Healing and a holy touch

Saturday, April 26, 2003

FRANKFORT, Ill. -- If you were to ask 50 or so people what these nuns practice besides religion and get $1 for every wrong answer, you could probably buy an oil change, a tank of gas and a pizza.

Or you could afford an hourlong massage.

Decades ago, nuns were primarily involved in nursing and education. Today, though, some sisters of the cloth are doubling as massage therapists. They are treating not only churchgoers and retreat participants, but the general public as well.

Massage, or "energy work," the nuns say, is a natural extension of spirituality when it comes to treating the mind, body and soul as one.

"It's not unusual," Sister Norma Janssen of Frankfort said. "The more we can blend healing powers, the better."

A registered nurse and former chairwoman of the Franciscan Sisters Healthcare Corp.'s board of directors, Janssen has been a nun since 1965. While studying to be a spiritual director, her interest in the mind-body-spirit connection led her to study at the Wellness Massage Training Institute in Woodridge.

"Massage is a wonderful way to honor yourself and to settle your body, your spirit and emotions," said Janssen, a member of the Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals who wears a uniform similar to that of a massage or physical therapist -- white tennis shoes, white shirt and blue slacks -- rather than a habit.

Janssen offers an average of 100 massages monthly at the holistic center at the Portiuncula Center for Prayer at St. Francis Woods in Frankfort, which once housed Sacred Heart High School students, including herself. The stone building is tucked away amid 150-year-old trees at the end of a narrow gravel driveway that winds around a tiny white chapel, the motherhouse and some hermitages.

"It's tuned in to beauty and healing and the nature of St. Francis," said Janssen, referring to the 50-acre campus and the patron saint of ecology and peace. "Just driving onto the ecological grounds settles people. It's different than what you'd find at a salon."

The sisters, located in Frankfort, Joliet, LaGrange and Downers Grove, have fees comparable to those of traditional massage therapists at salons and spas. An hourlong treatment ranges from $50 to $65.

Janssen supplies receipts for clients who may seek reimbursement from health insurance.

The massage rooms are similar to those in spas, with earth-tone decor, potted plants, soft music, dim lighting and burning candles.

The nuns may use warm stones, and they may perform either standard or Swedish massage. But they also practice reflexology, reiki, Qigong, pranic and auric healing, zero balancing and orthobionomy.

"This might be Greek to some people," said Sister Rita Vahling. "But it all fits in with what we're all about."

Vahling, who is affiliated with the Franciscan Sisters of Joliet, also has a Downers Grove-based private practice in the healing arts. She says she lives by the motto: "Touching the Holy, Integrating the Whole Body, Mind, Emotion and Spirit."

"We're affected on all levels at all times," Janssen said. "If something happens spiritually, it affects you physically, emotionally and psychologically."

The sisters strive to tap into all levels during a massage.

While nuns and conventional massage therapist share techniques, soothing atmospheres and similar fees, the art of conversation is different.

At spas, clients often say little more than hello and goodbye. The sisters, though, encourage discussion of everyday problems and religion.

"We talk about things happening in their lives," Janssen said. "Clients like to have a place that's safe. They can bring their issues, knowing it's kept here."

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