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An inspiring life inspires a play

Every week, on her way to church, Sarah Melici would pass a tall, bronze statue of a woman named Dorothy Day sitting on a bench. Back then, that name didn't ring a bell, but it certainly piqued her interest.

Melici, who lives in Red Bank, N.J., began to read anything she could get her hands on about Day. She discovered the story of a woman who converted to Catholicism, then dedicated her life to helping the poor and homeless.

"I fell in love with her," Melici said. "What a fascinating woman."

For Melici, just reading about Day wasn't enough. She wanted to tell her story.

"I want (people) to know about her and to get her message, which is love," Melici said.

On Tuesday, she presented A Fool for Christ: A Story of Dorothy Day at Saint Leo University. More than 200 people filled the Abbey's pews for this one-woman show starring Melici. In it, she portrays Day's courageous journey.

The one-hour performance offers a message of faith and community service and explores some of the challenges Day faced.

When Day discovers she is pregnant, a boyfriend tries to persuade her to have an abortion. Later on, she gives birth out of wedlock.

Then, her conversion.

Day develops strong faith in God. She joins a Catholic church and sets out on a mission to help people.

"Please, God, show me how I can be of use," Day's character said.

Melici calls Day a hero, because she wasn't afraid to take a stand.

The play's title refers to one of Day's old sayings.

"Dorothy said we all have to be fools for Christ," Melici said. "To just live your life in a way that some people may think is foolish."

Day became a champion for the poor. She died in 1980 at age 83, and is best known for her work during the Catholic Worker movement, as a champion for social justice.

"Christ was born in poverty," Day says in the play. "He died in poverty, and we must never forget his greatest commandment to love one another."

The real Day was fearless.

Melici portrays Day, at age 75, ending up behind bars for picketing in support of farm workers. She carries a cardboard sign that reads: "Don't eat grapes."

Day's character shows no remorse.

Melici trades her brunette curls for a short, silver wig and wears a dowdy, green prison getup.

She takes on the roles of more than a dozen characters, but no costume changes are needed.

Using gestures or a different voice, she morphs into other characters. She plays Day's boyfriends, her daughter, a nun with a thick Irish accent and a business partner.

Melici, a grandmother of 12, won't reveal her age but credits decades of experience as a theater actor in helping her prepare for the performance.

She wears many hats.

Fool for Christ is a collaborative effort by playwright Donald Yonker and Melici, who also served as producer. Since 1998, she has traveled across the United States and Canada spreading the word about Day. She gives 20-25 performances a year at universities, churches, prisons and retreats. Previously, Melici played the title role in a regional theater version of Driving Miss Daisy. She made an appearance on the TV show Law and Order and Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, Melici says.

Day's legacy lives on.

"She was a genuine person," said Father Michael Cooper of Dorothy Day. "She wasn't trying to be a star. She inspires other people."

Bud and Ann Grieshop of San Antonio enjoyed the performance.

"It's very enlightening," said Ann Grieshop. "I had always heard about her. I was impressed by her courage and standing by her principles."

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