Father Jerry Hogan, national circus chaplain, celebrates Easter Mass for circus workers April 16 at the DCU Center arena in Worcester, Mass. CNS photo/Tanya Connor, The Catholic Free Press

Circus chaplain prepares Ringling performers for final bow

By  Tanya Connor, Catholic News Service
  • April 29, 2017

WORCESTER, Mass. – The congregation, numbering about 50, gathered for their last Easter Mass together on the DCU Center’s arena floor.

The chaplain, Fr. George (Jerry) Hogan, borrowed one of their colourful boxes to use as an altar. The altar cloths and his chasuble sported circus images. Costume designers had sewn pieces of old elephant blankets together to make his stole.

The backdrop suggested the reason for such an unusual liturgical environment: The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had come to town to offer shows on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

But it isn’t all “fun and games” for performers and other circus workers, some of whom attended the Mass before the Easter shows. While “they’ve always performed during Holy Week,” they are now going through the paschal mystery themselves, Hogan told The Catholic Free Press, newspaper of the Diocese of Worcester.

The Ringling circus was nearing the end of its 145-year run and the workers, including frontline performers, were in a quandary about their future. They learned Jan. 14 that the circus was closing.

Hogan, who has been national circus chaplain for 24 years after being appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled the anguish of the workers when they learned of show’s fate just hours after he celebrated Mass for them in Orlando, Fla., where they were performing.

His cellphone “went wild” at his winter home in Sarasota, Fla., where he ministers at St. Martha Parish, the national circus church, as shocked circus workers called him with the news they received: “We’re closing.” The 145th edition of “The Greatest Show on Earth” would be its last.

The priest of the Boston Archdicese had to ask himself, “How can I help these people?”

Over the years, Hogan has dealt with five circus tragedies, three of which included fatalities, he said, but this was different.

“First of all, you’ve got to deal with your own feeling, because you become numb,” he said. Then you have to look past that to what God is calling you to do. It’s more than hearing; it’s listening, being physically present.”

Such tragedies affect not only those who get hurt, and their families and co-workers, but the managers and owners too, he said.

He described Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment Inc., Ringling’s parent company, as very caring when tragedy strikes.

“He’s a very good businessman,” Hogan said. “He didn’t want to close. This is tough for him, too.”

Reasons cited for the closing included costs, declining attendance and battles with animal rights groups.

Ringling’s Red Unit and Blue Unit each have at least 300 employees, about 100 of whom are performers, Hogan said. The circus runs two different shows simultaneously, performing in various cities.

Worcester was one of the last stops for the Red Unit, with its final show in Providence, R.I., May 7. The Blue Unit’s final show is May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y.

“I will be with you all week in Providence,” Hogan told Red Unit workers at the Easter Mass. “You’ll grow. It’s not the end of the world. You’ll be able to survive this.”

A silver lining Hogan sees in the dark times is the reception of sacraments in Uniondale a few days before the final show. He said a baby is to be baptized, 12 children are to receive their first Communion, five adults are to be confirmed and one is to be received into the church.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.