As director of the Mystery Players at Immaculate Heart Central School, Terry D. Burgess tells students how important it is to bring Gods message to people. This year, he reached out to a community he felt would be especially comforted by that message.
When he wrote to a church in Newtown, Conn., he didnt seriously think hed get a response.
I thought, Im sure they have a lot of things going on there, Mr. Burgess said.
The community was the site of a massacre on Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators with a semi-automatic rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School after killing his mother inside their home. The gunman committed suicide with a handgun as police arrived at the school.
Mr. Burgess emailed his letter to St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church in Newtown. Several funerals for victims of the massacre were held there.
After a delay of several months, a church official wrote back to Mr. Burgess and told him that they would be happy to host the Mystery Players at their church and wondered if the 26-member troupe, all IHC seniors, could come on Good Friday, April 18.
But the Mystery Players have a tradition of presenting its Lenten program, The Way of the Cross, at its host church, St. Patricks, on Good Fridays. The troupe did, however, put St. Rose of Lima Church in its touring schedule on Wednesday of Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday).
The Mystery Players perform Lenten shows across New York state and sometimes in adjoining states. The programs dramatize the stations of the cross, from Jesuss condemnation and crucifixion to his placement in the tomb. This years program is The Stations of the Cross According to Pope John Paul II. The players originally presented it in 2005.
We took some of the meditations he had written on the stations of the cross and used it in the play, Mr. Burgess said.
The players also perform an annual Advent program, The Birth of Jesus.
This years 14-program Lenten schedule begins Sunday, March 9, at Samaritan Summit Village and concludes Good Friday at St. Patricks Church. The troupe performs at St. Rose of Lima on April 16. The players also will visit two churches in Pennsylvania and a church in New Jersey.
IHC senior David C. Brancheau said he expects the stop in Newtown will be emotional for the Mystery Players.
I want to make sure the play is perfect for them and show them how we respect their faith, he said. Its a hard situation to be in because they lost their children.
Mr. Brancheau said theres a particular line by Jesus in the play that will be especially moving. When Jesus is being led to his death, he says to the women of Jerusalem: Dont weep for me. Weep for yourselves and your children.
I imagine that line will have heavy weight, Mr. Brancheau said.
He added that hes not sure how many people directly affected by the shootings will be in attendance. But Id just love to get across the message to them to let them know that God is there.
The troupe is used to emotional reactions from its audiences.
It really means a lot to the community, said IHC senior Robert G. Blackstock. After performances, people come up in tears. Its very emotional. Theyll hug you and thank you. Its really amazing that you mean so much to them.
Mr. Burgess, a health teacher at the South Jefferson Central School District, has been directing the Mystery Players since 1996, but has been involved in the 34-year-old group since 1985.
In addition to 24 students, the troupe has four adults. A large time commitment is needed to be part of the auditioned group. Rehearsals, about three hours each, are held each Sunday from early October and until spring.
Its a huge time commitment, but definitely worth it, said senior Megan K. Goss.
Before I get there, Im kind of bummed out, said Mr. Blackstock. I miss Sunday football and I think about all the times Im missing out on. But once I get there and start rehearsing and get to be with everyone, its really worth it. Its a lot of fun.
That camaraderie is a main attraction of the group.
Just getting closer to all my peers and getting closer to everyone in the group has been really nice, said senior Caitrin McPherson.
Mr. Burgess switches the cast roster at Sunday rehearsals, so students dont know who they will be portraying. In addition to Jesus and Mary, roles include soldiers, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate, Judas and Simon.
We have to pay attention and be ready to jump into any part thats needed, Miss McPherson said.
We have to pay attention to everybodys role and not just ours because we know were going to get a different role each week, Mr. Brancheau said.