Q & A with Sr. Dorothy Fabritze

The last time you thought about the people who work at the circus was probably the last time you were at the circus. Most of us recall the music, peanuts and the big top, but if we thought about the performers and workers at all, it was probably to imagine ourselves living a life of sequins and face paint, flying trapezes and applause. We don't think about the endless months or years on the road, the hours and hours of practice and rehearsals, the injuries, or the loneliness of a rootless existence.

But Sr. Dorothy Fabritze does. Not only is it her mission, it's also her life: The Missionary Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus has spent almost 16 years traveling with the circus, ministering to the workers and performers.

But Fabritze didn't come to this line of work because she had always dreamed of running away with the circus, she says. "The Lord pursued me — I wasn't exactly gung-ho."

And now?

"It's fun," she says. "It's a circus."

Global Sisters Report caught up to Fabritze in Colorado, where she's currently with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

GSR: How did you get involved in this rather unique ministry?

Fabritze: I celebrated being in religious life 47 years last month, and the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus have a charism of convincing people that God loves them. And everything I've done has revolved around that.

I taught in diocesan schools in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and then worked in Papua New Guinea. In 1993, I returned to the United States to empower the Papua New Guinea sisters to have their own province — each time I had a position, I was eventually replaced by a Papua New Guinea sister. But when I returned to the United States, my superiors told me I didn't want to teach because schools had changed so much in the 16 years I was away.

I did some development work, but that wasn't really what I wanted to do. Then at the U.S. Catholic Mission Association around 1996, I heard of a circus ministry while in the exhibit area. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had an exhibit, and this was under their office of cultural diversity. So I raised enough money for a truck and a trailer, got permission from my congregation and permission from the Vatican to have the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel area of the trailer. In January of 2000, I hit the road.

What's this ministry like? I imagine it's much different than the noise and glamour of the big top.

It basically is a ministry of presence. For 11 years, I did it with another sister, and we did a circus job to support the mission financially. But mostly it's Bible studies, RCIA, trying to find local priests to say Mass. I've taught school — sometimes performers have children traveling with them, so I do a correspondence course with them or Internet courses.

It's the discipleship of Jesus — we are called to reach out to all faith traditions. There are many different faiths in the circus. We can practice our respect for others. It's what I call circus spirituality.

Circuses are a family thing — we still have these small circuses that are basically one extended family. They do everything, from putting up the tent to selling tickets and performing. You have to continually be getting back to that family value of respecting everybody.

When I have a chance and people seem ready, I try to share with them.

Has the ministry changed since you started?

Yes. In 2011, the congregation gave us a sabbatical year to refresh and renew, and when we came back in 2012, we had a new approach. We kept getting requests to branch out to other circuses instead of just one — there are 30 or 40 circuses in the United States. So now we go from circus to circus.

So one of the things I do is try to train and supervise lay catechists so they can serve their own people. I still give religious instruction and Bible study as needed, but I try to help lay leaders to be a leader amongst their own. I Skype with them when I'm not on their particular show. I spend about seven hours a week Skyping.

The other change is that right now, we're not salaried at all. We're maintaining our livelihood through grants, donations and the missionary funds of dioceses. By the grace of God, it's working, and my lay leaders are getting more and more creative in how they lead and empower people.

There's the old narrative of wanting to run away to join the circus, but it sounds like it is actually a very difficult life.

Yes. There's a lot of turnover. Some are on one-year contracts, some on two-year. Very few are on longer contracts. Some choose to stay for a long time, and some do it for a while and it's too much.

But it's also the same human interactions you deal with. Before, I would say it was the mobility issues that a lot of people faced, but nowadays, being so mobile is not as unique. And for some people, being rootless is a great thing: If you don't like what's happening, tomorrow, you'll be in another town. Really, circus people have all the issues in society — the circus is just a microcosm.

There's also the shifts you have to make. They come out of being a clown and they have to be a father to a child. Or a mother has to switch from being a trapeze artist to nursing her child.

But our Christian faith has a lot to offer all people. If there's time, I show how they are quite like the biblical people of the Old Testament, where they're constantly moving. These people, we have a lot of references in the Bible about the journey, I try to share that with them that we're moving on a journey toward eternity. We talk about trust and how it's like the trapeze: You let go and you know that catcher's going to be there. Or the bow and arrow act: You trust that arrow's going to go exactly where it's supposed to. This is a life where we have to trust one another, so we learn that beautiful gift.

That's a great advantage of the circus: You see all these things in what you do every day.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]