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Postings by Joel Schorn

Sister, 103, celebrates birthday with a polka

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Thursday 24, February 2011 Categories: Consecrated Life

They brought in a polka band to celebrate the 103rd birthday of Sr. Cecilia Adorni, and she stepped up to the challenge. The party, by the way, took place at the Hamden, Connecticut care facility where she works. Here's the CNN story.

Searches help sisters

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Tuesday 22, February 2011 Categories: Consecrated Life

The Sisters of St. Benedict of Beech Grove, Indiana have found what they call a simple way to financially help their Benedict Inn Retreat & Conference Center:
On GoodSearch, registered users designate organizations they want to support from among the 97,000-plus nonprofits who have joined the site. Except for a few kinds of searches, 50 percent of the revenue generated from sponsored search advertisers is shared with organizations of the user’s choosing. The searches are powered by Yahoo!

For more on sisters’ use of GoodSearch, see the community’s homepage.

Angry monks stop “insulting” beer ad

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Thursday 17, February 2011 Categories: 

Why this story made’s “Weird news” is beyond me. Maybe they think anything religious is weird. At any rate, Svyturys-Utenos alus, Lithuania’s largest brewery, had recently run a billboard advertising campaign showing a Franciscan friar holding a glass of beer. Their idea was, friars and monks had been producing beer and other alcoholic beverages since the Middle Ages, so what was the problem?

The problem was Lithuania's conference of monks and nuns, who said in a statement the advertisement made them feel "insulted and trampled upon." They wrote a protest letter to Svyturys, who apologized and withdrew the ad.

Source: Thomson Reuters via

Women entering religious life: high achievement, low encouragement, survey finds

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Friday 11, February 2011 Categories: Vocation and Discernment,Consecrated Life

A new study suggests that women entering religious life today are highly educated and experienced in church work—and also that many receive little or no encouragement from their families in their vocation.

The Profession Class of 2010: Survey of Women Religious Professing Perpetual Vows, released by the U.S. bishops on February 2, the World Day for Consecrated Life, and conducted by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, found that more than half of the women who professed final vows to join a religious order in 2010 said a parent or family member had discouraged their religious calling. Only 26 percent of the surveyed sisters said their mother encouraged them to consider religious life, and only 16 percent said their fathers supported their choice.

In a presentation to the U.S. bishops in 2009, Holy Cross Brother Paul Bednarczyk, C.S.C., executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, pointed to the discouragement from family and friends as a troublesome trend for the church. "Although people want a full-time pastor in their parish or religious sister teaching their children in the Catholic school, ironically, they are reluctant to have their own son or daughter choose that vocation," Bednarczyk said.

Nevertheless, religious life continues to attract highly educated and skilled candidates. Of those surveyed, six in ten entered their religious community with at least a bachelor’s degree and a quarter already possessed a graduate degree. Eighty-five percent had ministry experience before entering, most commonly in liturgical ministry, faith formation, or social service ministry.

More on this story at Preaching the News and USA Today.

Kili climbed for charity

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Thursday 10, February 2011 Categories: Consecrated Life

It’s not unusual for individuals to raise money to support the work of religious communities, but last month Diane Molitor-Palmer of Wichita, Kansas found a unique way to solicit donations for five Catholic women’s religious orders who run missions in Africa: She climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, at 19,340 feet the highest mountain in Africa.

DIANE PALMER and fellow climbers
on the
summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro
Palmer, 65—who was not an experienced climber—chronicled her trek and the African volunteer work she has been doing since it at, where you can get lots more information as well as click-throughs to video and podcasts.

The organizations that benefited from her effort were the Dominican Sisters of Peace, Kaduna, Nigeria, Hope for the Village Child; Sisters of Charity, B.V.M., Kumasi, Ghana, the Library and Literacy Center; Adorers of the Blood of Christ, Manyoni, Tanzania, schools for children; Congregation of St. Joseph, Songea, Tanzania, school for girls in rural areas; and the Christian Foundation for Children & Aging, Nairobi, Kenya, education and nutrition.

“How did I get here?”

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 09, February 2011 Categories: Vocation and Discernment,Consecrated Life

That’s the question second-year Sisters of Mercy candidate Audrey Abbata asked herself. Ten years ago she was married and had a successful career with the Hearst Corporation. Then, in 2001, her husband Anthony was diagnosed with leukemia. He died three years later. “The darkness that enveloped me in the next few months frightened me immensely,” she said. “In my despair I got down on my knees and asked God to save me. God, being ever merciful, heard my plea. I found hope. From that day forward I vowed never to stray . . . from God again. To keep that promise I needed to make God the focus of my life. I had no idea how to live this, so I asked God to show me the way.”

AUDREY Abbata (left)

That way led her to the Sisters of Mercy, where she is now pursuing answers to other questions, like “how many of us long for something more in life?” and “how many of us live our lives content that we are on our journey with God?”

To those considering a vocation to consecrated life, Abbata says: “Religious life is a radical form of discipleship. Radical by definition is fundamental. I believe that in every generation God calls individuals to a fundamental life of vowed service to God. If God is stirring this desire in you, be open and allow God to transform you. Discover the contentment of living in harmony with God. Have enough faith to answer the call. God will show you the way.”

To read the full story of Abbata’s journey to religious life, visit the Mercy sisters website.

Click here to learn more abou the Sisters of Mery of the Americas.

U.S. Catholic group escapes Egyptian chaos

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 02, February 2011 Categories: Clergy

For years Father Don Senior, C.P. has traveled all over the Middle East without a major incident—until recently, that is, when he and the group he was leading from the Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago found themselves in the middle of what looks awfully like a revolution in Egypt.

They were in Giza, about 20 kilometers outside Cairo and home of the famed ancient pyramids, when the violent demonstrations against the Egyptian government reached that city. “At night we started to hear a lot of gunfire,” said Senior, a Passionist priest, president of CTU, and a member of the Vatican's Pontifical Biblical Commission. “We could smell the burning of the Giza police station. On Sunday it became clear to me that we . . . could not just go anywhere, and you sense the anxiety.”

on one of his many travels
They had arrived on January 26 but due to disruptions in cell phone and email access were able to send home only minimal news about their status until the morning of Jan. 31, when in a message Senior described how they were able to get out. “Through the help of our long-time friend and travel agent in Israel we were able to secure places for all on an emergency El Al flight sent to Egypt on Sunday night. After a harrowing trip to the airport and a ten-hour struggle in the utter chaos of the Cairo airport, the whole group is now in Jerusalem. We arrived at 5:00 am this morning. . . . and our travel agent is arranging for us to resume our return on February 5 more or less as planned!”

Senior noted the kindness Egyptians showed them and asked to “remember the Egyptian people in your prayers at this moment of great danger and hope.”

CTU is the largest Catholic graduate school of theology in the U.S. and is sponsored by a number of Catholic religious orders.

Read the full report from Carol Marin of the NBC TV affiliate in Chicago.

Sundance films feature faith

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 26, January 2011 Categories: 

In past years when films with religious themes have popped up at the Sundance independent film festival, they’ve tended to be satires or exposés liked Saved! or Jesus Camp. This year, however, religion, spirituality, and faith have moved more into the mainstream, with 12 of the festival's120 films spotlighting stories about religion or characters defined by faith.

“There are definitely more films [exploring spirituality] that ended up in the program this year than in years past,” John Nein, senior programmer for the annual Park City, Utah festival, told Piet Levy of Religion News Service.

Salvation Boulevard features Pierce Brosnan as a popular preacher who frames a born-again Christian follower for a crime, while the documentary The Redemption of General Butt Naked deals with a Liberian warlord-turned-preacher facing the loved ones of people he killed. The Italian film Lost Kisses focuses on a Sicilian community’s reaction to a 13-year-old girl who may be performing miracles. Two films explore Christianity and Islam: Kinyarwanda, set during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and the documentary Position Among the Stars about the lives of an impoverished family living in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Japan’s Abraxas chronicles the life of a depressed Zen monk who reconnects with punk rock, while the American comedy The Catechism Cataclysm centers on a priest who loves heavy metal music. Three other American films—Martha Marcy May Marlene; Kevin Smith’s horror film Red State; and Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground—are concerned with cults and fringe religious sects.

The trailer for Position Among the Stars:

Dominicans see increase in vocations, need for expansion

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 19, January 2011 Categories: Vocation and Discernment,Clergy

While recent decades have seen declines in the numbers of members of religious orders—and the resulting closure of facilities—the recent upward trend in membership has produced the opposite challenge: not enough space.

DOMINICAN student brothers gather
at Aquinas Institute Spirit Week 2010.
For example, the Dominican friars in the central and southern U.S. welcomed 10 men last fall, their largest class in more than 20 years. Dominican Father David Wright, master of students in St. Louis, said two provinces have priesthood candidates living in St. Louis who attend Aquinas Institute, a graduate school of theology next to St. Louis University. In 2007, he said, “We had 18 students and this year we’re up to 25. Next year, if all those presently in the novitiate come in, we could have an increase of up to 30. It was time to expand.”

The Dominicans recently purchased the former Loretto Academy building in St. Louis. The renovated space will open in the fall as a Dominican priory, a residential community for men preparing to become priests in the order. The men will live in the house for five years while they study at Aquinas, which also educates laypeople to serve in ministerial roles. Those considering entering the order also go to the order's retirement community in Chicago where they experience the older members' life of prayer and living in community.

The building that will house the priory was designed by an architectural firm begun by George I. Barnett, who also designed the Missouri governor's mansion, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, and several of the earliest buildings at the Missouri Botanical Garden. It includes 32,000 feet of living space and an additional 16,000 feet of chapel, corridor, and storage space. Living quarters will undergo extensive renovation but much of the common space will be untouched. Features include a tile fireplace with carved wooden mantle and a chapel with stained-glass windows by artist Emil Frei. A new addition will include other common spaces and a fully accessible main entrance.

“We have a wonderful appeal both as a community and as an apostolate,” Father Wright said. “Preaching the word of God is what we're all about. And that can be done in hundreds of ways. Men don't join just to be in teaching, mission work, or whatever.” Continuing the work of their founder, Saint Dominic (1170-1221), the mission of the Dominicans includes preaching, teaching, and doing works of justice in a variety of settings--campus ministry, parish work, high schools, colleges, and retreat centers, full-time preaching, service in health care as chaplains and ethicists, the arts, and more. Community life, Father Wright said, involves not only living together under one roof but also the willingness to share one’s life with one another, being “of one mind and one heart in God.” The four pillars of Dominican life are prayer, common life, study, and ministry.

Twice a year the Dominicans have a “come and see” event for young men considering a vocation to experience that life, with the next one scheduled for the weekend of February 26-28, 2011 in Dallas.

French Augustinians serve river community

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Friday 14, January 2011 Categories: Clergy

Since 1988 the Augustinians of the Assumption have been working with the riverboat community on the River Seine in the northeast Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte Honorine. One of the things making their ministry different from other parishes, however, is its location. Like the people it serves, it is on a barge, or rather a group of barges.

THE COMMUNITY chapel on Le Je Sers
Established by Father Arthur Hervet and now staffed by four other Assumptionists, the barge-chapel, named Le Je Sers (“I serve”), is one of two “river parishes” in France. The parish does everything a landlubbing parish does, like celebrating the sacraments and conducting catechism classes for the children of residents of the barge community and children in the immediate surroundings. The chapel is open 24/7, and all are invited to share the community's times of prayer.

The community’s ministry also functions as a place for emergency shelter. It welcomes former prisoners and streetwalkers and currently offers temporary housing to about 40 persons looking to get back on their feet. The office at the rear of the barge community, called La Pierre Blanche (“White Rock”), takes in a dozen or so people every day who are living at life's edge. Volunteers help those temporarily housed in the community with navigating government bureaucracy, searching for work or permanent housing, or learning French. The barges also house the headquarters for six social agencies.

Every morning after breakfast two teams leave to pick up food donations from various agencies and stores for the community’s cooks to prepare. Other residents or volunteers are responsible for the upkeep and repair of the barges.

Though the riverboat population is smaller than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, there is still plenty to do on Je Sers. The community has 6 employees, 20 regular volunteers, and over 100 other volunteers. Its nine barges—six owned by the community and three on loan from the Voies Navigables de France (Navigable Waterways of France)—include houses and apartments and have 50 residents. The community owns vans and cars and also uses vehicles on loan.

PLAN of the four main barges making up
the community's living quarters
In addition to the 100 meals served onboard daily, the parish distributes 100 food baskets to the needy every day and makes gifts to various groups in need, such as the Roma people (Gypsies), immigrants, and other soup kitchens or food pantries. Each week it gathers, recycles, and distributes one ton of clothes. About half its budget of €800,000 ($1,000,000) comes from gifts and the other half from subsidized rents.

Rosary recalls royal visit to monastery

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Tuesday 11, January 2011 Categories: 

The chronicle for Nov. 26, 1946 of the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri included this cryptic note: "Arrangements were made also for the Empress Zita who is expected tomorrow afternoon."

“Empress Zita” was Zita von Hapsburg, the last empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and widow of its last emperor, Charles I. Two days after the above entry, having arrived with her daughter at the convent, she went to Thanksgiving Day Mass at the nearby Benedictine Conception Abbey.

What was a deposed member of European royalty doing in northwestern Missouri? Charles, Zita, and their children had been forced to leave Austria-Hungary at the close of World War I. Charles died at the age of 34, leaving behind 7 children and another on the way. When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, Zita and her children had to flee again. Experiencing poverty and war-time suffering firsthand, she sympathized with the poor families of post-war Austria and, settling her family in Quebec, began a two-year trip across Canada and the United States to raise money for Central European war relief.

That explains the reason she was in the U.S. But why Missouri? For many years she had wanted to pray at the grave of Father Lukas Etlin, who had died in an auto accident in December of 1927 and was buried on the convent grounds in Clyde. Born in Switzerland in 1864, Etlin had served as the Clyde sisters' chaplain and had worked to raise funds on behalf of Austria's poor following World War I.

Zita Rosary
Father Norbert Schappler is the only monk now living at Conception Abbey who was there the day the empress came for Mass in 1946. He told Dana Webster of the Maryville (Mo.) Daily Forum that he remembers Zita wore “dark, drab clothes” (she dressed in mourning for her husband from the time of his death in 1922 until her own death in 1989 at the age of 96). As a momento of her visit, she gave the monks a small rosary, which is still on display at the monastery.

“Figuring out my call”

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 05, January 2011 Categories: Vocation and Discernment,Clergy,Consecrated Life

Torma, M.S.C.
In his recent Vocation Corner online column, Father Andrew Torma, M.S.C., vocation director for the U.S.A. Province of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, offered some reflections on “Figuring Out My Call”:

“Am I to live the sacrament of marriage? If so, when? Am I to live the single life? Live as a chaste single person? Am I to be a priest? Am I to be a lay minister? Part time? Full time? Am I to be a religious brother? A religious sister? Am I to be a consecrated lay person? Is it time to make a first step toward commitment? To this person? To the church? To this religious order? To this organization?

“When discerning about something, it is important to be a person of faith. Believe that God has a plan for you. Each of us does the hard work of dating, inquiring, studying, volunteer activities, prayer, and searching. We must be engaged in the process. Passivity is not discernment. God will not spoon-feed us into a life commitment. Yet, when we turn our action over to guidance from God, situations, persons, and circumstances will be tools to illuminate the direction. Prayer is necessary. In prayer, mention the person or the actions or the circumstances around the process of one’s search.

“Talk with people. The gospel uses the image of the lamp on the lamp stand which illuminates the entire room. We cast light onto our experience when we talk about it. Parish marriage preparation or Engaged Encounter helps a person to see clearly that this person is choosing me as her or his life partner. Sharing our spiritual journey with a mentor helps to clarify God’s will for our lives. A trusted friend or an experienced person can help clarify confusing experiences. Searching for a call to serve as a priest or a consecrated person is nourished by the lives of the saints, involvement in ministries, making sacrifices, and living with sisters, brothers, or priests for a short time."

The year in review

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 29, December 2010 Categories: 

The end of one year and the beginning of the next prompt many journalists to identify what they think to be the major events of the previous 12 months. The acclaimed public television program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly assembled its annual reporters roundtable to discuss the most important news and ethics stories of 2010.

The panel was made up of E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a columnist for the Washington Post, and a professor at Georgetown University; Kevin Eckstrom, editor of Religion News Service, and Kim Lawton, managing editor of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. The story includes a video overview of 2010's major events.

Sisters bring fresh faces to college seminary

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Thursday 23, December 2010 Categories: Consecrated Life

For decades Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa has prepared young men for global service as Divine Word Missionary priests and brothers. This month Sister Ana Julita Bele Bau, a 39-year-old member of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (the women’s community cofounded by the Saint Arnold Janssens, who established the Divine Word Missionaries), will become the first female graduate since the school refocused its mission to include new coeducational and lay formation opportunities.

SISTER JULITA walks the halls
of Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.
Photo by Jeremy Portje for the
Dubuque Telegraph Herald.

Facing declining enrollment—"we were at a critical point for student enrollment and we had a wealth of resources to share," said college president Father Mike Hutchins, S.V.D.—the school allowed Catholic sisters to enroll in its English classes and undergraduate degree programs four years ago. As of next month, 35 of the 122 students at the college will be women. Though the women are all Catholic sisters, in January two lay leaders from Society of the Divine Word parishes in Jamaica will begin undergraduate work.

"Our beginnings were low-key to see how it would work out," Hutchins told Mary Nevans-Pederson of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. "Now I don't think anyone would go back." The new students bring "new life and vitality" as well as maturity and experience to the campus. “The women religious set a really good standard for the guys—they out-study and outwork them," Hutchins said.

Sister Julita, who has taught in Indonesia and Antigua, completed four years of cross-cultural studies and will return to her community in Anitgua to accept her next assignment on the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean.

"I don't too much feel like a pioneer," she said, even though she was often the only woman in her classes and was 15-20 years older than most of her classmates. "They helped me with my math and I brought life experience and someone to talk to," she said. She says fellow students or staff never made her feel unwelcome.

Hutchins confronted the possibility of romantic male-female relationships head-on, calling a general assembly to discuss it. "It's something natural that can happen, falling in love, and there is nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I urged them to be up-front and talk about it to our spiritual directors if it happens.

"The common denominator here is mission,” Hutchins said. “Everyone is committed to missionary service."

There has, however, been a previous female graduate of Divine Word. In 1994 Pat Cline, a working mother from Dubuque, Iowa, entered the college as the sole recipient of a scholarship designed to promote diversity. She completed her degree in 1998.

Benedictine Sisters keep monastery ecofriendly

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Friday 17, December 2010 Categories: Consecrated Life

When the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri decided to do a makeover of their monastic facilities, they resolved that the demolition, construction, and finished product would be as ecofriendly as possible.

THE GEOTHERMAL heating and cooling system
requires the digging of 132 wells to be connected
into in-ground loops.
To that end, waste materials which the project produces are being recycled in the new construction or donated to the surrounding community. A geothermal heating and cooling system will reduce energy costs and dependence on fossil fuels.The new mechanism will cool the entire building efficiently--for the first time in the many years the monastery has sat through hot and humid Missouri summers.

Levelled floor variances and more accessible entryways will make the building easier for the sisters and their guests to navigate.

In gutting certain parts of the monastery, workers have also uncovered layers of past artwork and paint, The removal of the drop ceiling in the community room revealed not only the top of an arched mural but also original tin ceiling tiles and a crown molding.

You can follow the project's progress on the sisters' Sacred Stones, Sacred Stories blog.

300-year-old Christmas cookies still delicious

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Tuesday 14, December 2010 Categories: Consecrated Life

The tradition of making and exchanging Christmas sweets goes back a long time—including recipes created by 16th- and 17th-century nuns in Mexico.

After sugar arrived in the country, sisters began to make sometimes complicated holiday confections, which they used as ways to thank donors and raise money.

So if you're ready for some Ciruelas Rellenas de Almendra (Almond-Stuffed Prunes), Rosquetes Impregnados de Espíritu de Anís (Anise Cookies), and other delicacies, see Fany Gerson's book My Sweet Mexico (Ten Speed) and Lesley Téllez’s blog Desserts of the Spanish convents in Mexico for more information and recipes.

Rwandan sisters' courageous witness to hope

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 08, December 2010 Categories: Consecrated Life

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were murdered, the Benebikira Sisters sheltered hundreds of orphans and others who sought refuge in their convents. At the Benebikira motherhouse in the village of Save, a militia stormed the convent and demanded that the sisters separate themselves by ethnic groups. The sisters said no—aware that at other convents 20 sisters had been killed for standing up to the militants. The militia then looted all their food, cut the water lines, and told the sisters they would return to kill them.

When the genocide ended, the sisters found themselves caring for about 350 orphans, most of them traumatized after witnessing the brutal murders of their parents. The children “had food and clothing,” Sister M. Juvenal Mukamurama told Kathleen L. Sullivan of the National Catholic Reporter, “but it was no life for them. Family is very important in our country. They needed a family. So we decided to build community houses and make families.” The sisters built 39 houses and grouped the orphans into “families” of six to eight children.

Benebikira means "Daughters of Mary" in Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda. About 56 percent of Rwanda's population of more than 10 million is categorized as Catholic. Founded in 1919, the Benebikira Order is native to Rwanda and today has about 380 women religious whose primary mission is education. They run two preschools, eight primary schools, three vocational schools, and 13 secondary boarding schools in Rwanda and Burundi. Since the genocide they have opened four new schools.

Last September the Benebikira Sisters were honored with the Courage of Conscience Award by the Peace Abbey, a Sherborn, Massachusetts multifaith retreat and teaching center dedicated to nonviolence, peacemaking, and social justice. At the award presentation, Sister Mukamurama said: “It is nice to know people appreciate what we did and what we do. We do not do the work to be appreciated, but this appreciation does give us encouragement.”

“The sisters,” said Dot Walsh, program coordinator at the Peace Abbey, “told us it was the first time they had publicly been acknowledged for the courage and faith they displayed during the genocide, and they were very touched.”

The sisters have also established the Ministry of Hope, Healing, and Reconciliation in Rwanda to provide pastoral counseling for those affected by the genocide and to train young adults to serve as peer counselors.

“Rwanda wants to move forward,” said Sister Mukamurama, who is marking her 40th anniversary as a Benebikira sister. “We want to build our country, our relationships, a new life. We are no longer seen as Tutsi or Hutu. We live together. We are no longer separate. We are Rwandans.” A Benebikira Sisters Foundation Scholarship Video:

Circus sisters combine work and ministry

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 01, December 2010 Categories: Consecrated Life

After returning to the U.S. from working in Papua New Guinea, Sacred Heart Missionary Sister Dorothy Fabritze was at a convention of the United States Catholic Mission Association when she heard about an opportunity to answer a pressing need—in circus ministry.

Keeping in mind the charism of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to reach out to those who have not heard the message of God’s love or are lax in their response, she asked Sister Bernard Overkamp, another Sacred Heart Missionary with whom she had worked in New Guinea, to join her. Although both were hesitant at first, they soon fell in love with their new mission. They eventually landed jobs with the “Greatest Show on Earth,” the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Sister Dorothy is one of the circus’ schoolteachers. “We have 19 schoolchildren, and I’m responsible for nine of these, grades one, two, and three,” Sister Dorothy says. She is also available for religious education and preparing children for sacraments. Occasionally adults approach her for marriage preparation or instruction in the Catholic faith. She has led interdenominational Bible studies and taught English.

A seamstress in the ladies’ wardrobe, Sister Bernard helps to maintain and handle the women’s costumes before, during, and after the shows. With others in her department, she makes sure everyone is dressed correctly before they go out on the floor, fixing dresses and shoes if necessary. “And then my ministry is to be with the young girls,” Sister Bernard says, “listen to them, listen to their stories, listen to their heartaches.”

SISTERS Bernard Overkamp, left, and Dorothy Fabritze
walk toward their trailer at the Ringling Bros.
and Barnum & Bailey Circus
(Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News).
The two have crossed the U.S. several times in their pickup truck, towing the 29-foot trailer they call home. “People like us, teachers or the prop crew or the wardrobe crew, can stay as long as they want” with the circus, says Sister Dorothy.

The 300 members of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus come from 18 different countries. For some of the younger artists it is their first time away from home. Others have grown up in the extended circus family.

New performers soon find out they can “go to Sister” to talk about faith matters or other personal issues. In her contacts with the artists, Sister Bernard always stresses the idea of circus as family. “I see her forming this oneness in how she deals with the young women,” says Sister Dorothy, “how she deals with their relationship issues at that time in their lives, how she encourages them and directs, guides . . . . She tells them, ‘Let’s stay together, let’s work together, let’s be a family, let’s respect one another.’ ”

“Faith is alive and well, whatever faith tradition it is,” Sister Dorothy says, pointing out that religion has always played an important role among circus people. “When you have a job that is more dangerous than some, you rely on your faith.”

“This is my goal,” says Sister Dorothy, “to be a living, breathing presence of God in this society called circus. The message that God does love, God does forgive, God is continually there for us, is a very unifying, making-us-one concept.”

Adapted from the Focolare Movement’s monthly Living City magazine (October 2009) (

Sister builds zero-energy straw-bale house

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Tuesday 23, November 2010 Categories: Consecrated Life

Sister Jane Omlor, O.S.F., a Franciscan sister of Tiffin, Ohio, lived for 10 years in Mingo County, West Virginia where she saw mountaintop-removal mining leave her and her neighbors without well water. Seeing environmental destruction firsthand, she coordinated the construction of the Web of Life Ecology Center, built primarily with recycled materials. Earlier, while living in Spencer, West Virginia, she organized and assembled a “straw bale” chapel. Now, in Tiffin, she’s project manager for the building of a straw bale house she will live in.

The house, named Little Portion Green, is an effort of Project STRAW (Saving Today’s Resources In Awesome Ways), which itself is part of the Franciscan Earth Literacy Center, a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of St. Francis of Tiffin. The home will serve as a demonstration and educational facility to show how a house does not have to “use any more energy than we can produce ourselves,” Omlor says, and save resources by using passive solar design, solar panels, straw bale insulation with earth plaster, Energy Recovery Ventilation, and other systems. It will be the first certified passive-energy structure in Ohio and the first certified passive straw-bale house in the United States.

Designed in the style of a “little Ohio farmhouse," as Omlor describes it, the 1,500-square-foot home will have two bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a kitchen, and a living room. What it won’t have are a furnace and an air conditioning system. The house will be heated and cooled with an energy-recovery ventilation system or electric air-exchange unit. It will have electricity but rely on solar power.

Underneath the house’s concrete slab are four feet of a material called millcell, a product from Germany made from recycled glass, which prevents cold from radiating up into the house and helps keep heat inside. The roof will be made largely of recycled steel. Interior doors, railings, and other elements were salvaged for reuse from the St. Francis convent when a portion of the building was razed. Extra-large, triple-pane, high-efficiency windows will be mostly south-facing with deep-set sills. The rounded walls—and that’s where the bales come in—will be insulated with bales of locally grown straw and covered with an earth-tone clay plaster—all sustainable materials.

The house is expected to cost about $100,000, about half of which has been raised so far. Straw-bale houses cost more to build, but the savings come on utility bills. Almost 300 donors have "bought" a bale of straw for $100 each and will have their names etched into a glass "truth window." "In every straw-bale house there's a 'truth window' because there's always a skeptic that walks in and says, “This is not built of straw” because you can't see the straw," Omlor told the Toledo Blade. "So you open up this door and there's the straw."

See the project’s website. To buy a bale for the house, contact Barb DeBarbrie at Here’s the Little Portion Green PowerPoint:

Hildegard of Bingen at the box office

Posted by: Joel Schorn   🕔 Wednesday 10, November 2010 Categories: Consecrated Life

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) practiced medicine, wrote poetry, plays, and mystical works, composed music, painted, and went on extensive preaching tours of Germany and France. Her abbey, of which she later became prioress, expanded several times as it attracted many of the gifted women of her day and also served as a place for medical care and a permanent home for indigent elderly women. She began experiencing mystical visions as a child, and her written descriptions of her visions are widely read today.

Illustrating the continuing fascination with Hildegard is a new film, Vision (like the title!), from German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa as Hildegard. Filmed in medieval German cloisters, Vision follows Hildegard’s life from her childhood entrance into a convent to her becoming its leader 30 years later. The film is in German with English subtitles.

Watch the film’s trailer, and watch what I guess you could call a Hildegard music video:



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