Originally a nurse by training, Barbara Oleynick Dwyer is a playwright, composer and lyricist. She returned to the Church after a 12-year absence. She holds a master of fine arts degree from New York University Tisch School of the Arts in Writing Musical Theater and is adjunct professor of English and Communications at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Conn. Her dramatic musical Fatima premiered Nov. 30. She recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Drake: Tell me about your background.
Oleynick Dwyer: I grew up in a family of 10 in Bridgeport, Conn. My father was in World War II and worked for the City of Bridgeport. My mother held various secretarial jobs with different banks.
Both of my parents were very musical. My father had met my mother when he was 14 years old. My mother's mother was a composer and he [my father] had gone to her for violin lessons. My mother played the piano and harmonica and my father played five different instruments. I was vocally creating music by the time I was 11. Of all the children, I took music the furthest.
I understand that you had a very difficult childhood?
I was abused for most of my childhood. At the age of 14, after a suicide attempt, I made the conscious decision to choose life and to choose God. I worked 35 hours a week, at a toy store and the Credit Bureau in order to pay my tuition and put myself through Cathedral High School in Bridgeport.
When it came time to graduate I was told that I had flunked English. I was told I could not graduate, although I had been accepted into a nursing program. I felt that my way out had been taken away from me at that moment.
Fortunately, the director of the nursing program at St. Vincent's Hospital asked me to come see her. I was sobbing and she took my face into her hands and said, “You will take a summer class and you will get an A, and you will sit in the first row of my class in the fall.” I did, and then spent the next 28 years as a nurse. Today, I teach the very class which I had flunked, at the college level.
You only just recently returned to the Church after a long absence. Can you explain?
Ten years into my marriage, when I started dealing with my past abuse, I realized I didn't have the tools to deal with all I had been through. I was leading music at my parish at the time, and when the pastor learned of my separation he asked me to step down. By doing so he was asking me to step away from something which had provided me great comfort and connection.
I felt both abandoned and devastated and so I left the Church. I was in a tailspin for many years searching for a spiritual family. I was fragmented and I tried Unitarianism. I spent the next 12 years angry with the Church. Anytime I would attempt to go back to Mass I would become so angry that I couldn't stay for the entire Mass.
In April of 1998, a friend and his mother invited me to attend Mass with them at a small Church in Orange, Conn. I sat there during Mass and I felt very moved by the fact that all of these people had come together, from whatever and wherever they come from, to celebrate God. It was like a window opening for me and I found that I was able to start going to Church again. I found an unbelievable joy, like that which I used to experience, when I was able to go back to Communion.
How did the idea for the musical come to you?
I was attending NYU and needed to submit a thesis project. I faced the task of writing an entire musical on my own. At first I thought I might turn my autobiography into a musical, but one day while jogging on the beach in Milford and praying my rosary I heard “You must write about the Marian apparitions.” I couldn't figure out where it came from. I knew nothing about Marian apparitions.
The idea hit me again while I was in the shower. At first, I resisted. I thought, “What is this? This is a joke. How can such an idea translate into a musical?” As I began to do research on Marian apparitions I learned that Mary had reportedly appeared more than 8,000 times since 40 AD and I wondered how I would condense all of this down into a 2-hour musical. I literally went from a state of laughing at the idea to feeling unworthy of it.
I felt drawn to attend daily Mass and to seek out the answer from God. It was the first time in my life that I sought God's counsel and through that I learned that if we are quiet and we listen, we will always be guided to where we are supposed to go.
How did you finally settle on the Fatima apparition?
From the 8,000 apparitions I kept paring it down, first to 15, and then to five. The five included Our Lady's appearance to St. James in 40 AD; Fatima; Zeton, Egypt; Zimbabwe, Africa; and Medgugorje. Eventually, through the help of classmates in my program at NYU I was able to pare it down to Fatima alone.
What did you learn from your research on Mary's apparitions throughout history?
I learned that the Blessed Mother is an ever-present force in our lives with the recurring messages that we need to stop offending God and that we are capable of living in peace if we would only pray. A prayerful state puts you into a more holy state. That has been the recurring theme of all of the different Marian apparitions.
What are your hopes for the play?
I would like to create 13 performance companies throughout the world. I want to use the gifts given to me by God and to serve him as an instrument of peace. My goal is to have about 100,000 people a week hearing this. If we can get 10% of that number impacted somehow that they know they are not alone and that they have within them the ability to create peace and that prayer is the way to help that happen.
What kind of response has the musical been getting?
It has been getting a very favorable response. We brought in more than 2,400 children for the show in Bridgeport, and it was remarkable to watch their faces. Children ages 5 to 19 sat there on the edge of their seats.
The show has also made grown men cry. One father came up to me after the show and said, “I was dragged here, but by the middle of the first act I was hoping there wasn't going to be an intermission.” Another father who came to the show with his daughter told me that not a week goes by where she doesn't talk about the musical and ask when they can see it again.
Is it likely it may find its way to Broadway?
A professional producer has asked to see a showcase, so it's possible. If that is where God wants it to play then it will. However, because of the cost of such tickets it will limit the audience. The more people that see this show the better off we will all be.
What do you have planned next?
The musical will be playing at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Conn., in the spring, and at St. Bernard's High School there in May. In addition, we will be offering two two-week Fatima summer theater camps for children in July. We will be utilizing the story and roles from Fatima so that when we take the show to other areas children will be able to audition for it. It will be held at Father Bill McCarthy's retreat house My Father's House in Moodus, Conn.
I recently finished my latest project, also divinely inspired. It is a screenplay entitled Blessed Is Her Name. It is based on the manifested works of the Venerable 17th century nun, Mary Agreda of Spain. I know without a doubt that I was to write Fatima first, for there is a miracle that happened in our time. A miracle witnessed by 70,000 people. And a plan for peace. Blessed Is Her Name will show who sent that plan.