Play offers fresh perspective on Sr. Joan Chittister


By Kate Marlowe
For The Catholic Messenger

Before the one-woman play “Joan Chittister: Her story, my story, our story” began, those of us in the audience received a head’s up. When actress, playwright and singer Teri Bays was on the left side of the set, she would portray Sr. Chittister. When Bays appeared on the right side of the set, she would portray herself.

Teri Bays performing “Joan Chittister: Her story, my story, our story” at The Canticle, home of the Clinton Franciscans on May 22. The one-woman play, a tribute to Sister Joan Chittister, was written and performed by Bays.

What sounded disorderly at first turned out to be a tidy and succinct way to transition between the internationally known speaker and the actress portraying her as the play covered a number of social and moral issues at the same time.

The performance took place May 22 at The Canticle in Clinton, the home of the Sisters of St. Francis. Bays, dressed in black, glided back and forth across a set adorned with one chair on each side, a table in the center and a podium off to the side. The only other costume piece, a blazer with a brooch attached, was draped over the back of one chair, foretelling the reading of excerpts from famous speeches of Sr. Chittister. The table’s surface reflected the same left/right rule, one side holding binders and folders representing Sr. Chittister’s scholarly works, the other housing a stack of books that influenced Bays’ writing of the play. Resting on top of the pile of books was a letter written by Sr. Chittister.


The Benedictine Sister from Erie, Penn., is an internationally known speaker, spiritual leader and award-winning author. Bays is a graduate of Hartt School of Music in Connecticut who has performed leading roles in summer stock, off-Broadway musicals and New York City cabarets. She formerly served as Director of Music and Liturgy at several parishes.

Bays’ reference to the letter on the table cues the audience that the lives of the two women will intersect at some point. I’ve chosen not to reveal the letter’s content to avoid giving away a surprise to future audiences. Until Bays reads the letter, the two women’s stories are presented as parallels. Each tells her own story about growing up with the alcoholism of a father or stepfather, and the abuse others close to them suffered.

Each also talks about attending school and the academic successes that countered their unsettling home lives. At other times, Bays contrasts the two women’s lives; one chose religious life and the other yearned for the stage. Bays highlights the mothering each received as children and young adults. Both mothers were loving, but varied greatly in strength of spirit.

The story’s undercurrent carries a message as well: all people are affected by the same issues that drive Sr. Chittister. Bays artfully crafted sister’s speeches on peace and justice, women’s role in society, interfaith work, spirituality and faith so that they were delivered directly to the audience. That made it challenging to turn away from difficult issues.

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(Kate Marlowe is Director of Congregational Communications for the Sisters of St. Francis of Clinton.)

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