Faith in the center ring

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In 1956, a struggling Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made a shift in venues from tents to arenas that gave new life and popularity to "The Greatest Show on Earth." Even today with competition from cable TV and the Internet, the show is still a draw.

Moving three touring units (Red, Blue and Gold) around the country can be a logistical nightmare that involves hundreds of performers, staff and animals, plus setting up, and tearing down tons of equipment.

Performers and their families live on the trains that transport them from town to town. It can be a difficult life, but one that performers enjoy. Circus people say it's a community, and a religious and spiritual life is part of any healthy community.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Blue Tour came to Fairfax in April with 16 performances at the George Mason University Patriot Center. There was a three-day lull between blocks of performances, so an April 14 Mass was celebrated that included baptisms, confirmations and first Communions for the children of performers. The celebrants were Fathers Jerry Hogan and Frank Cancro, both longtime ministers to the circus.

The Mass and sacraments

Father Hogan is known as the "circus priest" and his chasuble, resplendent with elephants, lions, zebras and clowns with a large patch on the back proclaiming "The Greatest Show on Earth," is a testament to his attachment to the circus. His position is an official U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops appointment.

Father Hogan has a hectic schedule, having spent 146 days last year with the circus ministry. When asked why he keeps up this pace, he said he fell in love with the circus when he was young. He's loved it ever since.

Father Hogan has been doing this for 22 years. He is the fourth chaplain to serve the circus since 1928. For many years he served at parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, but when he's not on the road, he lives and serves at St. Martha Church in Sarasota, Fla. - the "circus church."

Father Cancro's attire was a bit muted with only an elephant embroidered at the bottom of his stole. Father Cancro, a former circus clown, is now the pastor of Queen of Apostles Church in Belmont, N.C. He tries to visit circuses and minister to circus people whenever he can.

The Patriot Center is an unusual setting for a Mass. It's known more for basketball and concerts. Guy wires crisscrossed the ceiling of the arena and were anchored to the floor, keeping speakers, scaffolds and powerful arc lights steady and safe. The altar was set up in the center ring in preparation for Mass, and seats were arranged for family and friends.

A trumpet announced the beginning of Mass as the candidates for baptism, confirmation and first Communion, processed from behind a large, red curtain bordered with gold and silver stars with "The Greatest Show on Earth" written on top.

"Today is a celebration of God's love in the center ring," said Father Hogan. "This arena is your temple."

He told them that they were part of a special community of circus people.

After the homily, Fathers Hogan and Cancro invited sponsors and babies up to the altar for the baptism. Confirmation candidates where next, then recipients of first Communion. All told, there were five baptisms, four confirmations and three first Communions.

"Let's thank God for this great day and all these great people," Father Hogan said at the conclusion of Mass.

Like after any sacramental ceremony, proud parents posed for photos with their children and their sponsors.

Daniel Equino held his 6-month-old godchild, Naomi Escobar Chimal, in his arms after the ceremony. Equino rides a motorcycle in a circular steel cage for the circus. He rides at high speed around the cage with other cyclists narrowly avoiding disastrous collisions.

"It's so beautiful, so comfortable," he said about the ceremony.

Sandor Eke is the Boss Clown for the tour. He's been a circus clown for 19 years and is responsible for all the clowns in the show. His 10-month-old son, Michael Gabriel Sandor Eke was baptized.

"It's awesome," said Sandor about the ceremony. "It's something different. We set up our own church in the ring."

Circus ministry

This type of Mass is not uncommon. There are dozens of circuses and carnivals that move around the country, and the USCCB estimates that about 40 percent of the performers are Catholic and they need a ministry. Sometimes local priests help out.

These circuses are smaller than Ringling Brothers, with some still performing in tents in small towns.

An arm of the USCCB, the Circus and Traveling Shows Ministry is under the subcommittee on the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers, and has the responsibility for caring for the spiritual needs of traveling performers.

Assisting Father Hogan is Missionary Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Dorothy Fabritze, who has been in the ministry since 2000. She has performed many circus jobs, including selling tickets and souvenirs, and putting up and taking down circus tents. She had to become a member of the Teamsters Union to work.

"I wanted to find missionary work to people who were not being reached," she said. "I felt (circus people) were not being reached."

Sister Dorothy has been traveling with Ringling Brothers for several months. Her main focus is caring for the spiritual needs of Catholic performers.

Father Hogan will return to Sarasota, until he gets a call to celebrate another Mass. Father Cancro will go back to his duties as a pastor, until he can break free for a ministry he loves.

Sister Dorothy works until she can set up a ministry that can work on its own. She would like to get permanent deacons assigned to circuses.

She no longer sets up tents, but concentrates on ministering to performers and family.

The day after the Mass, Sister Dorothy had a new assignment. She, and Sister Mary Siebert, packed up their personal items and loaded them into a truck and trailer that they live in most of the year, and traveled to meet up with the Kelly Miller Circus to care for the spiritual needs of their circus people.

Borowski can be reached at or on Twitter @DBorowskiACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015