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A conversation with Sister Althea Anne Spencer

Sister Althea Anne Spencer, of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God in Whitehall, incorporates a clown act and massage therapy in her ministry. Since joining the Sisters 27 years ago, she has used the circus character to help those with AID

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How did the clown ministry start?
At St. Paul Monastery on the South Side, they used to have that big family picnic. [In] my second year, our novice was to be the clown. She ended up leaving the congregation. They just came and told me I would do it. And I was not happy about it. The Knights of Columbus [supplied] the makeup and outfit. They taught me how to do it. And I just had a wonderful time.

What is your act, if you'll excuse the expression?
Sometimes I make fun of folks. I have a little duster and I have a puppet -- a little drum major -- and his name is Pinky. I used to be involved with the AIDS Task Force -- it was through my puppet that I got [the patient] to start talking. And I do very basic balloon animals.

So you're a regular clown. What makes it also a ministry?
Bringing joy, [through] the ministry of laughter and to not take our life so serious. I've done it as a prayer service as well. My clown has visited several funeral homes.

Were you expected in the clown suit?
No. The first was one of my teachers -- her son was killed. I wanted to go to the funeral home and do something special. I showed up in my clown suit with a huge bouquet of flowers and did a prayer service right there. It was well received because the family knew me -- but the other people in the other parlors, they didn't understand. They thought I was making a mockery.

And some people are actually afraid of clowns.
I've had adults and children both. Especially children, when they become afraid of me I become afraid of them. I don't mock them. Children I understand, because you're bigger than life to them. I have a good friend who's afraid of clowns -- she's in her 40s.

What prompted you to take up massage therapy as ministry too?
I had gone on a trip with my cousin and we had gone climbing through the mountains and he wanted a back rub. I said ooh, I hate doing that, but he paid for the trip. He turned around and [taught me]. When I had done my master's degree at Pitt, my instructor said, "You have to know what your name means, because it has a direct effect on who you are." I knew it meant Rose of Sharon. But as I looked into the meaning of Althea, it meant healer.

How's a massage from a nun different from a massage by a secular therapist?
I do it as a prayer experience. When a person comes for a massage, I give them a little tour and then we meet in the room. I always like to talk to the person -- I need to know who I am working with. I always start with a prayer. I pray out loud over the person and try to incorporate what is happening in their life into the prayer. For me it is part of the healing. And then at the end of each massage each client is anointed with blessed oils. For them to even come into the grounds, they feel a sense of peace. They know there's something different, even coming to the house. I also have ones, they bring somebody, or friends will come together. While one is receiving massage the other will go to the chapel to pray, then they switch.

How do you think God would react to such ministries?With a smile, I hope.

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