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Glimpses of the gospel in the prayers of a clown

NCR Staff
Bethesda, MD.

The trouble with plastic Groucho Marx nose-and-glasses is they’re so cheaply made they often fall apart.

But after trying a few sets from the “humor cart” she had parked on the 10th floor cancer ward at the National Institutes of Health, Holy Cross Sr. Anne Miriam Hunt found a set that held together.

Then off she went with her praying mantis glove puppet, ready to invite adult patients to pray with her and her make-believe friend.

“Sometimes the people are too sick and don’t want to be bothered,” said Hunt. When someone is an NIH patient it means treatment elsewhere has failed.

Hunt is very low-key and unabashed when, some Tuesdays, she pops on her red nose to make her humor rounds. She’s a fully qualified clown (“Flutterby” is her clown persona) who served her apprenticeship more than a decade ago at a community college. “I’m always recycling myself,” said Hunt, who was professed a half-century ago and this February celebrates her 79th birthday.

Hunt grew up in South America where her father was a State Department official. When the family moved to Washington, she attended Holy Cross Academy, Dumbarton College and later, after working for the U.S. Treasury, entered the congregation. As a young nun she was told she was going into nursing, received her master’s in nursing from The Catholic University of America, had a career in nursing administration and helped open Holy Cross Hospital in suburban Maryland in 1963.

In the early 1970s, Hunt was part of the Movement for a Better World national retreat team. Following Vatican II (1962-65), she put in four years giving church renewal programs at parishes, seminaries and diocesan gatherings.

She’s a certified clinical mental health counselor who worked for 14 years as a pastoral counselor in a downtown Washington parish, St. Dominic’s. Until two years ago. “I was downsized,” she said.

These days, in addition to clowning at children’s parties and pushing her NIH humor cart one day a week, she teaches people who give marriage preparation courses.

There was a time when, as Flutterby, she was miming the scriptures in area churches. Subsequently, the Catholic bishops decided: No more liturgical experimentation, clowns included.

“They’re wrong of course,” she said. “The clown is a symbolic figure of death and resurrection. Whatever face you put on you’re dying to self. The bishops don’t appreciate the spirituality or theology of it.”

Hunt does. She was invited to NIH by George Patrick, director of recreational therapy, when the two sat together and chatted at a spirituality and health conference several years ago.

“Serendipity,” said Hunt. The sort of serendipity that sometimes occurs when she goes into a patient’s room and finds someone who wants to talk, to pray or to laugh. Laughter or prayer. Either way, Hunt is prepared.

When she leaves she hands out her humor sheet and her photocopied prayers.

What do the patients think? It’s hard not to smile when she has the puppets going.

This day she’d already stopped to see Carol Womble from North Carolina, then Lori Rains from Atlanta and had more calls yet to make.

In the elevator, two patients -- one wearing his cowboy hat -- responded to questions about her.

“Sister Anne? That’s one real nice lady,” one said. The Stetson nodded in agreement. “Real funny.”

A sort of honorary Marx Brother sister.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998