“A lot of my best friends are clowns,” Sister Dorothy Fabritze said earnestly to the crowd at Sacred Heart Church in Bethlehem Township.
On the wall, she projected an old photo of herself, in which she stood smiling next to a man wearing white makeup and a candy red wig. Although clown/nun companionships may seem unlikely, pairing is more common than you might think.
Fabritze is part of the Catholic Church‘s Circus and Traveling Shows Ministry, missionaries who travel with and provide religious services to circus performers. She led this pastoral ministry for 20 years, from 2000 to 2019, with several traveling circuses, such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Roberts Bros. and Circus Vargas.
Fabritze visited the Sacred Heart on Wednesday afternoon to talk about his religious work and share photos from his life.
Fabritze had a different job in each circus she traveled with. Sometimes she was a member of the tent crew, sometimes a kindergarten teacher. With Ringling Bros., his job was to open and close the curtain for every act – nearly 100 times per show.
“I had the best biceps of all the sisters,” Fabritze said.
In addition to her official work, she provided a number of religious services for circus employees, including organizing mass and leading Bible studies and prayers. Once she blessed the animals, trapeze and caravans of a circus with holy water at the request of the owner’s daughter.
Fabritze even obtained special permission from the Vatican to organize the Liturgy of the Eucharist in his caravan.
“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 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 at an early age, she attended the Aspirancy of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Reading after high school.
She spent 16 years in her early career in Papua New Guinea, teaching religious education, training women to become nuns, and serving as secretary to Archbishop Karl Hesse.
Shortly after returning to the United States, Fabritze was offered the job of traveling with circuses, which she initially turned down. However, after three years, she said, “God pursued and convinced [her].” She then raised money to buy a truck and trailer and learned how to use and maintain the vehicles.
Traveling was the hardest part of Fabritze’s career as a circus nun, she said. With smaller circuses, she set up the show, packed the tent, and moved to a new location every day of the week. With bigger circuses like Ringling Bros., she moved once a week, but each trip could be 200 to 300 miles.
She slept in a bunk bed – the top bunk – for decades and worked physically demanding jobs.
“If anyone has insomnia, I would highly recommend getting a job in a circus,” Fabritze said. “You will never have trouble sleeping again.”
Fabritze, who lives in Reading, is now retired from the circus and is the interim supervisor of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, an international ministry based in Radnor Township, Delaware County. She reflects on her travels with emotion, calling them deeply rewarding. She said the most moving moment of her career was when a staunch atheist joined her in prayer on 9/11.