by Al Fuchs
Few people would consider a massage table to be a place
of ministry. Yet that is how Ursuline Sister Veronica Cipar
describes the massage table in her small, cozy facility
in the Ursuline Motherhouse in Pepper Pike, Ohio.
Sister Veronica has developed a ministry that some might
consider unusual for religious sisters. But she envisions
massage therapy as a means of bringing a healing touch to
her patients’ spirits as well as their bodies. “I have been
given a grace to focus on what I am doing for people, and
I really see their woundedness when I’m working on them,”
“It was a natural thing for me to do,” she explains. As
a child, “I used to massage my father’s back.” Later in
life, “when I took care of my mother in her last months,
I would massage her back.”
Massaging away the aches and pains of others was an ability
that Sister Veronica did not leave behind when she entered
the convent. In her religious community, she was known for
kneading relief into the stiff, sore shoulders of the sisters.
Even during her 32-year career as a professor of Spanish
at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, she kept alive her interest
and skill in massage. She maintained a file of articles
about various massage-therapy schools in the country and
selected Ohio College of Medical Arts (now closed), where
she received her degree in 1995.
Sister Veronica always saw massage as a means of service:
“If I could wean only one sister away from medication, it
would be worth it...or take care of those who have borne
the heat of the day, or help those sisters who are still
in ministry to keep going, it would be beneficial.”
'Beyond Stress Relief'
There is a difference between being a massage therapist
and being a masseur or masseuse, she explains: “A masseuse
can give massages for relaxation or stress reduction. Therapy
goes beyond stress relief. Therapists try to figure out
how to help people for their long-term health.”
In Ohio, the state medical board requires that a massage
therapist must be licensed. To earn a license, a therapist
must take courses in anatomy, physiology and pathology.
In addition, clinical practice is required. People wanting
massages from students come to the school and pay a minimal
amount. (Students work on them under the guidance of instructors.)
“An interesting thing happened at the end of the course
of studies and before graduation,” recalls Sister Veronica.
“We were having an open forum as to what we were thinking
and how we felt. I was very surprised when one woman said,
‘Well, I have to mention this: When I told my friends and
family that there was a sister in our class, they could
not get over it. We were all amazed that she would do this
kind of work, that she would even be permitted to. I have
to tell you, I wondered too. But at the end of all this,
I find myself being very proud that there was a sister in
my class.’ I thought that was very moving because no one
else in the class had ever said that to me. I thought I
was just one of the group.”
Veronica and other massage therapists have learned things
through experience and intuition that schools of medicine
discovered through research and observation. For example,
Prevention magazine reported in 1996 that scientists
at the University of Miami observed increased growth rates
in premature babies who were massaged briefly each day,
compared to preemies who were not massaged. The massaged
preemies also went home from the hospital nearly a week
sooner than average. In addition, diabetic children who
were massaged by their parents exhibited glucose levels
that decreased to near-normal and normal range.
Children are not the only ones who benefit from massage
therapy. More and more adults are discovering it to be a
means of learning to recognize the messages their bodies
send about their health. In addition, massages relieve stress
and help people relax.
Massage therapists have found that many people function
from the neck up. These people are completely unaware of
their bodies. They don’t realize how tight their muscles
are or how much pain they are in. Regular massage helps
people tune into the signals their bodies send them.
Sister Veronica’s appointments usually last about two hours.
Before her client even gets on the massage table, the therapist
may spend as much as an hour just talking and listening.
Janice, a CPA who owns her own firm, has been a client
of Sister Veronica’s for years. Janice says, “The tension
that builds in my back and neck muscles due to the stress
under which I work has melted away under the expert hands
of Sister Veronica.”
Before starting a massage, Sister Veronica rests her hand
on her client’s head or over his or her heart. Then she
says a short prayer, either silently or aloud, to ask a
blessing for the body.
Janice says, “As she silently prays over me before beginning,
accompanied by the soft music that fills the room, I can’t
help but feel the presence of Jesus. And who better to be
there but the one true healer himself.”
Sister Veronica has numerous tools at her disposal. Stored
in a cooler are cold packs, which she applies to soothe
pain and swelling. She applies steam packs to relax sore
muscles. And for people with arthritis, she uses heated
paraffin to coat aching hands.
Veronica’s massage table has a lift so elderly and disabled
people can get on the table. There is also a chair specially
designed for massages.
Presence of Christ
The most important religious symbol in her office is a
crucifix hanging over the desk. Sister Veronica specifically
wanted one with a corpus having well-defined muscles. It
reminds her of Christ’s presence in those she serves.
“Sometimes, if I see people with arms that ache, or who
have worked hard and are in pain, I think of Jesus hanging
on the cross,” she explains. “Or I think of Mary, the Blessed
Mother, especially when I encounter women who have suffered
with their children. I often think of Mary, how she must
have looked upon the beaten body of her son. That vision
gives me strength.”
The good news of her professional reputation and availability
has spread exclusively by word of mouth. Her clients come
from a variety of backgrounds. Besides her Ursuline sisters,
people from all around the community seek her out. Veronica
welcomes all of them.
“They’re all such neat people,” she says. “A few did not
return after the first time; those might have come just
as a lark or for the price. But rarely do people come just
Some arrive by accident, she explains. Rick, a local police
officer, once called and left a message for another Sister
Veronica in the Ursuline community, but Sister Veronica
Cipar mistakenly got the message. She returned his call
and left him a message about a massage appointment. “He
said, ‘Well, why not?’ Now he comes regularly.” She has
since helped relieve his chronic migraine headaches as well
as the general stress that is a result of his police work.
Treating Abused People
Some of her clients are people who are considered unlikely
candidates for being touched, she explains. “I have been
deeply moved by serving someone who has been abused, raped
or assaulted. Sometimes I didn’t know about the abuse until
after the massage. Then I said in amazement to the person,
‘That you would let me touch your body!’ The massage became
part of their healing.”
People who have been physically violated come to Veronica
because they know she will treat them with dignity and an
attitude of respect. When this happens, she is very conscious
of and often awed by her role as a minister to people whose
need for healing is so deep.
Some people seek out Veronica only because she is a religious
sister. But she passionately believes that the real work
is done through her, not by her. “I know I am just an instrument.
I feel that deeply—an instrument for the body to do what
the body knows how to do, and also for God to do the rest.”
Religious Background Helps
Sister Veronica’s life of prayer has given her an unusual
perspective about her work. Often, she is spiritual director
as well as massage therapist.
Rick testifies, “Just as important as the actual treatments
have been the many spiritually enriched conversations we
have shared, usually about my life problems and challenges.
I’ve always told Veronica she should charge me two fees:
one for massotherapy and another for spiritual therapy.”
Veronica views the practice of massage therapy as parallel
to the celebration of Eucharist, at which Christ gives his
body and blood to the faithful in the form of bread and
wine. “If I have any kind of spirituality, it is eucharistic,”
she explains. As Christ gives himself to nurture his people,
the people Sister Veronica serves give their lives and renewed
strength in service to others.
Sister Veronica’s ministry may be relatively new to the
Church, but little by little it is becoming less unusual.
As the number of religious sisters dwindles and their median
age rises, these sisters are finding new ways to support
their communities financially and to care for their retired
These career changes from teaching, for example, which
has been a traditional ministry for sisters, also reflect
their efforts to explore new ways to minister to the faithful.
Religious women have always gone to serve where they were
needed. As society has changed, so have their ministries,
and some sisters see a deep need for healing, for reconciling
people with their own bodies.
Sister Mary Benedict, a client of Sister Veronica’s, says,
“I have a greater respect for the mind-body-spirit relationship
and how God puts us together. Daily living should and could
be a celebrative articulation of life well lived. When we
are in balance, we can do this.”
Sister Veronica’s religious background enables her to see
more than just what a person is on the outside. She tries
to look through the eyes of faith. “I’m able to say to any
who come, no matter what, that their bodies are beautiful
because of what is going on inside,” she says. “I don’t
preach but it may come up in my prayer. I may say, ‘May
you realize that your body is beautiful.’ It seems to work
wonders on their sense of self-worth.”
Finding a Healing Path
Sister Veronica’s work has also become a means for some
to approach the Church, especially for those who have separated
long ago from their faith. For them, she becomes an avenue
back, or a channel of better understanding of the many means
of healing that the Church can offer. People share with
someone they trust, with a person of faith, and they find
a path to healing.
“Relationships develop into friendships. Sometimes I am
invited to share a meal during which a person can have time
to talk. This becomes an extension of my ministry,” says
Laura is one of those clients who came reluctantly at first
but now looks forward to her visits. “My doctor referred
me to Sister Veronica for massotherapy to help my back and
neck, which were injured in an automobile accident,” she
explains. “I was hesitant at first because I am not one
to relax. Now, four years later, I look forward to each
appointment with Sister Veronica and feel very blessed that
I am one of her patients.”
Sister Veronica sums up her feelings about her ministry:
“Jesus the Healer is so appropriate a model for any kind
of healing. I consider massage therapy to be a medical profession
based on the healing work of Jesus. It is a proper ministry
for the Church.”
Elaine M. Berkopec, O.S.U., is an Ursuline sister who lives in Garfield Heights, Ohio. She taught junior and senior high school students for 15 years and now teaches basic education and job skills to women who are making the transition from poverty.