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Rev. John Vakulskas Dies at 76; Carnivals Were His Parish

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

He was the minister of the midway — a carnival priest who held services on bumper cars, in show tents and, at least once, in front of what was billed as the world’s largest portable Ferris wheel.

Over the last half-century, and on too many fairgrounds to count, the Rev. John Vakulskas tended to an ever-changing flock of carnival workers (he never called them carnies) on the move. He called it “my parish on wheels.”

Often clad in robes emblazoned with circus insignia, he baptized babies in fonts sometimes improvised from buckets or tubs, officiated at marriages and heard confessions from Catholics who were, in carnival parlance, copping a plea.

You didn’t have to be Catholic, though, to be welcomed by the man everyone learned to call Father John, a big, burly priest who embraced those of all faiths and of no faith at all. His work began mostly after midnight, when the crowds had left the midway, the lights had been dimmed and the growl of generators ruffled the silence.

“I’m just a common priest,” he told The Washington Post in 1992. “It might sound schmaltzy, but I love families and the good times. But I’m there for the sorrows, too. To be accepted on the carnival fairground is a good indication that God is representative.”

Father Vakulskas died on Sept. 27 in a hospital in Sioux City, Iowa. He was 76 and had been undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer. The cause was complications of the coronavirus, his sister Janet Masteller said.

Now the Showmen’s League, a century-old organization of carnival workers, is without a chaplain, said John Hanschen, the association’s treasurer. He estimated that there were 250 to 300 carnival organizations in the United States, with a work force of about 50,000 people.

Pope John Paul II — one of three popes to honor his work — appointed Father Vakulskas International Coordinator of Carnival Ministries in 1993.

He carried out his carnival ministry while serving in parishes throughout the Sioux City Diocese for more than 45 years, working on his days off and on vacations, visiting fairgrounds all over the country.

John Anthony Vakulskas Jr. was born on Feb. 28, 1944, in Portsmouth, Va. His father was a postal worker; his mother, Mary Ann (Smith) Vakulskas, was a homemaker. John grew up in Sioux City, where the family moved when he was a baby.

He graduated from Trinity Prep Seminary, a boarding school in Sioux City, in 1961, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Loras College and a master’s of theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology, both in Dubuque. He was ordained in 1969.

In addition to Ms. Masteller, he is survived by a brother, Tom, and another sister, Maria Vakulskas Rosmann.

Father Vakulskas was all of 25 and an assistant pastor in Le Mars, Iowa, when he received a call from a carnival owner’s wife. Her husband was seriously ill, and her frantic first impulse was to call a priest for help — because in the days before 911, as Father Vakulskas learned, few hospitals would send help for a carnival worker.

Father Vakulskas prevailed upon a doctor in town to visit the man, as Mr. Hanschen, of the Showmen’s League, noted in a speech in 2016, when Father Vakulskas was inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame. The diagnosis was exhaustion, ptomaine poisoning and double pneumonia. (It had been a cold and rainy summer, and the man had been working around the clock.) The doctor ordered bed rest, the man recovered, and the couple proposed that Father Vakulskas begin a ministry for carnival people.

On his retirement in 2014 from the Sioux City Diocese, Father Vakulskas moved to Florida and served six parishes there.

He wrote his own obituary, and in it he noted that he was a licensed, instrument-rated airline pilot and an amateur radio operator, and that his passions included sailing, snow skiing, water skiing and cheering for the Chicago Cubs.

He also planned his memorial service, which took place on Oct. 10. The service ended with verses from what some call the carnival worker’s prayer, otherwise known as “A Happy Ending”:

“The ‘jump’ from earth to Heaven
Will be the grandest one of all,
Without a single breakdown,
With no truck-motor to stall.
So let’s make the Show a good one,
While here on earth we dwell,
So when we set it up in Heaven,
God will say, ‘A job done well.’”

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