By Kenneth J. Souza
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — The fact that St. Faustina’s life story revolves around God’s infinite mercy isn’t lost on Maria Vargo.
“There were definitely elements of her life that inspired me,” Vargo recently told The Anchor. “As I grew deeper into learning about St. Faustina and reading her diary, I was struck by what an amazing woman she was and noticed some of the similarities that we had and what I could bring to the role.”
Vargo will be portraying the iconic nun in “Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy,” a one-woman play that will be performed on October 24 at Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro and again on October 25 in St. Joseph Chapel at Holy Cross Family Ministries in North Easton. Both shows begin at 7 p.m.
Making its debut in the Fall River Diocese, this moving multimedia production is a modern message of mercy centered around the life of the Polish nun who inspired a worldwide devotion to the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
As a struggling actress living in Los Angeles back in 2007, Vargo found herself experiencing a deep conversion of faith, so she can relate to St. Faustina’s appreciation of Divine Mercy.
“I always said that what initially drew me to the show and to doing it was God’s mercy,” she said. “Having gone through a deep conversion in my life, I knew the power of forgiveness and having experienced it, I knew He never gave up on me. That’s what really drew me to it all.”
During her life, Sister Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938) experienced several visions of Jesus, Who spoke through her with urgent messages for the times. He gave her a special prayer, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, which has since spread throughout the world. The Polish nun kept a diary of her visions until she died of tuberculosis. In April 2000, Faustina was declared the first saint of the 21st century by St. John Paul II.
The play examines the spirit of St. Faustina, a mystic who had personal encounters with Jesus. A parallel modern story within the drama offers audiences a compelling personal connection to current moral issues.
“Jesus, the devil, the confessor — all the other characters — are on a screen,” Vargo explained of the elaborate production. “It’s like a big movie screen and I interact with the screen. I have dialogue and scenes with them and I also interact with the audience, so it’s a very comprehensive kind of experience and one that I haven’t done before.
“It was a whole new technique for me but it’s amazing how well it all works and I’ve had people say they can’t believe how well it works with the timing and (they) don’t really miss having the other (people) there on stage.”
Since much of the plot focuses on St. Faustina’s visions and ethereal apparitions of Christ, the play really lends itself to this unique multimedia experience.
“I don’t know if I thought about it much before, but it seems obvious now,” Vargo agreed. “I know when we talked about trying to do it with a whole cast live onstage, doing Jesus’ role would be interesting, because how do you give the experience of His being there? She saw Him and it was an intimate experience for her — but how do you present it so that He doesn’t appear like anyone else just playing a role?”
“You’ll see that the screen is larger than I am; it towers above me,” she added. “I like that, because Jesus is bigger than I am, looking down on me.”
Vargo said “Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy” also weaves in a couple of “modern-day stories” to “bring the message of God’s mercy into the present.”
Now beginning her third year with the touring show, Vargo was first approached about the role back in 2013.
At the time, she had been dividing her time between writing and recording original music and producing and directing plays for a Catholic theater group in California.
That latter gig led to a chance opportunity where someone from St. Luke Productions saw her in a bit role as a nun and thought she might be ideal for Sister Faustina.
“They told me they were going to do a show about Faustina and wanted to know if I would be interested in auditioning,” Vargo said. “I knew who St. Faustina was — I prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet in a prayer group — but I had never read her diary nor did I know much about her personally. I had written a song that my mom always said was a Divine Mercy song and I used to sing it on Divine Mercy Sunday.”
Whether it was coincidence or Divine intervention, Vargo seems somehow destined to have played St. Faustina.
“Sometimes I think this may be the greatest role I’ll ever play, but I don’t want to limit God or the possibilities of what He can do,” she said. “I’m just thankful that I’ve been able to do this show and hear about all these wonderful experiences — I mean, how often do you get an opportunity like that as an actress to touch people in such a deep way?”
Describing the show as “a labor of love and faith,” Vargo said people often share how moving the experience was for them.
“Last week this woman said something so beautiful and was so sincere,” Vargo said. “She told me: ‘I have seen so many shows in my life, but I don’t need to go to Heaven anymore because I met God tonight through you.’ Hearing something like that and knowing she had that experience makes it all worth the effort. About a month ago I met another woman who had lost her eyesight about five years ago and she said: ‘Thank you for letting me not be blind tonight.’ I thought I was going to cry. She said she dreams in color, but this was the first time she could envision a show in color.”
This weekend’s two performances won’t be Vargo’s first time traveling to Massachusetts. Her initial research for the role involved spending a week with the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy — St. Faustina’s order — in Dorchester.
“It gave me the unique opportunity to immerse myself in the daily routine in the life of a nun,” she said. “The days spent at the convent gave me quiet time to pray, read, and reflect on the life of Sister Faustina and to experience the daily work right alongside the Sisters. I was so grateful to focus on Jesus during those days. It was a beautiful experience and it gave me insight into the character and life of the beloved nun.”
Having inhabited the role of St. Faustina for more than two years now, Vargo has had to temporarily sideline her other passions like singing and songwriting, but she feels “God has me in the right place now.”
“To me, it really is all about God’s mercy and His love, and that’s what we all need,” she said. “My goal is to communicate stories that really lift the human spirit and bring people closer to knowing God. Whether that’s overt, like doing ‘Faustina,’ or something a little more subtle, that’s what I hope to communicate.”
With what looks like another busy year ahead, Vargo said it doesn’t appear there will be much time to work on any other projects in the near future, anyway — and that’s fine with her.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “When I started it, I was thinking maybe things would slow down at some point, and then they asked me to do another season, and then Pope Francis declared the Year of Mercy, so we’re not slowing down and it seems like it’s going to be a very full year. But I always felt as long as God was calling me, I’ve got to do it, because it’s such a powerful show and people are so deeply affected by it.”
And she hopes faithful from the Fall River Diocese will make an effort to catch one or both shows this weekend.
“I would just tell people to come to the show with an open mind and an open heart and I guarantee they will be moved,” she said. “My great hope is that people will really feel the love of God and His mercy. Not only will they feel His love but I think they will be challenged to live a deeper life that will service the Lord. It’s such a deep experience that you can’t help but be changed by it.”
“Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy” is directed by Leonardo Defilippis of St. Luke Productions, runs 90 minutes and is suitable for ages 13 and up.
For information about the October 24 show at Bishop Feehan High School, call 774-284-4598. For information about the October 25 show at Holy Cross Family Ministries in North Easton, visit www.familyrosary.com/events or call 508-238-4095.