This Sister Act Brings Serenity To Circus Life

Dec 31, 2017

Any good circus has clowns, the acrobats and the high-wire acts. But chances are you haven't seen the sister act.

Seventy-year-old Catholic nun Sister Dorothy Fabritze has made the circus her mission. She has spent 18 years in the church's circus ministry, and for her, it's a second calling.

"I ran away joined the convent and then joined the circus. But I'm still in the convent, too," she says. "I have the best of both worlds."

The Catholic Church's circus ministry dates back to the 1920s. A priest visits the traveling shows to celebrate Mass, but Fabritze of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus lives and travels with the circus families, providing counseling and religious instruction. She says her most important role is a ministry of presence.

"And that's really why I'm here," she says, "I just want to live the Gospel message."

In a checkered shirt and comfortable shoes, she wears a small cross around her neck and fits right in with the circus family.

And at a recent performance in the High Desert town of Palmdale, Calif., she pulled double duty as an usher. As sparkling sequined acrobats prepared to enter the center ring, Fabritze stopped to say hello to one half of the bow-and-arrow act. "She and her husband are just awesome. He takes a bow and arrow and shoots it at her, and she doesn't move," she laughs. "I wouldn't do that."

Fabritze does admit that performers tread lightly around her at first. "Do I make them nervous?" she asks. "You know, maybe in the beginning. Maybe they're a little more careful maybe not nervous but more careful of their behavior or careful of the way they talk."

For the past few months, she has been traveling with Circus Vargas.

Ingrid Silva, a 23-year-old flying trapeze artist, was a young girl when she studied for her first Communion with Fabritze. They had lost touch for many years — performers often travel with different circuses.

"I was so happy last year when I saw her coming back," Silva says. "I was in the ticket office selling tickets and I saw Sister Dorothy coming and it was so peaceful to see her."

Co-owner of Circus Vargas Katya Quiroga says Fabritze brings a sense of serenity to circus life.

"We're like a little town traveling without a ZIP code," she says. "And Sister Dorothy becoming part of our family ... we are very honored to have her here."

People often ask Fabritze how long she'll continue this ministry.

"I always answered that question the same way from Day 1," she says, "God told me to start and God will tell when it should stop."

After the circus pulls up stake in Palmdale, Fabritze hitches her recreational vehicle to her pickup truck and drives back to Pennsylvania where she shares a home with her religious sisters. They eagerly await her arrival. "Some sisters are very interested in every little story I have," she says.

And Fabritze does not disappoint.

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LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:

The circus - you've seen the clowns, the acrobats and the high-wire acts, but chances are, you haven't seen the sister act. Reporter Gloria Hillard has the story of an adventurous nun who's made the circus her mission.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: In the High Desert town of Palmdale, Calif., the circus has come to town. Sparkling, sequined acrobats are about to enter the center ring, and pulling double duty as an usher is Sister Dorothy Fabritze, who stops to say hello to one half of the bow-and-arrow act.

DOROTHY FABRITZE: She and her husband are just awesome. I mean, he takes a bow and arrow and shoots it at her, and she doesn't move.

(LAUGHTER)

FABRITZE: I wouldn't do that (laughter).

HILLARD: The 70-year-old Catholic nun has spent 18 years in the church's circus ministry. For her, it's a second calling.

FABRITZE: I ran away, joined the convent and then joined the circus. But I'm still in the convent too. I have the best of both worlds.

HILLARD: The Catholic Church's circus ministry dates back to the 1920s. A priest visits the traveling shows to celebrate mass, but Sister Dorothy of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus lives and travels with the circus families, providing counseling and religious instruction. She says her most important role is a ministry of presence.

FABRITZE: And that's really why I'm here. I just want to live the Gospel message.

HILLARD: In a checkered shirt and comfortable shoes, she wears a small cross around her neck and fits right in with the circus family.

FABRITZE: Hi, cowboy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How's it going?

FABRITZE: OK. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good.

FABRITZE: Yeah?

HILLARD: And I had to ask...

FABRITZE: Do I make the, nervous? You know, maybe in the beginning, maybe they're a little more careful - maybe not nervous, but more careful of their behavior, more careful of the way they talk.

HILLARD: For the last few months, she's been traveling with Circus Vargas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Woo (ph).

(APPLAUSE)

HILLARD: Ingrid Silva is a 23-year-old flying trapeze artist. She was a young girl when she studied for her first Communion with Sister Dorothy. Performers often travel with different circuses, and they had lost touch for many years.

INGRID SILVA: I was so happy last year when I saw her coming back. I was in the ticket office selling ticket, and I saw Sister Dorothy coming, and it was so peaceful to see her and...

HILLARD: The co-owner of Circus Vargas, Katya Quiroga, says Sister Dorothy brings a sense of serenity to circus life.

KATYA QUIROGA: We are like a little town traveling without a zip code, and Sister Dorothy becoming part of our family - we're very honored to have her here.

HILLARD: People often ask Sister Dorothy how long she'll continue with this ministry.

FABRITZE: I always answered that question the same way from day one. God told me to start, and God will tell me when it should stop.

HILLARD: After the circus pulls up stakes here in Palmdale, Sister Dorothy hitches her RV to her pickup truck and drives back to Pennsylvania, where she shares a home with her religious sisters. Of course...

FABRITZE: Some sisters are very interested in every little story I have, so...

HILLARD: And Sister Dorothy of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus does not disappoint. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.