The surprising history of the Catholic Church’s circus priests

Before I left the center ring of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s Blue Unit traveling troupe, Father Frank Cancro handed me a postcard. On the front was Mary, her arms outstretched, with a multicolored shawl draping down from her hands like a circus tent. A lion, a tiger and a dancing dog were at her feet, with a clown, an acrobat, a juggler and others contained within the safety of her tent. They all stood on a star, at the center of the center ring.

“Mary, Mother of all who travel down the road, pray for us!” the back of the postcard read.

Mary, Cancro explained, protects those who spend their lives in the circus. That includes Cancro, who has a parish in North Carolina but also works as a “circus priest,” spending three to four days every month with circus folk. His off-white vestments are embroidered with a small, sparkling elephant.

Cancro was in the center ring at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., with Father Jerry Hogan, a Boston-based priest who runs the circus and traveling show ministry in the United States. Hogan is the circus chaplain, a role he’s held for 22 years.

They were there to perform sacraments for the Ringling group: baptisms, confirmations, first Communions. Those participating were trained by a nun, Sister Dorothy Fabritze, who travels with the circus along with Sister Mary Seibert for a few months every year, before moving on to another circus.

What the nuns and the priests do is a continuation of a relationship between the circus and the church that began 90 years ago, when a young, bespectacled priest named Monsignor Elslander began to bless the Ringling trains as they left Sarasota, Fla., every spring.

“There’s been a Catholic presence on the Ringling Brothers since roughly 1928, when the Ringling Brothers moved to Sarasota,” Hogan told me. “There was a pastor there who’d just started at St. Martha’s Church.” That pastor, Elslander, stayed for decades.