Sister Act

She's not a nun, but she plays one onstage. Patti Hannon is this week celebrating the third anniversary of Late Nite Catechism, the interactive, one-nun show in which she portrays Sister, a cranky bride of Christ who teaches an adult catechism class. The comedy was originally scheduled to play for a month at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, but, because we can't get enough of funny nuns, it's still drawing crowds. Hannon, who's performed the show for eight years (including a stint in New York), let down her hair shirt and chatted me up about men's shoes, Catholic humor, and the Bishop O'Brien debacle.

New Times: I was in Home Depot the other day and there were two nuns in line behind me at the check-out. One of them was buying a plunger!

Patti Hannon: They're a pretty efficient group! We don't think of nuns as building things or unclogging a toilet, but that's a box we put them in. It came out of that rigid European view of nuns. I saw this when we were doing the show in Ireland, where nuns have a reputation for being in real power. They could take a child away from its family and the kid would never be seen again.

NT: You're a lapsed Catholic who attended Catholic school. You must have mean nun stories of your own.

Hannon: Well, I remember Sister Modesta, who was very sweet, and who was responsible for bringing out the actor in me. A good teacher, but old! I came back 20 years later and she was still alive! She was old and arthritic and she made rosaries.

NT: My brothers had the crap beaten out of them in Catholic school. One nun kept a car aerial in the sleeve of her habit! Sister Mary Punch Your Lights Out.

Hannon: There were some bad ones. But once I started doing the show, I started remembering that there was a balance -- some of the Sisters were kind. In high school the nuns were very verbally abusive, but there were some compassionate ones who taught you something.

NT: You must have had one Hun nun.

Hannon: I remember one time in first grade getting shaken by a nun. I remember looking around while she was shaking me, thinking, "Wow, everything looks really different when a nun is shaking you!" She was shouting, "Look at me when I'm talking to you! Look at me!" But I couldn't because she was shaking me so hard. My brother, who's a Christian Brother today, got initiated by a Benedictine nun. He didn't know how to spell the word "bump," so she picked him up by the ears and smacked him and gave him a bump on his head. But he went into the brotherhood, so I guess she didn't hit him hard enough.

NT: What's the deal with the clergy and child abuse?

Hannon: Nuns weren't afraid to break the boundaries, because they were representatives of the church. They had a lot more leeway about getting physical with kids. The parents had grown up with this thinking, so it continued. There was permission from some parents: "You have my permission to beat the kid, and then let me know and when she gets home, I'll beat the hell out of her, too." There were a lot of lawsuits in the '60s, which curtailed the abuse. Thank goodness. Because there's nothing funny about child abuse. No one should be treated that way. Because the church didn't take care of it back then, now they're in hot water.

NT: What about that zany Bishop O'Brien?

Hannon: I know! He's really in a mess. He's still thinking that his code of honor will protect him, and society's just not allowing it. That era's gone. Parents are, thank goodness, much more protective of their children today. The boundaries of appropriate behavior used to be blurred, but now they're not. But it's a mess, and it really needs to be cleaned up. People bring it up during the show: "What do you think about the mess the church is in right now?" And I make a quick joke and change the subject.

NT: So, do you have nun groupies?

Hannon: Oh, yes. We have people who come back five or six times. Sometimes they take me aside before the show and try to get me to do some of the stuff they saw me do last time they were at the show. Which doesn't work, because a lot of the show is improvised. When we do off-site shows at local churches, they're always trying to stick it to the parish priest. "Oh, hey, make a joke about how Father Pat drinks a lot of Pepsi! That'll be funny!" Well, no it won't. Because it isn't.

NT: Catholics don't always have a, uh, catholic sense of humor.

Hannon: You should see some of them when I do the ejaculation joke.

NT: The ejaculation joke.

Hannon: Well, in the Catholic Church, ejaculations are -- don't you even remember this? I thought you told me you used to be Catholic!

NT: I went to public school.

Hannon: That explains it. You're a Public. Okay, well, if you'd gone to Catholic school, you'd know that an ejaculation is a short prayer. And you'd have been mortified every time Sister would say, "Okay, you should say a little ejaculation for that sin!" or "How many ejaculations are you going to say to our Father?" and you'd be dying, because you're 13 years old and "ejaculation" is a funny word. There's a joke in the show about ejaculation, but sometimes the audience is so stiff I can't take it all the way. I can't get there.

NT: What do you do when the crowd is just really not helping you out?

Hannon: I go faster! I've had audiences where I'm thinking, "Are these people dead? Somebody give them drugs!" Like out in Sun City, well, you have to go fast because the oxygen tanks don't last that long. The audience isn't as generous with its response. But I don't judge it. I don't like to be judgmental.

NT: That's not very Catholic of you. If you were a nun, what would your nun name be?

Hannon: I used to refer to myself as Sister Mary Wingtips, because I had this great pair of men's two-tone shoes I would wear doing the show. But if I were really a nun, which I'd never want to be, I would have taken a man's name. I always liked those nuns with boy names, like Sister Aloysius or Sister James. Sister George!

NT: My name would be Sister Mary Stigmata. But I can't figure out why anyone would want to be a nun.

Hannon: Well, a long time ago it was considered very chic to give your child to the church. If a woman didn't marry young, she could become a nun.

NT: A bride of Christ! But who would want to marry a dead guy who never, ever goes away? A guy with holes in his hands! Okay. So why's it called a habit?

Hannon: Because you wear it all the time. Every day. It's a habit.

NT: Ba-dump bump! And what does a nun wear under her habit?

Hannon: None of your beeswax, buddy.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela