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Two nuns use missionary skills while traveling with the circus

Since 2004, two Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Sisters Dorothy Fabritze and Bernard Overkamp, MSC, have been traveling with the greatest show on earth, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus opens in Omaha June 9 at the Qwest Center Omaha. Photo by Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus

The Catholic Voice

When most people think about going to the circus, they usually think about clowns, elephants and trapeze artists, but not nuns.

Two Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Sisters Dorothy Fabritze and Bernard Overkamp, MSC, are changing that way of thinking.

The two sisters have been part of the greatest show on earth, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, since 2004. They are in Omaha for performances June 9-11 at the Qwest Center Omaha.

Sister Dorothy serves as a teacher for the children and performers and crew, and pulls one of the main portal curtains during the show. Sister Bernard works in the women's wardrobe department.

But their work doesn't end there. They also minister to the 300 cast and crew members.

'My role is not only education and Sister Bernard's role is not just sewing in the wardrobe department," said Sister Dorothy. 'Our role is ministering to the people. Being with the people and being available to them when they need us."

For many, that means first sacraments including communion, confession, baptisms and even marriage preparation.

Sister Dorothy is preparing one clown for confirmation and this past Easter one of the children was baptized in Madison Square Garden where the circus was performing.

'The issues we find in a parish are issues that we find here," said Sister Dorothy. 'We accompany these people on their road to God and the call in their life."

The sisters travel cross country from show to show in a pick-up, which tows their two bedroom trailer. 'In the front room of the trailer, we took out the bed and converted it to a chapel," said Sister Dorothy. 'With permission from the Vatican, we have the Blessed Sacrament on the road with us. It is a beautiful little chapel and we have everything we need."

With each new town, the sisters find a local church to attend and often ask a local priest to perform Mass right in the arena. 'We have had Masses in Spanish, Portuguese and English," said Sister Dorothy. 'It is an amazing ministry really."

The two religious, both of whom have been sisters for almost 40 years, met in Papua, New Guinea, where they worked as missionaries.

Sister Bernard taught young people domestic skills and Sister Dorothy was a teacher.

They returned to the United States in 1993. Sister Dorothy began raising money for other missionaries and Sister Bernard worked in a halfway house for non-violent parolees.

The call to the circus ministry came first to Sister Dorothy. 'At a convention for missionaries, I stopped by the circus ministry exhibit and I picked up a book," said Sister Dorothy. 'I was not interested at that time, but God hounded me for a year or two before I agreed to do it and I love it."

Sister Dorothy immediately began looking for another sister to be willing to join the circus with her as a traveling partner.

Sister Bernard took a little convincing.

'Sister Dorothy asked me if I was interested and I said no way," said Sister Bernard. 'After watching a few shows and the tent-raising and all that stuff, I decided that I could do it for one year and here I am."

The sisters joined their first circus in 2000, Robert's Brothers Circus, but when it closed because of financial problems, they joined Circus Chimera, which mainly tours the West Coast.

A year and a half into Circus Chimera, the sisters were asked to join Ringling Brothers. 'It is something like being called up to the majors because Ringling is the big time," said Sister Dorothy.

Both of the sisters agree they did not plan on ending up in the circus, but they would not change a thing because they are reaching out to people that are sometimes missed by the church.

'I never pictured this would be my mission, but I have always pictured a missionary vocation and I see this as very missionary," Sister Dorothy said.

The Catholic Voice

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