festival season.
She strides impressively up the nave of the city's first AngloCatholic church, treading if not quite the boards at least the memory of the last bishop it St Giles, Alexander Rose, who left the new cathedral in 1689 with most of his flock. He led the • breakaway group that rejected the anti-Catholic spirit that prevailed after the Catholic Stuart King James VII was deposed during the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688. It was this group that established Old St Paul's at the front line of the Jacobite Rebellion and which has continued a spirit of questioning in its congregation to the present day.
When Old St Paul's celebrated its tercentenary in 1989, a joint service with St Giles' included a procession up the Royal Mile, retracing the path of Bishop Rose, and High Mass was celebrated in the old cathedral for the first time in 300 years.
But at the show Sister Nancy's audience warms instantly to her depiction of Sr Catherine. In her faked Italian accent, she brings this feisty woman, committed to God from the age of just seven, to today's audiences in a vital, dynamic and relevant way. Several children, especially, love the show and ask questions afterwards. How did she write it? What made her pick on St Cathermite? Will she make other shows?
For Sister Nancy, the show is now her mission. Her vocation, she explains, was inspired by the Sisters who taught her at Regina Dominican High School in Chicago and others who worked in an orphanage in the St Lucia Islands which she visited while working for Rotary Clubs after high school. "I wouldn't have guessed the changes that have come and the variety of ministries that I have done," she says. "I have been able to do so many things, even missionary work."
It must be frustrating, even for a woman of God wellschooled in the importance of patience and humility. Bill treads red carpets, is one of the funniest men in the world, has celebrities and fans falling at his feet and Baftas and Golden Globes lining his shelves. Sister Nancy's stage style is rather different. But far from being jealous or resentful, she is as much at ease with her brother's success as she is about her own position as nun and actress. "It's ironic,she says, "that when I first began in theatre I could only work backstage because I was in the habit. And now I'm on stage because of the habit."
As a practising nun, of course, she has no direct income of her own. Whatever she makes out of the shows goes back into the order, bar her expenses. In Edinburgh she is staying with friends rather than in a hotel.
For Sister Nancy, her role as St Catherine is a natural extension of her Christian faith combined with her acting talent. She has found many ways in which the life of the saint touches on lives today. Lepers, sufferers from bubonic plague, refugees of the fractured Church and civil unrest are all 14th-century themes with a 21stcentury resonance in Aids, migration and war. The audience, says Sister Nancy, can see a nurse, a mystic and a strong-willed woman determined to stand up to power and speak out against injustice at a time when women were generally not heard at all.
As for her hosts. the members of Old St Paul's have been delighted by Sister Nancy's presence in the church.
"A church is all about real people, real life, real dramas," says Janet de Vigne, a member of the church vestry, who invited Sister Nancy to perform in Edinburgh. "In St Catherine, Nancy Murray is bringing us all of that... The wars, the scandals, the family jealousies of St Catherine are still very much paralleled in our lives today."
As for family response. Bill's renowned black humour emerges in his comments about Nancy's acting role at the start of his book about golfing, Cinderella Story: My Life in Golf.
"There are four of us who've tried show business," he writes. "Five, if you insist on counting my sister the nun, who does litur gical dance. To date, she's the only one insisting that she's in the business.
"I will include a liturgical dancer in show business the day that one of them gets an encore... the day that I hear... 'More! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, more! We are not getting off of our knees until you come on back out of the sacristy and give us just one more!'"