August 2022 Morning Call, Lehigh Valley and Allentown, PA News
“Many of my best friends are clowns,” Sister Dorothy Fabritze earnestly told the crowd at Sacred Heart Church in Bethlehem Township.
On the wall, she projected an old photo of herself, in which she stood grinning next to a man in white makeup and a candy red wig. While clown/nun companionships might seem unlikely, the pairing is more common than one would expect.
Fabritze is part of the Catholic Church’s Circus and Traveling Shows Ministry, missionaries who travel with and provide religious services for circus performers. She conducted this pastoral ministry for 20 years, from 2000-2019, with multiple traveling circuses, such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Roberts Bros. and Circus Vargas.
Fabritze visited Sacred Heart on Wednesday afternoon to speak about her religious work and share photos of her life.
Fabritze had a different job at each circus she traveled with. Sometimes she was a tent crew member, sometimes a nursery teacher. With Ringling Bros., her job was to open and close the curtain for each act – close to 100 times per show.
“I had the best biceps of any sister,” Fabritze said.
On top of her official job, she provided a number of religious services for circus employees, including arranging Masses, and leading Bible studies and prayers. Once, she blessed a circus’s animals, trapeze and trailers with holy water at the request of the owner’s daughter.
Fabritze even got special permission from the Vatican to hold the Liturgy of the Eucharist in her trailer.
“I called a sister who was staying in Rome and asked her to go to the Vatican and do the official documentation for us,” she said. “Then we were allowed to have the liturgy on the road.”
Fabritze, 74, was born in Allentown and educated at St. Elizabeth’s Parish School in Whitehall Township. Called to religious life early, she attended the Aspirancy of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Reading after high school.
She spent 16 years early in her career in Papua New Guinea, teaching religious education, training women to be nuns and serving as secretary for Archbishop Karl Hesse.
Soon after returning to the U.S., Fabritze was offered the position of traveling with circuses, which she initially turned down. However, after three years, she said “God pursued and convinced [her].” She then raised funds for a truck and trailer, and learned how to operate and maintain the vehicles.
Traveling was the most difficult part of Fabritze’s career as a circus nun, she said. With smaller circuses, she set up the show, packed up the tent and relocated to a new location every day of the week. With larger circuses like Ringling Bros., she relocated once a week, but each trip could be 200-300 miles.
She slept in a bunk bed – the top bunk – for decades, and worked physically demanding jobs.
“If anyone suffers from insomnia, I would highly recommend getting a job at a circus,” Fabritze said. “You’ll never have trouble sleeping again.”
Fabritze, who lives in Reading, is now retired from the circus and is the provisional supervisor for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, an international ministry based in Radnor Township, Delaware County.
She looks back on her travels fondly, calling them deeply rewarding. She said that the most touching moment of her career was when a staunch atheist joined her in prayer on 9/11.
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