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Bringing God to the Big Top

Determined to carry a message of spiritual love to circus folk, two Catholic nuns hit the road with a traveling troupe.


TAPPAHANNOCK, Va. — To find the nuns, go past the guy who eats fire and past the Skull, billed by the Roberts Brothers Circus as "The Strangest Thing You'll Ever See."

Lately though, interest in the shrunken head with the bared teeth and wispy hair has taken a back seat to something equally odd and fascinating: Two Catholic missionary nuns, both in their 50s, have joined the traveling circus. They sell and take tickets, feed the troupe of 40 or so and minister to their spiritual needs.

Circuses are renowned as refuges for furtive people carrying scars and sins, people most comfortable on the move, sliding away from a past nipping at their heels. They are good places to get lost. One day you're in this speck of a town outside Fredericksburg, Va.; the next, it's on up the road to Maryland for shows in La Plata and Barstow.

Wending their way with the Roberts circus on an eight-month tour from Florida to Maine and back, Sister Dorothy Fabritze and Sister Bernard Overkamp of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart are determined, as Sister Dorothy puts it, to "let people in this circus know that there's a God who cares about them no matter what's happened in their lives."

The sisters are part of a fledgling effort by a small group of Catholic nuns, in two religious orders, who have taken circus jobs as a means to offer spiritual assistance to those under the big top.


Sisters Dorothy and Bernard travel in a new trailer whose master bedroom has been replaced by an altar where the two women pray daily and offer communion to interested circus employees.

Sister Bernard (pronounced BURR-nerd) shakes her head in memory of her reaction, a year ago, to Sister Dorothy's suggestion that they run away and join the circus. " 'No way I'm doing this,' " the 56-year-old bespectacled, German-born nun recalls saying. " 'Don't even bring it up again.' Now look at me. Look at this," she said, gesturing broadly at everything--the circus tent outside, the horses, the trapeze artists walking around. "How did I get here?"

There is a knock on the trailer door, and Sister Dorothy appears with the day's schedule and chores.

"Get out," said Sister Bernard. "You got me into this." The two laugh. Sister Dorothy, 52, has short brown hair and glasses with Mr. Magoo lenses. The wags in the troupe appreciate the sisters, but nothing has stopped the good-natured jokes--Nuns on the Run, Nuns in the Sun, Nuns Havin' Fun.

Both sisters did missionary work for two decades in Papua New Guinea. Since joining Roberts a little more than two months ago, Sister Dorothy has become a ticket taker and helps erect the big top; Sister Bernard is the cook, serving up two meals a day.

The saucy camaraderie of the troupe has rubbed off on the twosome, particularly Sister Dorothy, who entered the convent at age 13 in Reading, Pa. She gives off the whiff of someone liberated. She has lately taken to saying "All rrrrrright!" at nearly anything she likes and giving the thumbs-up signal, a la Fonzie, circa 1956.

But it can't all be giggles, the sisters admonish. They're here to minister, lead prayers and worship at their trailer altar.

One recent evening, Sister Dorothy prayed over one of the trapeze artists, 19-year-old Angela Kycia, who had fallen from 15 feet and landed hard.

When word came that a young family member of a circus employee had died unexpectedly, the sisters kept their distance. The worker, they knew, blamed God for the tragedy. "He was angry and depressed," said a fellow employee, and the last thing he wanted to do was talk to a religious person.

But at some point, their path crossed his and, according to an observer, he began pouring out his anger and bewilderment.

"Sometimes people aren't looking for advice," Sister Dorothy said. "They just need somebody to listen and care."


Officials with Roberts like the sisters' style. "Any circus has hard times. It takes faith to keep doing this," said Teresa Earl, a circus administrator and impresario of the poodle act. "I'm not Catholic, but it's an ecumenical message that the sisters are sending."

Since the nuns' arrival, the atmosphere of the circus has changed. Profanity has taken a hit, for one thing. The men who erect the big tent daily quickly decided they needed a "swear jar"--a kitty that takes a quarter from anyone who utters a curse word around the sisters. Already there are enough quarters to finance an ice cream party at season's end, or maybe T-bones, at the rate the coins are rolling in.

"You still gotta say to some guys, 'Hey, watch what you're sayin'. There are nuns around,' " said Harry Thomas, who works with the horses. "It will probably take some time for some guys to open up. Some of them still run the road every night, if you know what I mean. But advice can only help you, right?"

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