They fly through the air with the greatest of ease, wear glittering costumes, receive the adoration of a new audience each night and travel the country.
The transient life of circus performers looks thrilling and glamorous to children pining to run away to become trapeze artists or jugglers; and gypsy-like to adults watching the scenery change as the circus comes to town.
Despite the often-stereotypical views of circus performers, most adults remember wishing they could don greasepaint and multi-patterned clown outfits, tame lions, walk the high wire or fly out of a cannon.
Fr. Jerry Hogan and Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart Bernard Overkamp and Dorothy Fabritze did, in a sense, run away to join the circus.
The three are part of Circus and Traveling Show Ministries, and serve an international community of performers that travels throughout the United States.
Operate under bishops’ conference
Under the umbrella of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the CTSM is a subcommittee within the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugee and Travelers in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity.
While Fr. Hogan travels more than 60,000 per year in a rented Winnebago or by air to meet his traveling parish, Srs. Bernard and Dorothy travel with the circus by train or by pick-up truck, pulling a trailer outfitted with a simple chapel inside. With the approval of the Vatican, the sisters carry the Eucharist with them at all times.
Their ministry encompasses 30-40 circuses, 300-400 traveling carnivals, the Indy Car racing circuit, the Professional Bull Riders Association, and the horse racing personnel at the Arlington Race Track.
More than 15,000 Catholics are served through the CTSM, a ministry Fr. Hogan has enjoyed for 19 years. He found the acts, the costumes and the life exciting, since his dad took him to his first circus in the 1950s.
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“I began in 1993 after (the former circus priest) Fr. Jack Toner got sick,” said Fr. Hogan, only the fourth priest since the ministry began in 1920 to serve as chaplain. “He knew how much I loved circuses and asked if I could fill in for him. The bishop ended up appointing me to the ministry and I’ve been on ever since; I love every aspect of this ministry.”
While serving as the chaplain of the CTSM could be considered a full-time job, Fr. Hogan also served as co-pastor of St. Michael Parish in North Andover, Mass., until January when he was granted a medical leave of absence by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley. He now lives in Sarasota, Fla., and assists at St. Martha Parish.
When he was balancing both ministries, the 66-year-old priest relied on others for help.
“I usually go out on the road in the middle of the week so I (was at the parish) for weekend Masses,” he said. “But nowadays with computers, Facebook and cell phones, I am in contact with anyone who needs me in the circuses.”
Ministry founded 40 years ago
The role of circus priest began after Fr. Ed Sullivan founded the ministry and served as the traveling parish’s priest for 40 years; the job of circus chaplain has been held by a Roman Catholic priest ever since.
Fr. Hogan explained that circus performers are no different from anyone else in the church, requiring the celebration of Mass and sacraments.
“Circus performers are very spiritual people with tremendous faith, but what they don’t have is a regular parish,” he said. “I am the pastor for any Catholic in any circus in the United States. These people are on the move and as an example, a couple can’t get married in a regular church because they aren’t part of a parish for six months. My role is that I take care of all stuff like that – it is exciting and challenging.”
Is frequent Wisconsin visitor
A frequent visitor to Wisconsin, Fr. Hogan has been involved with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it has traveled to the Milwaukee area; he has ridden in the Great Circus Parade; and considers the home of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, one of the greatest destination spots in the country.
For 12 years, Srs. Bernard and Dorothy traveled with several circuses, but most recently with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey to conduct Bible studies, provide sacramental preparation, work with RCIA candidates, lead lapsed Catholics back to the faith, and help with regular circus operations.
“Sr. Bernard has worked as a cook in the past, providing three meals a day, and more recently as a seamstress and wardrobe,” said Sr. Fabritze. “I have sold tickets, run midway rides, helped to put up tents, pulled the show curtains and we have both picked up our share of trash.”
While not a glamorous lifestyle, they said the circus life and its people have captured their hearts and souls. Comparing their lives to St. Paul, who supported himself as a tent-maker, the sisters are called to continue in the mission field, helping form a Christian community within the circus community.
“The past few years we were swamped with requests for sacramental preparation, such as baptisms, marriages and Bible studies,” said Sr. Fabritze. “It was in the middle of that stress that one of the dancers came to me and said that there were four dancers who needed confirmation, as they had not been confirmed. I rolled my eyes and said ‘bring them on.’”
Unfortunately, the dancers only understood Portuguese, so Sr. Fabritze asked the Brazilian dancer to translate for her while she taught the lessons.
“She told me that she is a catechist in Brazil and would love the chance to use her training in the circus to lead candidates to the church,” said Sr. Fabritze. “I talked with Fr. Hogan and we agreed to give her a chance – she not only brought the four adult women through confirmation, but found another who needed RCIA. I went in the classes to speak now and then and she translated, but she did a wonderful job handling them all.”
From dancer to catechist
Seemingly overnight, the demands on the Brazilian catechist grew until she requested that she serve the circus full time, no longer as a dancer, but as a catechist.
Currently, the CTSM has two catechists who work with religious instruction, but the need and desire for additional catechists is growing so much that the two sisters left Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey for a sabbatical year of preparation and fundraising for their new ministry, Project SPEC: Show People’s Evangelization of Catechists. Sr. Fabritze visited St. Peter Parish in East Troy last summer to appeal for financial help to institute the new ministry.
“I wanted to share our ministry and ideas with St. Peter’s for the future, and to ask for their prayer and financial assistance so we can reach out to more members of this wonderful circus family,” she said. “The money we raise will help us get new catechists trained and started in this ministry, as well as providing funds for Sr. Bernard and me to travel and fundraise.”
SPEC is a program designed to provide Catholic catechetical education to members of the traveling shows industry. The goal is to identify, educate and provide the necessary supports for the present and future generations of Catholic lay catechists in these itinerant communities.
Through the Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation program, an online curriculum from the University of Dayton designed for certification of catechists, pastoral care ministers of CTSM will identify lay leaders within these faith communities willing to become the catechetical educators. In addition, the CTSM ministers provide the candidate with a mentor to ensure there is the emotional, spiritual and educational support to assist the candidates in the completion of the courses.
“We love reaching out to the circus people and I have found a deep faith in these people. Some of them have very scary jobs, such as high wire, lion taming, etc,” said Sr. Fabritze. “For me, faith is the person and family upbringing and one person’s own research to the mystical and beyond — it isn’t particularly with the job, but how you relate to each other and to God. If we can reach more performers and bring them to the church, than we have accomplished our goal.”