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Sister Joan Chittister Play Comes to Vermont

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Teri Bays - COURTESY OF TERI BAYS
  • Courtesy Of Teri Bays
  • Teri Bays

Joan Chittister is something of a rebel nun. A member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie in Pennsylvania, she's an outspoken feminist, author of more than 50 books and founder of the web-based movement Monasteries of the Heart. She's also the subject of a one-woman play titled Joan Chittister: Her Story, My Story, Our Story that's coming to Vermont on April 5 and 6.

Arizona-based Teri Bays, an actor, artist and pastoral musician, wrote and stars in the show. It will take place at Saint Michael's College in Colchester and Trinity Episcopal Church in Shelburne. But its host is from the Onion City: the Winooski Peace Initiative, a nondenominational community project that aims to foster inclusion in the city's diverse population. Initiative member Sister Patricia McKittrick, a community health improvement coordinator for the University of Vermont Health Network and a registered nurse, was instrumental in bringing Joan Chittister to the state.

Bays has toured her show around the country since 2015, usually hosted by Catholic churches or other religious organizations interested in Chittister's message. However, she and McKittrick both believe that the play is relevant to a broader audience.

"What is so appealing about Joan's message is that it's so universally available," Bays said in a phone interview. "It's about finding a way to live a full and vibrant life and understand God, however that manifests for you."

The play, which includes readings from Chittister's work and original material by Bays, draws on real-life events. Bays' mother and Chittister were childhood friends. After the nun became well known, Bays said, her mother tried to reconnect but unfortunately died before Chittister's response arrived.

Afterward, Bays struck up a relationship with Chittister and went on to write the script about her. She plays herself and Sister Joan in the 85-minute production.

According to Bays' website, "The one-woman play portrays two women to tell the story of all women — about identity, overcoming adversity, abuse and, as the play progresses, justice themes: life issues, women, interfaith, spirituality and prayer."

Bays told Seven Days that her intrigue with Chittister stems from an admiration for the tension she embodies. "She's living a Catholic life and, at the same time, is asking questions about the issues of women in the Church," Bays explained. "And she does it gracefully."

McKittrick first saw the play when Bays performed it in New Jersey in the fall of 2017. But she had been a Chittister fan since the 1970s, when she entered the Sisters of Providence convent in Montréal. She met some fellow nuns from the West Coast who suggested she pick up one of Chittister's books.

McKittrick developed an appreciation for Chittister in part because of her nonconformity. "Joan is a woman and speaks out about what she believes," she said. "The Church has not always been on her side. They think sometimes she's too liberal or radical."

But, continued McKittrick, that's because "we live in a society where it's been male-dominated for so long that it's hard sometimes for men to give up power."

"Sister Pat," as she's known to friends and colleagues, relates a particular scene in Joan Chittister: The nun recalls being ousted from a job in a parish after the arrival of a new priest who "didn't have an interest in working with women." That resonated with McKittrick as an example of the sexism often encountered by women in the Church.

She hopes that the show will add to the larger conversation around women's rights. McKittrick thinks it will inspire viewers to consider "how women are perceived in churches and how women are perceived in society" — and also to ask, "What can we do to make a difference?"  


The original print version of this article was headlined "Sister Activist"

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