Nearly two years ago, the Catholic Herald published a story about a play, “The Life and Times of Fr. Mark Brandl,” which Jim Santilli – long involved in drama ministry at St. Agnes Parish, Butler  – wrote to familiarize the congregation with its then-new pastor.A younger Camillus, played by Jake Leitner, a member of St. Agnes, stands with his father, played by Gerry Wolf, St. Agnes director of Christian formation, during a dress rehearsal for Sinner, Soldier, Saint: The Story of St. Camillus.” The St. Agnes Drama Company staged the production at the San Camillo Retirement Community in Wauwatosa, Oct. 24 and 26. (Submitted photo courtesy Rory Gillespie) 

The article came to the attention of the Camillian religious community, and Santilli was commissioned to write a play to mark the 400th anniversary of their founder’s death. “Sinner, Soldier, Saint: The Story of St. Camillus” was performed at the San Camillo Retirement Community in Wauwatosa Oct. 24 and 26.

During separate telephone interviews, Rory Gillespie, director of communications for the Order of St. Camillus, and Santilli talked about the subject of the play — an Italian born in 1550 who died 64 years later.

At 6’6”, Camillus de Lellis was “a giant” for his era, said Gillespie, a member of St. Margaret Mary Parish, Milwaukee. He was also a youthful gambling addict. According to the playwright, the young Camillus was “self-centered” and “a mercenary.”

As a soldier, Camillus sustained a leg wound that refused to heal. He was taken to a Roman hospital for incurable cases. In spite of poor care, Camillus recovered sufficiently to progress from patient to caregiver to reform-minded hospital superintendent, although his injury plagued him the rest of his life. Eventually he became a priest and founded the order whose members promise poverty, chastity and obedience, but who also take a fourth vow – “to help the sick even at the risk of our own lives.”

Some 1,200 priests and brothers of the order serve in approximately three dozen countries. The order’s USA delegation is based in Wauwatosa.

Camillian Fr. Richard O’Donnell appeared in “Sinner, Soldier, Saint” in his actual habit, dominated by a large red cross. A former provincial of the order, Fr. O’Donnell portrayed Fr. Michael Mueller, a Camillian official from Germany who met Archbishop Sebastian G. Messmer of Milwaukee (played by Gillespie) while traveling. In 1923, the priest started a small hospital for men on the city’s South Side.

That facility morphed into the current St. Camillus campus, which includes the San Camillo Retirement Community, on Blue Mound Road across from the Milwaukee County Zoo. 

After its opening Mueller-Messmer scene, the approximately 100-minute play flashed back to the time of Camillus, highlighting key moments in the saint’s life and sharing tidbits such as his birth in a stable, his thwarted efforts to become a friar and his getting up from his hospital deathbed to attend to another patient.

According to Santilli, all of the lines spoken by actor Dennis Valuch, who played the older, converted Camillus during roughly the second half of the play, represented the saint’s own words as recorded by a contemporary biographer. Those lines include, “The poor and the sick are the heart of God”; “It is not how much you do, but how well you do it”; and “A red cross will be worn on our (Camillians’) chest as a symbol of sacrifice and charity.”

In the program distributed to playgoers, Santilli wrote, “Through this effort we hope to enhance the message and mission of St. Camillus and to foster and encourage lay volunteers and vocations to the ministry and religious life.”

Nearly 30 St. Agnes Drama Company members and five individuals associated with St. Camillus, ranging in age from 6 to 80, helped enhance the message. In addition to Santilli, Corozza, Valuch, Fr. O’Donnell and Gillespie, the cast and crew included Jake Leitner as the younger Camillus, his mother Karyn as a production assistant to Santilli, St. Agnes Christian formation director Gerry Wolf as Camillus’ father, Leslie Berendt who designed the onstage backdrops, Relevant Radio employee Bob Benes who served as narrator, and St. Agnes director of liturgy and music Mark Mauer.

Also involved were San Camillo residents Mary Middendorf, Mary Ann Mueller and Lani Reginato, as well as Jeanette Cordoves, Kaiyah Cordoves, Patty McHugh, Paulette Szuminski, Rosanne Santilli, Peggy Riedel, Amy Ruege, Madison Ruege, Bob Ruege, Dan Berendt, Rick Eck, Alex Leitner, Dan Leitner, Bob Filo, Bob Gundrum, Corey Bett, Kevin Endries and Warren Pischke from St. Agnes. 

Riedel and Amy Ruege, siblings, sang several Simon & Garfunkel numbers, a word changed here and there, at various junctures. The actors sang along as “Bridge over Troubled Water,” its lyrics uncannily applicable to a man and a religious congregation “dedicated to the poor and the sick,” brought the play to its conclusion: 

When you’re down and out                                                                                                     When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard          
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part, oh, when darkness comes 
And pain is all around     
Like a bridge over troubled water    
I will lay me down …