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Actress, composer honored for tales of nuns that ring true


Black Catholic actress Vanessa Williams, who produced and starred in a cable drama about the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family, and Jewish composer Elizabeth Swados, whose choral drama commemorated four American churchwomen murdered in El Salvador, are being given this year’s MIRA Awards for their strong portrayals of women religious.

MIRA (both an acronym for Media Images and Religious Awareness and from the Spanish word for look) was started in the early 1990s to counter shallow images of nuns in film and on television. The organization, founded by Sister of Charity Irene Fugazy and Mercy Sr. Rosemary Jeffries, honors people who create positive images of nuns and offers assistance to the media on religious issues.

Past honorees have included Sr. Helen Prejean; Susan Sarandon for her portrayal of Prejean in the 1995 film “Dead Men Walking”; Ann Dowd for her role as Sister Maureen in the ABC series “Nothing Sacred”; and Jesuit Fr. Bill Cain, the creator of that series.

Vanessa Williams

Williams is being honored for “The Courage to Love,” a Lifetime movie she produced and starred in about the life of Henriette Delille, who in antebellum New Orleans founded the Sisters of the Holy Family to serve the poor and elderly.

For Williams, telling Delille’s story was a way to draw attention not only to the work of Catholic religious women, but also to the lives of black Catholics. “I’m a black Catholic and I don’t see a lot of black Catholics in the media,” she said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she is appearing as the Witch in the Broadway-bound revival of “Into the Woods.” “There’s the tendency to think all blacks are Southern Baptists. Here’s a story about a woman of color who was Catholic and had a calling. I felt compelled to do it.”

“The Courage to Love,” which will be rebroadcast March 31 on Lifetime Movie Network and May 17 on Lifetime Television, was Williams’ first project as a television movie producer. She’s a popular recording artist, with hits like “Save the Best for Last” and “Dreamin’,” has appeared in the feature films “Soul Food” and “Eraser” and on Broadway in “The Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Williams had originally planned to play the older sister, afraid that because of her glamorous image as a singer and former Miss America she would not be taken seriously as a nun. But the network wanted her in the lead, so she trusted Delille’s spirit to guide her. “I have never been more involved in a story. I got the chance to take the idea on paper and work on it with the screenwriter and to choose the director, and Lifetime was the perfect place for it.”

The movie looks at the pre-Civil War custom in New Orleans in which some mixed-race Creole women were paired with wealthy French and Spanish men at a lavish annual ball. The men supported the women and together they had children, but they could never marry. Delille, who was of mixed race, opposed this because of her belief in the sanctity of marriage. The movie depicts her fight against this practice, as well as her struggle to find a place in the Catholic church, in which blacks were marginalized. “What does God want from me?” she asks.

After much searching, she finds the answer: “God has been calling me for a long time, and I can’t deny it. I feel God is working through me.” She and several other young women begin dressing in a common uniform because they had given away all their clothes, and black parishioners address them as sister. She is told by her sympathetic white pastor that the bishop wants this stopped. “Do you know what I see when I pray?” she tells the priest. “I see the Virgin Mary, but her skin is brown. The slaves … need to know that God is their God, too. … God wants black faces in his church.”

She confronts the bishop, saying she wants to start a community. “As there are no colored religious orders, I would be blessing only an act of your pride,” he says. When she persists, he is exasperated. “Do you expect the Catholic church of Louisiana to challenge the state, to start a fire that could sweep away what they’ve left of their freedom?”

But Delille stands firm, and eventually her community received a formal religious rule of life, adopted a habit and pronounced vows. They continue to serve the poor, sick and illiterate.

Williams, 38, said she received support for the project from Msgr. Timothy McDonnell, pastor at her parish, St. John and St. Mary in Chappaqua, N.Y. McDonnell, who recently became an auxiliary bishop of the New York archdiocese, helped her with content and answered questions. Williams said her four children are involved in the parish, too. “People my age who might have had problems with the church are coming back as parents. I feel there’s a need to have faith in life. It’s nice to see people reappear and now feel accepted in a way they might not have 20 or 30 years ago.”

Williams said she encountered racism growing up in the predominantly white Westchester County suburb of Millwood, N.Y., the daughter of two music teachers. She first heard the word nigger in third grade and in high school a white friend of hers was called “nigger-lover.” Later, after Williams was crowned the first black Miss America in 1983, she began receiving hate letters from the Ku Klux Klan. (Her reign ended the following year after Penthouse published nude photos taken of her when she was a teenager, something she brushes off as a stupid thing she did when she was young.)

“With everything I’ve accomplished I’ve heard comments like, ‘I didn’t know she could do that,’ ” Williams told NCR. “I knew I was different in my school system. My mother said, ‘You’ll have to do better at everything just to be considered equal.’ That’s how I lived my life and how I continue to live my life. It’s a continuous fight.”

Elizabeth Swados

Director and composer Swados is the first non-Catholic to receive the MIRA award. She is being honored for “Missionaries” (NCR, Nov. 17, 2000), a choral drama about the lives and work of Maryknoll Srs. Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sr. Dorothy Kazel and laywoman Jean Donovan, who were murdered on Dec. 2, 1980, in the beginning years of the Salvadoran civil war.

The MIRA award is “one of the most satisfying awards I’ve ever gotten because it’s from the people who live these events,” Swados said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where she is a visiting professor at Hebrew Union College. “It means the representation I did rang true to them.”

Although not religious, she said she considers herself connected to the Jewish community and admits to having had difficulty writing about Jesus in “Missionaries.” It took her nearly 10 years to compose the work, which only clicked into place after she discovered liberation theology and could think of Jesus as a liberator like Moses.

“I spent so many years working on it and trying to understand Catholicism,” she said. “I feel a part of me is Catholic. To live with these characters and try to believe and understand, that stays inside you.”

The words of the women and the sermons of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero are used as libretto and lyrics, with music from the Mass and Latino culture woven throughout. Swados said she wrote the piece as a way to speak out for justice and not allow the atrocity to be forgotten: “I’m a Jew and I did it for Jewish reasons.”

She says she feels for Romero what any Catholic would. “I’m still quite Jewish, but I understand Catholicism more. I was knocked out by liberation theology.”

She says the women have stayed with her more than most characters she has created. “It inspires me to work harder, laugh louder, care more about the people who need to be cared for. I feel they’re with me every day.”

Fugazy said this year’s MIRA awards ceremony, to be held April 27 in New York, will feature a performance from Swados’ work and clips from Williams’ movie.

There will also be a tribute to Sr. Barbara Ann Ford, a member of Fugazy’s community and a missionary in Guatemala who was shot and killed May 5, 2001. Initial reports said she was killed while resisting attempts by thieves to steal her vehicle, but the Mutual Support Group, Guatemala’s largest group of war victims and human rights activists, believe her killing was a political execution. The case remains unsolved. Ford, who worked among the indigenous people of Quiche, was known for her pioneering mental health program for trauma survivors of the country’s long civil war. Fugazy calls her “our latest martyr.”

Retta Blaney’s second book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, will be published next year by Sheed & Ward.

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002