Step into a conversation and mention the word “nun,” and it’s not uncommon for someone to describe a stereotypical incident of a woman wearing a religious habit and wielding a ruler to inflict discipline.
But, there is so much more to the story of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida, and a play to be presented this weekend at the Saint Leo Black Box Theatre in Benedictine Hall, provides a glimpse into those lives.
Eight Saint Leo University students wrote the play, “Women on the Move: The Story of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida.”
It shares the story of women who left their homes to join a new community in Florida, to carry out their faith through the work of their daily lives.
At times, the dramatization is touching, said Alicia Corts, assistant professor of theatre at the university, and the play’s director. At other times, it’s amusing, she said.
Corts, who arrived at the university last year, recalled the genesis of the play.
“When I first arrived at Saint Leo, we were getting a brand new theater, which is a big thing for Saint Leo,” she said.
The reason the university has the theater is because when the Sisters sold their old monastery building, the university had room to create the theater. It is housed in the space that had been occupied by the chapel in the former monastery.
“I knew all of that coming into the job, but on my first day, I was going to get my keys,” Corts said. As a security guard was giving her a ride to pick up her keys, they stopped to wait for traffic.
“I pointed to the theater and said, ‘Well that’s my new home. That’s my new theater.’
“And, he said, ‘You know when they moved out of that place was the first time I saw those ladies cry.’
“I thought that’s really dramatic, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that part of that.
“It got me to thinking about that idea of home, and leaving your home,” the play director said.
Even though the nuns sold the building, it still felt like they deserved an expression of gratitude, the play director said.
“So, I proposed that we write a play,” Corts said.
And, that’s precisely what happened.
The students went to work, researching the history of the Benedictine Sisters of Florida. They unearthed old records, conducted interviews and wrote vignettes.
“They went back to records from the 1800s. They contacted the original monastery that the nuns came from,” Corts said.
“These kids just dug into their (the Sisters’) lives and wrote this show as an expression of gratitude for the new home that we have. They (the Sisters) left their home and now we have our new place,” she said.
When they arrived in East Pasco from Elk County, Pennsylvania, in 1889, the religious sisters lived in a three-story hotel in San Antonio.
The play captures moments in these women’s lives and also dispels some myths about nuns, Corts said. At one point in history, she said, nuns were called witches because of the religious clothing they wore and the prayers that they chanted.
The production is sponsored by the university’s Department of Language Studies and the Arts.
It involves 30 people, counting both cast and crew. It will be premiered on the weekend of Oct. 28 through Oct. 30, with each show starting at 7 p.m.
The play will be performed to an 80-seat house at Saint Leo Black Box Theatre in Benedictine Hall.
Admission is free, but a donation of $10 or more is suggested. All proceeds will go directly to the Benedictine Sisters of Florida and their continuing work.
‘The great work still goes on’
Sister Roberta Bailey, now serving in her second term as Prioress at Holy Name Monastery, recounted the sacrifices made by members of the religious order during a 125th birthday celebration for the town of St. Leo.
“We preserve our stories because we want never to forget that the opportunities we have today were not simply lavished upon us,” Bailey said. “They were purchased at a great price, at travel from home; cold, cracked, work-worn knuckles; study by night with midnight oil; stomachs that ached with hunger; raking, hoeing and manuring groves and gardens; saving, skimping and salvaging.
“What firm faith and incredible courage our founding sisters must have had,” Bailey said. “Imagine what daring it took to venture south into this unknown territory,” Bailey said.
Since arriving in 1889, the sisters have been educators and administrators, town mayors and commissioners, members of various boards, leaders of religious programs and ministries, and involved in work in surrounding communities and in other states.
“The great work still goes on,” she said. “As long as there are gaps between our ideals and our reality, there will always be great work to be done.”
Originally published in The Laker/Lutz News on Aug. 3, 2016