A new play from Turlough McConnell explores the story of the Sisters of Charity and their prominent role in caring for the Irish and other immigrant groups. 

Education, as we all know, happens outside the classroom and the textbooks. The girls of St. Raymond Academy in the Bronx were recently given an opportunity for extracurricular enrichment during a special matinee of “How the Nuns of New York Tamed the Gangs of New York,” a play written and produced by Turlough McConnell and directed by George Heslin.

The performance took place on Wednesday, February 28, at the Sheen Center in New York, where it has run several times prior. This show was notable in that it served as the pilot of a version that was specifically geared toward reaching high school students.

The show tells the compelling history of the Sisters of Charity of New York and their prominent role in caring for the Irish and other immigrant groups and lifting them out of poverty and crime.  The narrative is rich with themes of immigration and education, as well as the under-told and crucial role of women. The show also establishes historical parallels with today’s political and social climate.

Read more: The fighting Irish and the real Gangs of New York

Perhaps the greatest strength of this play is its ability to command the undivided and unceasing attention of hundreds of teenagers. The performance was a powerful reminder that drama is an interactive experience whose merits cannot be judged outside of the context of the audience.

As any high school teacher will attest, it is a tricky endeavor to keep a large group of teenagers engaged while at the same time educating them, but based on the reaction of the students, it is clear that the “Nuns-Gangs” play was able to do just that.

McConnell’s work as a playwright and producer is largely focused on bringing the audience to an earlier point in history, a feat dazzlingly accomplished by the performers assembled for this show.  The three narrators brought the story to life by maintaining an engaging tone throughout.

Read more: Turlough McConnell's "Ulster at Play" explores the north's theatre tradition

Dr. Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools of the Archdiocese of New York welcomes the audience. Image: Elena Miranda.

Dr. Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools of the Archdiocese of New York welcomes the audience. Image: Elena Miranda.

“The Green Fields of America,” led by Mick Moloney, resurrected 19th-century Irish American ballads which painted the picture of a frenzied and multicultural New York. Any viewer, regardless of their previous exposure to Irish music, could enjoy the musicianship of the group. Several riveting and poignant acapella ballads rounded out the performance.

The crowd reserved its biggest cheers for the dance performances.  Irish step dancer Niall O’Leary thrilled at several different points during the show with his fast and furious footwork.

But it was Hammerstep, a dance group whose eclectic style meshed elements of hip-hop with traditional Irish dance that generated the most excitement and brought members of the audience to its feet at points.

It is often said that we study history so that we can apply its lessons to the present and the future.  “How the Nuns of New York Tamed the Gangs of New York” packs a powerful message for young people about the role of women, education, and immigration in shaping America’s past and undoubtedly its future.  

Gratitude from Sister Mary Ann

On behalf of the faculty, staff and students of St. Raymond Academy for Girls, I am pleased to share my impressions of the matinee performance of “How the Nuns of New York Tamed the Gangs of New York.”  The students from St. Raymond’s are still talking about the day!   

You should know how much they enjoyed the show!  You had them engaged from the moment they walked into the theater.  The students marveled at the period setting, and they loved the “orchestra” … and especially the ladies who played the violins.  They were very taken with the solo violinist! (International soloist Athena Tergis.)

As for the play itself, the seniors who have studied U.S. immigration knew some of the historical background. The juniors are learning it now in U.S. history and government.  

While the concentration was on the Irish in New York City, the show included other cultures, particularly in song.  The students liked the Irish step dancer, and the breakdancers were excellent.  

The students particularly appreciated the way the show incorporated their pictures and the statements that we sent earlier.  The narrators were great.

The teachers loved the performance too.  Many commented about the excellent segment on Elizabeth Jennings, the woman who helped desegregated public transportation in New York in 1854.  (101 years before Rosa Parks was arrested for breaking segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 by not giving up her seat on the bus to a white man.)

I know that you are looking for comments that will lead you to improve future productions or ways to tweak this show; however, we can’t come up with anything negative!

With best regards,

Sister Mary Ann D’Antonio, principal

School principal Sister Mary Ann D’Antonio with the students at the show.Elena Miranda