The dead would like to have some words with you.
Leading up to Halloween, visitors of St. Joseph Cemetery on the campus of the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton witnessed figures of the past come to life.
Among them were St. Joan of Arc, who led a French army to victory before she was burned at the stake, and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, a priest who championed free speech in Poland and fought against communism, only to be kidnapped, beaten and murdered. Then there’s young St. Maria Goretti, an Italian child who forgave her killer on her deathbed and has come to symbolize forgiveness.
For more than a decade, the Seton Shrine’s “Back from the Dead” faith drama has connected visitors with historically significant figures of the Catholic Church.
“They prayed, they sacrificed. Like us, they struggled,” Seton Shrine executive director Rob Judge said.
The production draws scores of volunteers who act as cemetery guides or actors. Many of them return each year, as the faith drama continues to grow in popularity.
The event drew thousands of visitors. By mid-October, they had sold and pre-booked about 2,380 tickets for this year’s event, Seton Shrine communications coordinator Carolyn Shields said.
Though visitors find themselves walking among the dead, so to speak, they’ll learn by the end of their journey that these saints were made for heaven.
On the night of their only dress rehearsal, creative director Becca Corbell and assistant director Phil Dickerson stood on the steps of the historic house where Mother Seton died. Corralling the attention of the excitable, chatty actors, Corbell ran over the list of props.
“I don’t have my sword,” Joan of Arc called out.
Corbell reassured her it was on hand, by the cubbies.
With announcements out of the way, Corbell underscored the responsibility the actors and guides carry. “We are introducing people to the saints,” she said.
In “Back from the Dead” tradition, the cast bowed their heads in prayer before the show. Little red booklets bearing the title “Litany of Trust,” by the Sisters of Life, guided cast members through their recitation. Some knew it by memory.
With their spirits boosted, the first group of volunteers followed a path lit by flickering lanterns to the cemetery. A grave digger waited at its entrance.
“It’s not about ghosts or goblins; it’s about you,” he uttered. “Live your life in light of your death.”
As visitors stepped onto the cemetery grounds, the haunting yet beautiful voice of St. Faustina Kowalska floated over them, and a light orange sky peaked through clouds.
When they reached the figure in black sitting under a tree, the singing stopped. “Do you believe in hell?” asked St. Faustina, portrayed by Emmitsburg resident Veronica Smaldone. She’s served as a guide before, but this year marked her first time in an acting role.
“It’s challenging,” she told the News-Post. Being only a few feet from visitors, rather than standing on a stage, she said, “There’s nowhere to hide” from the audience.
Though St. Faustina’s monologue about hell and sin can sound ominous, Smaldone said there’s a warmth in the saints, too — one she hopes visitors notice.
Returning actor Peter Ferguson of neighboring Fairfield, Pennsylvania, took on the role of Jerzy Popieluszko.
“I love dramatizing the stories of the saints,” he said.
Ferguson delivered his performance in the shadow of a stone crucifixion scene in the cemetery. He said the experience builds upon his faith. In one night, Ferguson may deliver the same lines 20 times, and while the words may start to sound unexceptional to his ears, he’s been pleasantly surprised by the reactions of others.
“You’ll have people come up to you, and they were so touched,” as if the Holy Spirit was right there with them, he said.
The faith drama is one of the ways the Seton Shrine reaches out to its community, Shields said. A lot of people assume a Catholic shrine is just a place to pray, she added, but the Seton Shrine is so much more than that. “There’s nowhere else in the nation that does something like this.”