Annual OLLH Christmas play written by retired teacher remains a Harbor Beach tradition

When Pat Murdock found herself teaching a particularly expressive group of students at Our Lady of Lake Huron Catholic School in Harbor Beach in the 1970s, she thought it would be fun to do a class skit at Christmastime.  

“Just one skit” in the school’s multipurpose room grew and evolved into a tradition that has lasted decades: a Christmas play including the entire school, written and directed by Pat.  

“It changes every year, but it always ends with the birth of a baby boy, Jesus,” she said.  

Pat began teaching at OLLH in 1972. Even after retirement, she serves as a substitute teacher— a role that allows her to keep an eye on the kids who will be in the Christmas play.  

“I get my ideas from the kids. I look at the characters (and think,) ‘this one could do this part’. And then I build around that,” she said. “Little ideas come in and you just file them away.” 

She creates the script over the course of about a month. Pat strives to find roles for all students that they are comfortable with, whether they love the spotlight or prefer a more minor role.

Some lines are adjusted once the rehearsals begin. Pat tailors roles to students, and the children themselves have the opportunity to inject a little of their own personalities into the roles. 

'We all just laughed'

Including students and their input help to give them more responsibility, Pat said. It was even a student years ago who inspired the donkey to be a speaking role. 

“The donkey is always one of my favorites,” Pat laughed. “It came about accidentally.” 

It came about accidentally when a masked student piped up during a discussion, giving the appearance of a talking donkey. 

“He had his mask on and we all just laughed. It was perfect for the donkey!” Pat said. "Since then, the donkey’s been an integral part of the Holy Family.” 

The Nativity story

While there is plenty of humor in the play— this year’s production, Journey to Bethlehem, included a camel whose tail served as a compass, pointing the Magi in the direction they needed to go, not unlike Rudolph’s red nose— there are many opportunities to call the audience’s attention back to the Nativity story and the Catholic Christian faith.  

In an early scene, Mary asks Joseph to pause on their way to Bethlehem so they can pray. The Holy Family shares that David, their ancestor, was a shepherd. And of course, one of the angels recites the famous Bible passage from the Gospel of Luke telling of Jesus’ birth.  

During the play, each student gets the chance to shine, and the production includes traditional Christmas tunes and the annual 'signing’ of Silent Night in American sign language. 

“We want everyone to play a part,” Pat said.  

For example, younger students have a choral role, where a group of performers speak or sing the same lines in unison. Pat also considers when students will need to leave class to practice, and groups students accordingly.  

Many of the students are already used to public speaking, as they lector or sing at the school’s weekly Mass, she said.  

Pat Murdock

Pat, a parishioner at Holy Name of Mary Parish in Harbor Beach, also received the Bishop Murphy Award from the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw in 2017 in recognition of lifelong service to the Catholic Church.

Regarding her work with OLLH, she is quick to emphasize that it is a group effort. Fellow teachers and parents have helped in numerous capacities over the years, including her sister Katie Volmering, Cheryl LaPine, former student-turned-playwright Paula (Shubitowski) Smith, the Community House staff, Mark Gembarski, Trista Henry, Tami Nickrand, Rodney Terwilliger and countless OLLH parents and staff. 

All the volunteers work together not only to produce the play, but also to give students a valuable opportunity. Pat said this also helps them gain new skills and confidence, perhaps stretching outside their comfort zone, and— she hopes— help them feel comfortable to speak in church or volunteer in other aspects. 

"We encourage them to use their talents and gifts, and then give them an opportunity to do it,” she said. 

As for Pat, she’s already planning the Lenten production of the Stations of the Cross.