McEntee, Sister Peggy
If playwright John Patrick Shanley suffered first night nerves at the opening of "Doubt" at the Manhattan Theater in 2004, they paled by comparison to those he experienced at another performance when, at his invitation, his toughest critic of all was present.
"I felt great trepidation knowing that Sister James, my first grade teacher at St. Anthony's, was sitting in the same row - just seats away," laughs John Patrick.
Not only had Shanley based the character of the young nun in the play on his first grade teacher, but he had also used her real name.
The play is set in a Catholic school in the Bronx 1964, where the principal nun becomes suspicious when a priest takes an interest in one of the boy pupils,
"I had received an e-mail saying, 'I understand you are doing a play about the nuns and a character called Sister James. Well, Sister James is a friend of mine and she has heard about it and would love to come to see it,' " explains John Patrick, taking a break from directing the movie of "Doubt," starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, who plays Sister James.
"I was terrified," recalls Shanley. "I thought 'lawsuit!' - I hadn't even changed her name.
"Fortunately, she liked the play so much she went back four times including the time she was my guest at the opening night on Broadway and at the party with all the razzmatazz after." ("Doubt" transferred to the Walter Kerr Theater where it became the largest-grossing non-musical play in Broadway history).
Sister James, now called Sister Peggy, was born Margaret McEntee but took the name Sister James, following the then Catholic rule of giving nuns men's names. Sister Peggy now teaches at a school in New York's West Village and lives in St. Vincent's College.
Speaking with Irish America on the phone, Sister Peggy describes her Irish heritage.
"My paternal grandparents, Kitty Clark and James McEntee, came from County Cavan. They relocated to New York as did my maternal grandparents, Mary Freeman and James Ware, who also came over from Ireland, from Roscommon. My parents were Peggy Ware and James McEntee. I have one brother, also called James."
Asked what had inspired her to become a teacher, Sister Peggy replied without hesitation, "My own teachers. I dearly loved the Sisters of Charity. From grades 1 to 12, I was taught at St. Margaret's in Riverdale [Bronx]."
Discussing the first time she saw "Doubt," Sister Peggy enthuses, "I was mesmerized by the play. It pulled me back in time. It was so real to me. It made me feel as though I was back there teaching." She explains, "We did not have a pedophile priest, but how clever of John Patrick to have used this plot with its much publicized contemporary overtones to demonstrate how important doubt can be.
"Doubt has a real value unto itself."
And did she remember John Patrick?
"It took me a little bit of time and then I did remember a little boy called Johnny Shanley. He was a very shy child and rather quiet.
"I saw him as a boy with a keen mind - he was only six years old - but I had no idea how very bright he was!"
How does it feel knowing that you taught him to read and write and are therefore part of it all?
"It's beautiful to think about it in that way but it also scares me a bit," Sister Peggy laughs, then more serious, she continues, "A teacher's job is to educate - to lead the pupil into the land of knowledge. A good teacher does her job, then lets the pupil pass on. So I had my time, my time with John Patrick as a pupil and now it's his time. And he seems to have done very well with it."
Tell us about your other job as a technical advisor on the film.
"It's been nothing but a joy. And quite humbling at the same time. Life brings you surprises. I had no idea that I would, at my age, be roaming around with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. I'm having a ball! "The other day I even ended up adjusting the 'cat bows'- the ones that tie under the chin - of Meryl Streep."
Getting back to your 'day job,' what is the most rewarding thing about teaching?
"The relational aspect that I have with young children. I love working with youth - it keeps me young. "I'm very caught up in the Holocaust - I teach religion and the culture of peace."
They say that to be a great teacher you have to be a good actor.
"I do feel as though I'm on stage in the classroom and I think I have to play a role sometimes to first just catch their eyes and then to get absolute attention," laughs Sister Peggy. "It gets harder because these days the kids are so 'techy' - they have access to so much information from computers and such. In fact I have a couple of students who are so good I use them as my private secretaries to help me with my charity work."
Asked about the lasting impact Sister James had on him, John Patrick recalls, "We were her first class, which I did not know at the time. I was six and she was twenty. She was very tall and thin, very nice, and somehow I knew that she had red hair. The principal was an older nun named Sister Aloysuis Marietta who was very strict. And at the other end of the spectrum there was Sister James, the youngest nun, who was very nice.
Asked what impressed her about her former pupil as a writer, Sister Peggy responded: "His openness to seeking the truth. He is a seeker and searcher - he doesn't proclaim things, he invites you, the audience, to join him in the experience of searching." She continued, "I really got into that play. I nearly cried when, at the end, Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius finally admitted her own doubts.
"No one has complete certitude, but most people won't admit it, they pretend they know exactly what's going on."
Sister Peggy describes another hero of hers. "I read Elie Weisel's book 'Night' [about the Holocaust] and saw him on 'Oprah,' when he spoke about how questions unite us but answers divide us. Note that the word 'question' has 'quest' in it. As long as we are on this journey or quest, it's a good thing. Somehow that hit me when I was watching 'Doubt'; that I was getting the same feelings. John Patrick Shanley is a genius."
Asked if he feels he has changed Sister Peggy's life with "Doubt," John Patrick says, "The fates change our lives. In fact, now she is helping as a technical advisor on the film. She will have a credit in the film and of course be paid - but she took the vow of poverty so she will turn her earnings over to the church."
Shanley concludes, "I dedicated 'Doubt' to all the nuns, and I know she saw that in the program.
"That woman has done nothing but help children all her life, and I'm proud to say I was one of them."
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