No doubt about it, nun inspired playwright


By Megan James

Sister Margaret McEntee remembered him as Johnnie, the quiet boy who often asked if he could sharpen his pencils during class. At the pencil sharpener, he would stand there staring out the windows, daydreaming, while the other students worked.

John Patrick Shanley remembered her as Sister Marita James, the youngest teacher at St. Anthony School at a time when the Catholic Church was changing.

“He was 6 and I was 21 and we met together in first grade,” Sister McEntee said — she returned to her baptismal name after it became acceptable for nuns to do so in the late 1960s.

It would be 48 years before they would meet again — in the lobby of the Manhattan Theater Club before the curtain rose on Doubt, Mr. Shanley’s Tony Award-winning play inspired by his time at the Bronx school and by his first-grade teacher, Sister James.

“It fascinates me,” she said about her lasting effect on her student, now immortalized as an Oscar-nominated film, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. “It’s like this whole mystery of life.”

The film tells the story of a nun at a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 who suspects a young priest is abusing a student. The story, while entirely fictional, evokes an era — following the directive of the Vatican Council II, which introduced a more progressive attitude about the church — during which Sister McEntee was studying.

In the midst of this shift, doubt was everywhere, she said, and the movie captured that perfectly.

“I was drawn to this Father Flynn and the way he was trying to humanize the situation,” she said of the movie’s characters. “But I was also drawn to Sister Aloysius that as a teacher my responsibility would be to make sure these children are protected.”

For the movie, Mr. Shanley needed more detailed technical advice. He didn’t know that the Sisters of Charity wore long white robes and white caps to bed, or that they weren’t allowed to speak during dinner until the principal rang a bell. For these things, he needed Sister McEntee.

A Sister of Charity for 55 years, Sister McEntee is a native of Riverdale She attended St. Margaret of Cortona School as a child and entered the convent at the age of 18.

“I had felt called to the sisterhood since I was a young girl,” she said.

It was an elementary school teacher who influenced the course of her life, too. Her second- grade teacher, Sister Anne, had radiant red hair, just like Sister McEntee.

The young girl went home one day and told her mother, “I could become a sister, too, because God lets redheads into the convent.”

The first time Sister McEntee showed up for a shoot, they were filming the actors in a garden downtown, although much of the film was shot on the College of Mount Saint Vincent campus.

It had been a long time since Sister McEntee had seen nuns in the severe habits of the Sisters of Charity.

“It took my breath away,” she said.

She got to work immediately.

“I looked at Meryl Streep and I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, your bows are all wrong,’” she said. “And I made a beeline to straighten the bows under her cap. ‘They’re wilting, they’re dripping,’ I said. ‘We were not allowed to have bows like that.’”

Soon Amy Adams, who plays the character of Sister James in the movie, came running over to have hers fixed, too.

It wasn’t the first time Sister McEntee became a kind of guardian angel, looking out for the actors in Mr. Shanley’s show.

The actress who played Sister James on Broadway early in the show’s run asked Sister McEntee for a photo of herself dressed in her habit. She stuck it to the door of her dressing room, and every time she left to go on stage, she later told Sister McEntee, she’d kiss the photo and whisper, “Wish me luck!”

Sister McEntee has seen the film four times already, and now that Mr. Shanley has been nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, she’s quietly hoping he invites her along to the awards show.

“I keep saying I’m going to join Weight Watchers so I can walk on that red carpet,” she said, laughing.

But there’s one part she hasn’t seen. At the very end of the film, before the credits, it says, “This film has been dedicated to Sister Margaret McEntee.”

“And then he usually says, ‘who taught me how to read and write,’” she said. “But I have never gotten to the next line because my eyes always fill up with tears every time I see it.”