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The Boston Phoenix Father Circus

Holy man to the strong man, the ringleader, the lion tamer, the sad clown, the happy clown, and the girl on the flying trapeze

By Ellen Barry

AUGUST 24, 1998:  Jerry Hogan was at a Chinese restaurant with some jugglers when he got the news about Richard Chipperfield.

In St. Petersburg, at the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, a tiger had twisted around in the middle of a photo shoot and bitten through the base of trainer Richard Chipperfield's skull. The circus froze. A phalanx of brand-new Bulgarian elephant-riding girls looked on in horror. Someone sprayed the animal with a fire extinguisher. Nothing happened, and then something happened: Richard's older brother Graham retrieved a shotgun from God knows where and shot the tiger five times.

In a matter of minutes, the equilibrium of circus life had broken down, and what remained was an ordinary, frightened group of people. Father Hogan got into his car and drove straight to St. Petersburg.

There are strange duties incumbent upon a circus chaplain. After Richard Chipperfield was spirited away to the hospital, Hogan had to talk the Bulgarian girls (to a one, enamored of the handsome young trainer) down from their uncomprehending frenzy. After trainer Axel Gautier was crushed by an elephant in 1993, the chaplain counseled a heartbroken crewman who was ready to give up on the whole circus life and return to his abandoned master's degrees. Most of the time, though, Hogan's tasks are less dramatic. Fear is an issue in the circus, and so is the absence of fear, and Father Hogan tries to help with that. When two performers fall in love, marriage sometimes means one of them has to destroy a family act by leaving it, which makes marriage counseling complicated. No one, but no one, lives where they come from.

These are not necessarily the problems Hogan learned about in seminary. When he was assigned to the circus apostolate five years ago, the North Andover priest left a comfortable position as chaplain at Emmanuel College, in Boston, and gained admission to a sealed community where non-circus performers -- all 5.9 billion of us -- are still referred to as "townies." He has been accepted in part because he has been present through a series of tragedies; he didn't really know it himself until the Ringling Brothers train derailed in 1996, killing a clown and an elephant trainer. Hogan heard about that and was on the plane within an hour.

"They flew me right down there right away," says Hogan, 52, from the North Andover rectory where he spends about two-thirds of his time. "When I got there, little Arturo, one of the [dwarf] clowns, he just ran up to me and he started hugging my knees, and I'm trying to hug him and I couldn't even get him. He was down there. It was the funniest thing -- I'm thinking, this is vaudeville. I can't even hug the guy. And he says, 'I knew you'd be here. I knew you'd come.' Wow. It was the first time I'd felt that bond."

Jerry Hogan's career has led him into one of the stranger culs-de-sac in the Catholic ministry, but perhaps not stranger than Father John Vakulskas's carnival apostolate, which operates out of state fairgrounds, or Father Dale Grubba's NASCAR apostolate, which involves blessing a lot of stock cars. All draw their pay from the United States Catholic Conference, which also dispatches priests to work with seamen and migrant farm workers. All have a matter-of-factness about their irregular parishes; Vakulskas, who works out of Larchwood, Iowa, once held two baptisms and a memorial service inside a bumper-car rink.

The Catholic Church puts a priority on serving itinerant workers, in part because the faith is well represented among them -- most of America's 2.5 million migrant farm workers, for instance, come from a Catholic background. Since 1970, when Vatican councils began to send out a message that the faithful were an increasingly mobile population, Catholic priests also have developed long-term relationships with groups of Irish "travelers" in Tennessee and Florida and have attempted to make inroads with bands of immigrant Gypsies on the East Coast, although "some of them are more receptive to being ministered to than others," according to one United States Catholic Conference outreach worker. Sixty-five percent of the 200,000 circus workers in America are Catholic, Hogan says; young Latino men join circus crews seasonally and send money home to their families.

Vakulskas ended up in this ministry unintentionally when he responded to a plea from a sick carnival employee. Almost 20 years later, he has published a book of carnival-specific prayers, which includes the following weather-based appeal: "O God, it is raining today. This is usually a big spot for me but the rain is not only sending the crowds home, but at most it will probably keep the crowds from coming at all today. I have bills to pay." There is also "Prayer on Pay Day," which asks God for guidance in stewarding the weekly check and which goes, in part, "Let me not complain about the payroll deductions." And then he offers blessings to carnivalgoers.

"Usually the owner will give me a room there," says Vakulskas, who is currently booked up with a summer's worth of Midwestern state fairs. "I do a lot of work with the media. Then I bless the rides. I pray that people have a good time, a safe time. Ba boom, ba boom," he says. "I guarantee my work."

Like circuses, carnivals count many Catholics in their itinerant communities, but the denominational breakdown is a little different in stock-car racing; at NASCAR, Motor Racing Outreach generously funds Protestant services, which are held regularly in the pit, whereas Grubba says mass in a small room put aside for him. Grubba's NASCAR ministry has involved such irregular theological issues as the assertion of the racer Jeff Gordon that he was winning races because God wanted him to win. And then, of course, Grubba works a lot of young men's funerals.

"Life in a parish can go on at a normal pace," says Grubba, "whereas in the racing atmosphere you tend to have everything accentuated a little bit. In normal life you expect death, but the normal situation is not a tragic death. In racing, you tend to be dealing with tragedies."

All the traveling ministries grew out of the circus ministry, which in turn goes back 70 years to a local priest named Ed Sullivan, who used to go to Filene's Basement and buy huge bags of shoes for circus employees. After Sullivan died, the Catholic presence lapsed for a while until one day when a clown died in New York and a circus employee knocked on the door of a port chaplain, David Hennessey. "Hennessey took over the obsequies for the dead clown," says Father Jack Toner, who succeeded Hennessey and spent four years traveling in his own train car with Ringling Brothers. "I had the dust of a thousand lots on my shoes," says Toner, who remembers the Ringling years as the best of his life and still, at 84, spends a fair amount of time at the circus.

By now the circus chaplaincy is so established that Hogan has a stole and chasuble decorated with circus animals. In fact, the circus is such a sealed-off community that denomination, and even religion, pale in relevance beside familiarity. Hogan's predecessors have held mass with accompaniment by Jewish musicians and a Baptist-led choir. When the Jewish owner of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus died, Toner, a Catholic, officiated at the funeral. "I had the service out of the Jewish manual," he says. The point wasn't whether he was Jewish, but whether he was an insider. "Circus people are very, very difficult to break the ice with. They're extremely reserved."

As he covers more and more territory with circus performers -- last year he traveled 40,000 miles with various shows -- Jerry Hogan has become familiar with the benefits and travails of the life. During a pastoral visit to the tiny Vidbel Circus in Reading last week, he discussed visa problems with a Ukrainian circus musician, school with a 13-year-old Kyrghyz contortionist, injuries with trick equestrians, and business with the 23-year-old identical twins who inherited the circus from their mother. Vidbel travels with a crew of just 40 people; the death-defying trick riders peel off their sequined spandex and sell popcorn during intermission.

In some ways, the circus gig is like ministering to an old-fashioned small town. Family relationships, entwined with art and business, are more intense than they are among the general populace. Indeed, the whole circus community feels rather like a close extended family; every member of the circus is authorized to discipline the other members' kids, Hogan says. The darker side is that the profession doesn't always allow a smooth transition into old age, and performers sometimes don't know where they will fit in the world when they are no longer capable of being shot out of a cannon.

Hogan tells the story of a Russian aerial couple, Sasha and Fatima Medikov, who used to do backward flips on the slanted wire until two years ago, when Sasha had a heart attack. The Medikovs happened to be in Las Vegas that day, and they have never left; Fatima cares for her comatose husband, chattering to him all day in Russian in a nursing home, far from where either of them expected to end up. Their friends from the circus are afraid to visit -- the idea of such a sudden end to a career is that disturbing -- but Hogan sees the couple regularly and reports that they are "at peace."

Over the years, Hogan has stopped missing the altar and the choir and the other traditional religious props.

"You have a stereotype of church," he says. "The holy music, and everyone's somber. I'm standing in the elephant chips."

And although at the beginning he was just enchanted by the grease paint, Hogan has begun to see the circus very explicitly as a way to get close to God.

"The circus, to me, is like a liturgy in the respect that it brings in the divine and the experience of the extraordinary," he says. "You come and witness feats that go beyond the human imagination or what you, as a spectator, can do. You can see people take their gifts to an extraordinary level. It reassures your faith that there is something more to life than what we readily experience. When we see other people doing these things, it reaffirms that."

For his part, Father Hogan gets the opportunity to stop being wholly earthbound himself. He describes pulling into the circus grounds one morning in Williston, North Dakota, after the Carson and Barnes Circus had driven all night, in formation, with 79 trucks full of animals and a tent big enough to accommodate five rings, him cruising along behind them in the pitch dark, clutching a cup of coffee. What Hogan saw that morning is not available to most civilians, and the way he tells it, it sounds religious.

"I'm driving along and the sun's coming up, and I'm listening to this cowboy station and I hear them say, 'Come on down, we're here at the fairground waiting for the circus.' So we get to the fairground, and there are 4000 people waiting to see the circus tent put up."

"There's 4000 people -- at seven in the morning," he says, in a tone of lasting amazement. He has pictures. "There we are. And this is the town. These are the people."

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry@phx.com.

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