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Sister Rosalind Gefre, a Strasburg, N.D., native and teacher of the art of massage, may be the only nun to have her own baseball card.

Healing Hands: Nun Supplies Medicine for the Skin Hungry

Tobin, Paulette. "Healing Hands: Nun Supplies Medicine for the Skin Hungry." Grand Forks Herald, 22 August 1999.


"Once linked with prostitution, long scorned by doctors, even regarded as witchcraft at times, the image of healing massage today has come full circle," said massage teacher and therapist Sister Rosalind Gefre of St. Paul, Minn.

"It's a total reverse of how it started," said Gefre, who remembers 20 years ago when "massage parlor" was a euphemism for prostitution.

Today her advocacy of the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of massage has made her something of a celebrity in the Twin Cities. Thousands have enjoyed the touch of her healing hands at the St. Paul Saints baseball games, where she massages fans in the stands, and frequently gives them big hugs, too. Because of her association with the Saints, she may be the only nun in the world with her own baseball card.

The Strasburg, N.D., native also has her own schools and clinics of massage, on-site programs and outreach programs, and has hosted national seminars. She has watched massage grow in respect in the medical community and in the public. Now, she's says humbly, many who feel unwell go for a massage before they go to see their doctor.

Sister Rosalind, 69, earlier this summer a speaker at the national convention of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Aberdeen, S.D., talked about massage and its link to an ancient German tradition of folk medicine and healing prayer called brauche.

Those who practiced brauche, mostly women, had to have an inherited power of healing and great inner strength and faith in God. The healer's strength lay in her hands and in her ability to pass her faith and strength to the sick person because nowhere are the feelings of hopelessness and insecurity stronger than in the sick.

Many older Germans from Russia in North Dakota and South Dakota remember brauche and the old traditional home cures. A half century ago, for instance, many a German home had its bottle of "green drops" which were used internally and externally for everything from tooth ache to mosquito bites. Many people believed in folk cures like the one for warts that often involved rubbing the affected areas with oil, or tying them with string, and then saying repeated prayers.

And many communities had their own healer who advised people about diet, herbs and vitamins, and who adjusted their bones and joints and gave massages. When Sister Rosalind was 12 and suffering from sore ears, her family took her to a doctor, and also to a woman in Strasburg who put her hands on young Rosalind's ears, prayed for her and instructed her to pray to St. Ann and to Jesus three times a day.

When Rosalind and her mother returned to the doctor, he asked them what they had done to help the ears to heal so quickly.

Mom and I lied and said, "Oh, nothing," Sister Rosalind said. "That was my first experience with faith healing."

By the 1940s and 1950s many German people no longer admitted to believing or practicing brauche or faith healing. By that time many churches and ministers were preaching against it as being of the devil and doctors and modern medicine regarded it as backward and ignorant. Its reputation sank so low that people often spoke of it only in whispers.

Meanwhile Gefre turned 19 and entered a Sisters of St. Joseph convent in St. Paul. She worked as a cook for 17 years and then got involved in nursing and liked it. She was working at St. John's Hospital in Fargo when she got a message that her mother, then an Aberdeen resident, was dying. Sister Rosalind went to care for her mother, who lived three years.

One day her mother told her she wanted a massage from a local woman. Eventually Sister Rosalind had a massage from the woman, too, and experienced for herself its healing benefits.

"I almost flew out of there," Sister Rosalind said. "You feel so light and so wonderful. I believe it was at that time that God called me to massage."

"Massage is good for so many physical aches and pains, she said, but it can be just as important emotionally because people need to be touched just as much as they need water and food."

"One day a woman came in and when I walked in to give her a massage, she started to cry," Sister Rosalind said. "'I'm so skin hungry," the woman said to me. That was the first time I heard that expression but we have run across that again and again and again. They come to us not just because they have head aches and back aches. They need to be touched.

Sister Rosalind said the intimacy of massage sometimes caused clients to share their most personal experiences, including painful stories of physical and sexual abuse. Sometimes clients want to talk about difficult decisions or circumstances in their lives. But that doesn't mean they're looking for advice, she said.

I tell the people I train that when clients come in you are not there to entertain. "You are just there," she said. Sometimes we already have the answers for them and they just want to share. They need someone to listen. That is how you become the healer, by listening with your heart, not just the ears.

When her clients have shared their pain, said Sister Rosalind, she always asks them if she can pray with them.

Sister Rosalind knows her message of touching and sharing could be misinterpreted by some. After all, she remembers when massage didn"t mean healing, it meant this other jazz. She said she used to worry what people would think about a nun who not only gave massages at baseball games but who hugged everyone as well. So she prayed about it.

"I decided everybody is worth a hug," she said.

"Hugging doesn't mean go to bed," she said. "We have the wrong idea sometimes." In the scriptures Jesus always touched those he healed. So I always say to people, "Take the hand, touch the shoulder of others. Just to touch people is healing. We may think nothing of it, but it means the world to other people."

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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