Maureen Rooney plays the lead character in Interview History of St. Marguerite d'Youville.

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Maureen Rooney plays the lead character in Interview History of St. Marguerite d'Youville.

December 1, 2014
LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Married to a whiskey trader who died and left her with debts, Marguerite d'Youville also suffered the loss of four of her six children from disease.

Yet d'Youville opened her heart to provide a home for Montreal's poor. Three other women joined forces with her. An astute businesswoman, she paid off her husband's debts, sent her children to school and saw her two sons become priests.

With a generous heart, she looked for others to help and found four starving men in a tumbling down hospital. Her determination saw the hospital refurbished and those in need clothed and fed.

One would think their actions would be welcome.

No way. Instead they were sneered at and called les soeurs grises, which means tipsy nuns. The slur referred back to Marguerite's drunken husband. Despite the challenges, the association of brave women became a formal community, eventually known as the Sisters of Charity of Montreal or, more commonly, the Grey Nuns.

War came and the British pointed their cannons at the nuns' hospital. Suddenly a British soldier ran to the general pleading for the hospital to be spared because it had healed him. The general entered the hospital and found to his dismay French, English and aboriginal patients all being treated with the same care and kindness.

"My hospital is for everyone in need," Marguerite told him. She went on to save the lives of 57,000 orphans, finally dying at 70 years of age.

Beatified by St. John XXIII (he called her Mother of Universal Charity), she was canonized in 1990 by St. John Paul II. With that, she became the first native-born Canadian to be elevated to sainthood by the Catholic Church.

Such a passionate, sacred life – a life brought literally to life by Maureen Rooney in her performance of Interview History of St. Marguerite d'Youville.

Commissioned by Covenant Health for its 150th anniversary, the play was "a big challenge," Rooney said. "It involves a lot of research. But I am not just writing a history paper. I am creating a play. That needs to hold an audience and engage an audience emotionally, so I need to bring the character to life."

There are two people, one person playing the part of the interviewer, the other the interviewee.

Rooney clarifies the extremity of the difference, saying, "This is a modern day person interviewing a person who had walked in from history. She is from the 1700s in Montreal."

The interviewer must mentally dance back through hundreds of years, search for what was happening during society of those times. St. Marguerite must respond, again, just as she would when she was alive.

MONTREAL ACCENT

"The accent that I chose, the Montreal accent that I use now, didn't exist in the 1700s," explains Rooney. "There was a Parisian accent, but we don't know what it sounded like, the same way we don't know the way Shakespeare's English accent sounded like.

"So what I have done is use a slight bit of Parisian accent just to give a flavour of the area, time, and person and culture. Marguerite could not speak English and wrote in one of her memoirs that she wished she could. But there were enough around her that could help her."

"Bonnie Nicholas designed a costume that is historically accurate but instead of wool (I am allergic to wool), it is made of linen. It is the greyish beige colour that Marguerite chose because she was embracing a name (gris – grey) that began as an insult.

"They were telling them they were drunk and good for nothing. And she embraced that name and designed it herself."

RESEARCH FOR 3 YEARS

Rooney started her research around 2011, delving into it big time during the last year.

"I had the script completed by the end of July and memorized by the end of August. Then I started rehearsing in costume for the opening which was in October."

"So it takes months – months of memorization, playing with things likes mannerisms. Like what am I going to have her say, when is she going to cry. When is she going to laugh?"

All this time and effort for 40 minutes of pleasure for the audience.

Rooney supplies a bit of background, saying, "My husband and I started a program years ago and we named it Rooney and Punyi Productions. It is educational theatre. We do numerous programs. We do performing arts residencies in the schools.

"That's where we spend most of our time, with schoolchildren doing residencies where we teach the entire school drama and we put on great big drama festivals in the school where classrooms are turned into performance venues."