Poking Fun at Nuns, With Big Returns

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CHICAGO -- When did nuns become funny?

Was it in 1967, when Sally Field first donned her absurd cornette and took flight in the ABC comedy "The Flying Nun"? Maybe it was 1985, when the musical "Nunsense" made its Off Broadway debut -- soon to procreate, ironically, many sequels. Certainly nuns were safe sport by 1992, when Whoopi Goldberg appeared in "Sister Act," a movie that later became a play in the West End in London and on Broadway.

Americans began laughing at nuns just as the nuns lost the power to defend themselves. In the early 1960s, Catholic nuns were plentiful, working in schools, hospitals and orphanages, and visible, wearing the habits prescribed by their orders. Today their numbers are diminishing, and many of them wear civilian clothes. Americans, many Roman Catholics especially, now think of nuns with the safe nostalgia and curiosity that we reserve for endangered species, like manatees, or Shakers.

Vicki Quade, the Chicago playwright, shares the view that nuns can be funny, and indeed she has written five comedies featuring funny nuns: the original, "Late Nite Catechism," and spin-offs including "Put the Nuns in Charge" and "Mother Superior's Ho-Ho-Holy Night." But Ms. Quade (rhymes with "body") also loves nuns, even reveres them, and she now uses her shows, at least one of which has been running in Chicago since 1993, to raise money-- over $2 million so far -- for Catholic sisters.

On a Friday last month, I went to the Royal George Theatre in Chicago to see "Late Nite Catechism," which Ms. Quade co-wrote with Maripat Donovan, who has since written her own line of sequels. I found that night's performance, starring Lisa Buscani, ragged but definitely enjoyable (I'm not quite with The Times' critic who called the 1996 New York production "an uproarious piece of interactive theater"). It's a one-woman show in which "Sister," a tough but acerbic nun, leads the audience, which is supposed to be a body of reluctant students in St. Bruno's Adult Catechism Class, through a two-hour lesson in church doctrine.

Based on a show of hands, most of the audience members in the tiny space were raised Catholic, but that did not mean they knew much about their faith, or showed proper respect to Sister. One man came to regret his attire: "This isn't a Cubs game -- take that hat off!" Sister barked. "I don't care if your hairline's receding." A woman in the audience was humiliated when she gave an incorrect explanation of the Immaculate Conception, which refers to Mary's being born without sin, not the virgin birth.

Another woman grinned with pride when she correctly answered that "extreme unction" is what Catholics used to call the Anointing of the Sick, part of the Last Rites. But nobody could name the scapular, the tunic that is part of a nun's habit. Sister instructed us in these and other matters, like the continuing effort to make Dorothy Day a saint.

At the end of the show, Sister announced that there would be a collection for donations to local religious orders; on their way out, nearly everyone deposited some folded bills in the stage manager's hat.

"It's over $2 million since we started doing that collecting," Ms. Quade said, as she drove me around Chicago afterward. "Our first anniversary, we approached the Benedictine order. They wouldn't take the money. They said they didn't need it. That was in 1994. In 1995, we went to the Carmelites in Naperville and got them to take the money."

At first, collections were only around Christmas and Easter, but that soon changed. "At some point around 1996, we said we were going to start collecting all the time" -- after every show. And they would periodically bundle the money and give it to an order: the Carmelites, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Benedictines, the Mercy nuns, the Sisters of St. Francis. "That first check was not much, maybe $1,500. The next check was maybe $5,000."

Ms. Quade asked an early beneficiary what her order had done with their gift. "She said she used it to bury one of the nuns that died."

Although not a regular churchgoer, Ms. Quade considers herself "a spiritual Catholic," and she sent her three children to Catholic school. She grew up in the suburb of Burbank, Ill., back when priests and nuns were plentiful. As a child, her family would let the nuns use a car whenever they needed.

"Father John Hill would come over for dinner," Ms. Quade remembered. "We loved him. He'd smoke cigars with my dad. But the nuns would knock on the window. My mother would say, 'The sisters are here, give them the keys.' They wouldn't come up on the steps. My mother would say, 'You have to go give it to them.'"

For the nuns, unlike for the priest, apparently, being inside a family's home was dangerous. "They didn't want to be tempted by family niceties," Ms. Quade said. "They'd given that all up. So they would put their feet not even on the first step, but in front of it. And nothing stuck with me more than that. Father Hill was back there smoking cigars with my dad, and the nuns wouldn't even come in."

That memory, Ms. Quade said, fairly sums up why she turned her comedic plays into fund-raisers. "I wanted to honor those women. So we have said, 'You can do anything with this money. It can be your Häagen-Dazs fund.' They've bought handicapped vans. They've redone bathrooms.

"We've gotten pictures of big-screen TVs, with notes saying, 'Thank you.'"

mark.e.oppenheimer@gmail.com; twitter.com/markopp1

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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