Waterloo Tent & Tarp Galaxy Amusement Sales
Kolmax Plus JKJ Workforce
CHANGE SECTIONS: Carnivals & Fairs Amusement Parks




Waterloo Tent & Tarp Galaxy Amusement Sales
Kolmax Plus JKJ Workforce
Mid American Engine RIDE HELP WANTED RIDE HELP WANTED NOW Berk Concession Supply Dreamland Amusements:  Help Wanted - Click Here Firestone Financial DEGGELLER - HELP WANTED

Carnival & Fair News

Read Amusement Park News

Beloved Industry Figure, Father John - The Carnival Priest - Passes Away at 76

Father John outside of Showmen's Rest

Rides 4U - New & Used Rides RIDE HELP WANTED
The fair industry has lost one of its most beloved personalities – Father John, a Roman Catholic priest whose ministry to carnival workers and midway professionals touched hundreds of lives.

The Rev. John A. Vakulskas Jr. passed away on September 27 following a seven-month battle with pancreatic cancer, which was reportedly accelerated by the coronavirus. He was laid to rest October 10, at Church of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Sioux City.

The news media called him the Carnival Priest, but to the midway and fair professionals throughout North America, he was known simply as Father John. For decades, he's been a beloved presence at  fairs, industry conventions and other meetings, and as a personal friend, confidant and, as a spiritual advisor to hundreds of midway professionals throughout the U.S., Father John had one of the most unique ministries in the world.  

Carnival Ministry

Father John visits with Bill Johnson of Fantasy Amusements

“Father John ministered to the carnival industry for many years,” said Greg Chiecko, President & CEO, Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) .  Initially, he did so on his personal or vacation time. His ministry was deep and he executed it in ways many of us will never know. He understood the mobile industry's way of life and made certain that the world of the Lord was part of their daily lives. The carnival industry will be forever spiritual because of Fr John.”

Father Vakulskas was the only member of the U.S. clergy with a permanent ministry to carnival workers, a position recognized by the Vatican and affirmed by the last three pontiffs. Pope St. John Paul II appointed him as International Coordinator of Carnival Ministries in December 1993. The United States Catholic Conference approved a similar national appointment in the spring 1994. In 2012, he was recognized for his service to carnival workers by Pope Benedict and as recently as 2016, Pope Francis honored Father Vakulskas in 2016 for his ministry to migrants and itinerant people at a Vatican Mass celebrating the carnival industry.

Born in Virginia, his family moved to Sioux City, and he was raised in Iowa. After graduating in 1957 with highest honors from St. Francis Catholic Grade School, his education included a BA in Philosophy and Literature from Loras College and a Master of Arts degree in theology from Mount St. Bernard Seminary (Aquinas Institute of Theology).
Bishop Joseph M. Mueller ordained him a priest for the Diocese of Sioux City on May 24, 1969, at Cathedral of the Epiphany and he served in numerous pastoral positions for the dioceses, until he retired in 2014, splitting his time between Okoboji, Iowa and Ruskin, Fla., where he served six parishes with both English and Spanish liturgies.

Helping Others

But it was back in 1969 when the newly ordained priest began his ministry to carnival workers, when he was called by Jennie Klein to the Plymouth County Fairgrounds in Le Mars to minister to her husband Henry Klein, owner of the carnival that was in town. The Kleins suggested the priest take on the special ministry to those individuals in an industry that was constantly on the move, but in need of the sacraments.

He shared the ministry with its founder Rev. Robert McCarthy of New York. The ministry is part of the U.S. Catholic Conference Bureau of Pastoral Ministry to Migrants and Refugees, and their unique ministry gained Vatican recognition in 1986. From fairgrounds to convention centers, this pastor served a far flung flock with nearly the full gamut of priestly duties, with many adapted to a midway setting. At conventions – from the national gatherings like the annual International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE ) to a handful of state association meetings – to an actual fair – by most accounts visiting several every year,  where he would walk the midway, baptize children, bless rides and concessions, hear impromptu confessions or just be a bastion of kindness to show folk.

Fluent in Spanish and other languages, Father John would offer counseling to all strata of the carnival workforce, regardless of denomination. “He knew people and I know he really enjoyed people,” said John Hanschen, President of Thomas Carnival Inc. and an OABA Trustee and past-president of the Showmen's League of America (SLA). “Sometimes he got criticism from some of his leaders and parishioners in Iowa for being away two or three days to visit with carnivals. There's untold number of carnival children who were baptized by Father John. He always had time for you.”
Many carnival owners and/or fair board members personally invited Father John to prayers, where he would bless rides and concession stands, enjoy the fair while talking with as many carnival workers as possible. Those strolling the fair with Father John knew when to walk on ahead so the priest could have some privacy with a member of his flock.

“He had a sixth sense about people,” said Al ReDusha, Senior Vice President, OABA. “We would be walking the midway, and he would meet a ride worker, a concessionaire, and he could kind of tell if they were hurting.  Those workers are away from their families and homes for long periods of time. That was the way he treated everybody. Without a doubt, the most dedicated priest I've ever met. He was loved by the entire industry, a down to earth fun loving priest and individual.”

Rural Roots

Mike Nye, Iowa State Fair Concessions and Thrill Parks Director, Father John, and Gary Slater, CEO Iowa State Fair

In his home state of Iowa, he was often found at the Iowa State Fair, the last time was in 2019. “It was the Wednesday before we started and Steve Smith of Smith Amusements took him to every ride on the main Midway and our Kid's midway and he blessed every ride,” recalled Gary Slater, CEO/Fair Manager. “He blessed the workers and spent time with them. Then he came back opening day and we included him in the opening ceremony, and he had lunch with the fair board and he went back out to the midway to meet with the carnival owners and workers.”

Having grown up in Iowa and spending most of his time as a priest with a variety of Iowa Parishes, Father John possessed a personal connection with the agricultural mission and rural communities that support most fairs. “He worked at a lot of parishes in Iowa, and he enjoyed being with the farmers and the migrant workers,” said Rick Haney, Fundways of Illinois. “I think growing up with farmers gave him an insight into fair and carnival people. He was a spiritual minister for a lot of people. When we walked the midways, people would always approach to speak with him privately. I think he enjoyed the diversity of people in the carnival business. He loved fairs. He would enjoy different cuisine, like the corn dogs. He enjoyed the comradery of being with people, and helping along with their spiritual lives.”
Bill Johnson (Fantasy Amusements), Father John, and Rick Haney (Fundways of IL) attend a Blackhawks game in Chicago.

“Father John was a welcomed presence at the annual IAFE Convention & Trade Show,” said Marla J. Calico, President & CEO, IAFE. “He regularly conducted one or more services for our attendees. It was always so awesome to see his smiling face and feel the warmth of his love for the outdoor amusement industry and fairs. He will be missed.”

He could also bring a sense of spiritual gravitas that made industry moments more memorable, such as when he would swear in the annual slate of officers. “He was such an important part of our ceremonies. You weren't in until Father John administered the oath,” said Hanschen. “You really got the feeling of the honor and responsibility of the office. It was a thrill to be installed in such a reverent manner.”

Hanschen inducted Father John into the SLA Hall of Fame in 2016, summing up the ministry of Father John in a speech he now admits Father John ghost wrote: “Father John has visited hundreds of carnivals around the world, performed thousands of services, baptisms, weddings and memorials. He says the industry has pushed him hard, encouraging him to “Show up and show that you care.” … He did his carnival work on days off and during vacation. He quietly helps those who have trouble in their life, knowing that it is ”the Lord doing the work,” Father John says, “not me.”

A favorite poem of Father John “A Happy Ending” – also known as the carnival prayer – which the priest often recited at industry functions – is a reflection on mortality, spirituality and the realities of carnival life. Fittingly, Father John's funeral mass concluded with a thoughtful reading of the piece by Haney.

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.”

Related Photos
1998-2021: Company | Web site developed by Matt's Web Design, Inc.