Passion Play role helps overcome loss

By Amanda Lauer | For The Compass | March 3, 2016

After death of her husband, Mary Howard finds consolation thanks to cast members

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]APPLETON — The people involved in the Northeast Wisconsin Passion Play and Christmas Stars truly are a family, as Mary Howard discovered when she first joined the cast nine years ago.

Howard, who retired last July from Winnebago Mental Health Institute after working there for 22 years, had friends from her parish, St. Bernard, who were involved in both productions. “My husband and I saw Christmas Stars once, and he said, ‘You’re going to want to do this.’”

Your Catholic Neighbor: Mary Howard (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)
Your Catholic Neighbor: Mary Howard (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)

A close friend, Rhonda Uschan, who was choir director at St. Bernard, encouraged Howard to audition for Christmas Stars. Her first year in Christmas Stars was 2007.

“My husband came to a performance. He saw me do it once and he knew I had found my element,” noted Howard. In 2008, her husband, Bob, was diagnosed with cancer. “He was sick when the rehearsals started,” she said. She wasn’t sure if she should continue. “I loved it so much and I loved the people so I said, ‘I’m going to try,’” she said.

Other cast members were supportive. “Even if you have to miss some rehearsals, you’re part of the show,” she was told. “Do what you have to do.”

In October of 2008, Bob Howard passed away, and the support she received from Christmas Stars cast helped her through difficult times.

“They helped me through everything,” she said. “That year I decided I wanted to be on the steering committee for Christmas Stars.” She served on the committee for three years and began hearing about the Passion Play. “In 2009 I auditioned and started being a part of that as well.”

This will be Howard’s eighth year in the Passion Play. “I’m excited because this year will be my first year as a performer, where I’m one of the people onstage who stays faithful to Jesus at the end.”

In the past she’s played someone calling for Jesus’ crucifixion. “That’s really hard to do and yet I feel the audience has to be able to see it as it’s real,” she said. “I really have to look and act like I want him to die.”

While Christmas Stars is a great experience, Howard said there’s something special about the Passion Play. “The main reason people are in it is spiritual. They love the story of Jesus and they want to be part of bringing that to people. … It really is my primary Lenten devotion being part of the show — because all through seven weeks of rehearsals we’re living the whole Gospel.”

Lent has become a special time for Howard.

“It used to be that Lent for me was really depressing. I had been away from the church for a lot of years and Lent was when I had a lot of guilt for the time I was away,” she said. “I was so focused on Good Friday. Now I find I can focus on the whole message of the Gospel because we’re doing scenes from all of it. We’re focused on the resurrection; that stays in the front of my mind.”

Howard said losing her husband was difficult, but would have been worse without the support she has found. “I can’t imagine how I would have gotten through my husband’s death without the church and the show and my small Bible study group at St. Bernard’s.”

Since returning to the church in 2006, Howard has been active at her parish.

“I’m in the church choir, I’m a lector, I’m a sacristan — getting things ready for everyone who gives Communion,” she said. “Then I do give Communion and I cantor. I have something at church just about every weekend.”

Howard is finishing up a master’s degree in ministry this year and is hoping to find part-time work as a hospital chaplain. She will still make time to be part of the Christmas Stars and the Passion Play.

One of the best things people can do to prepare for Holy Week is to attend the Northeast Wisconsin Passion Play, said Howard. “You will see a nice overview of the things Jesus taught, the way he lived his life, his sacrifice in his death and the hope of the resurrection,” she said. “It will all be there for you and when you go through Holy Week. You’re going to remember scenes from the show and I think they make it come alive.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_message]

Your Catholic Neighbor
Name: Mary Howard
Parish: St. Bernard, Appleton
Age: 55
Favorite saint: Hildegarde of Bingen
Words to live by: “All things work for good for those who love the Lord.”
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