A dramatic reading of letters written between a struggling seminarian and St. Therese of Lisieux will be performed for the first time in Boston. It will be held at St. John Seminary on Sept. 11, starting at 7:00 p.m. The reading is produced by the Black Friars Repertory Theater, a New York-based Catholic theater group. Admission is free.
Two years before her death in a Carmelite convent at 24, St. Therese began writing letters to Maurice Belliere, a seminarian that wrote to the convent, asking for a sister to pray for him. He was concerned about his vocation and found that his correspondence with St. Therese helped strengthen his faith.
Although the performance is a reading of the letters, edited for time, the actors have costumes and delve into the roles in order to bring their characters alive, said the director, Father Richard Veras.
In 1998 the letters were collected and published in a book, “Maurice and Therese: The Story of a Love,” by Bishop Patrick Ahern. The dramatic reading is adaptation of the book, which includes 21 letters and commentary by Patrick Traherne.
Father Veras came up with the idea for the adaptation last year in his parish, St. Joseph/St. Thomas on Staten Island, during a Lent series. He called Father Peter John Cameron OP, founder of the Black Friars, with the idea.
Father Veras enjoyed the book and wanted to show how the friendship between St. Therese and Belliere helped them both. Belliere becomes more and more certain of the presence of Christ throughout the letters, Father Veras said. After her death, Belliere sent a letter to St. Therese’s sister about her, writing, “Never again will I doubt my salvation.”
The friendship was also important to St. Therese, who needed male support after the loss of her father, said Father Veras. She was filled with darkness and doubt during the last years of her life, and her constant affirming of the faith for Belliere helped her regain hope and trust in God, he said.
"Maurice and Therese" is a story about two young people finding Christ in a friendship, Father Veras said.
"It really shows how Christ is present in a friendship," especially when our friends love us the way He loves us, Veras added.
The performance also humanizes St. Therese by showing her in a human friendship, said Father Veras. Many people mistakenly make St. Therese “far away,” putting her on a pedestal. Even Belliere called St. Therese an angel in one of his letters, but she wrote back, saying that she was only human. Her simple way of worshiping God is attainable for all people, said Father Veras.
The performance at St. John’s will be the fifth of the traveling dramatic reading.
Father Peter John Cameron OP, the founding artistic director of Black Friars, revived the oldest Catholic play group in 1998. The original group produced performances from 1940 to 1972.
The company now has around 30 lay Catholic actors who “love the theater and the Church,” he said.
"They do this as an expression of both their faith and their art," he added.
Father Cameron’s first production was “The Sacrament of Memory” a play about St. Therese’s life, which was revived in fall 2003. It is very different from the performance of “Maurice and Therese” because the latter shows St. Therese in a human friendship, he said.
Each year during Lent the company puts on a Passion play. However, not every performance is religious. Some are comedies or concerts. All are picked to show “the beauty of humanity,” he said.
Father Cameron, a member of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, said Dominicans have always had a “dedication to art.” Father Cameron always had a great love of theater. He studied theater as an undergraduate at Providence College in R.I., the only university in the United States run by Dominican Friars. He graduated from Catholic University in Washington D.C. with a degree in playwriting. When studying in the seminary — the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C. — he staged Passion plays. Art is an “extraordinary expression of humanity,” he said.
He is also editor-in-chief of Magnificat, a pocket-sized daily Bible readings guide.
Father Cameron said about the performance, “It’s an excellent opportunity to meet two real heroes of holiness whose witness brings so much hope.”
As St. Therese and Belliere face struggles, their friendship blossoms and their relationship with God strengthens. Their relationship changes because of the trust and affection they invest in each other, Father Cameron said.
Father Cameron considers the letters to be love letters, showing the love of the Lord and love in a friendship.
The two actors in the play who met through the experience are engaged and plan to be married in November.
"It's the story of love on another level too," Father Cameron said.