The carnival workers, 125 strong, are standing, holding hands, with their heads bowed. Muscular men and sturdy women linked for a moment of Sunday morning prayer. "I know you guys work your fannies off," Father John says. "You work late. You get up early." There is a murmur of agreement and gratitude.
The Carnival Priest is in town. His altar is a small table in front of the red-and-white-striped bingo tent. What's billed as the largest portable Ferris wheel in the world looms in the distance. It's standing room only, a full house. "We'll have the baptism now," says the Rev. John Vakulskas Jr.
Robin and Marcus Brumberger of Troy, N.Y., hold 13-month-old Corinne Marie and try to console her as she screams during the quick dunking. Vakulskas asks the congregation to give her a round of applause, and it does. She looks up, stops crying immediately and with true show-baby flair beams a smile that melts the crowd and kind of wakes it up.
The carnival priest's parishioners are the workers at the 44th annual Montgomery County Agricultural Fair in Gaithersburg. They are in jeans and T-shirts. All have outdoor tans. Some don't know the Catholic prayers, but that's not an issue. The newly baptized baby's parents are Protestant. All souls welcome.
Vakulskas is one of two Catholic priests on the show circuit in the United States, and soon he'll be the only one; his colleague, the Rev. Robert McCarthy of New York, is planning to retire. Part of the U.S. Catholic Conference Bureau of Pastoral Ministry to Migrants and Refugees, their unique ministry gained Vatican recognition in 1986.
But Vakulskas has been riding the circuit 23 years. "Most full-time carnival workers grew up in the business," he says. "Their problems are the same as any family's. It's really interesting that the politicians are pushing the family. The fairs and carnivals have been pushing family all these years. It's families behind all the booths, all the rides."
According to the Showman's League of America, there are 450 carnivals in the United States employing half a million people. Some are Ma-and-Pa operations. Some are big conglomerates. (No animal acts -- that's the circus.) Workers say they like the carnival life because there's a lot of freedom. Says rides superintendent John Tillery, "You open the door in the morning, and if you don't like your neighbors, you move."
But that mobility makes getting to Mass or any other church on Sunday, one of the workers' busiest days, impossible without the carnival priest. Carnies don't have a great reputation for piety, but Vakulskas finds it otherwise.
"I love being a priest," he says. "I love bringing the sacraments to the people, wherever they are. That's what Jesus did. That's what I do."
He baptizes babies, counsels the distraught, blesses relationships and administers the sacraments to the carnival workers, who call him Father John.
"We make it every Sunday," says John Vogel Jr. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., foreman of the Falling Star and Giant Wheel rides. "It's mandatory for my crew. Just because," he pauses, "they need it."
Vakulskas has a more conventional parish as well, Sacred Heart in Early, Iowa. His traveling ministry began in 1969, when an Iowa carnival owner became seriously ill. His wife called the priest, frantic for her sick husband. It was that couple who persuaded him to consider addressing the spiritual needs of carnival workers. He is on the road several weeks a year.
His parishioners back home have made his carnival ministry possible. "They are very very supportive," says Vakulskas, "as is my bishop." Other priests fill in for him when he's on the road.
Although born in Portsmouth, Va., he's spent most of his professional life in the Midwest. This is his first carnival in Maryland -- he arrived at the Montgomery County Fair Thursday and will stay through today. In his sermon, before passing the hat, Vakulskas makes a plea for the plight of the Haitian people. He wants to make sure it is understood that "I don't do this to stuff my pocket. ... It's not that I'm defensive but I want to quell any questions about where the money goes. Half of the proceeds go to Mother Teresa's home for abandoned children in Port-au-Au Prince, Haiti. Half goes for the literature and spiritual material I pass out to the carnival workers."
Vakulskas believes that carnival workers -- he never calls them carnies -- have a peculiar set of concerns. Families are often separated if a large show breaks up into smaller units to hit more towns. Or if children have to go off to school.
He likes seeing his inspirational stickers stuck all over the midway. "I'm just a common priest," he says. "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."
It's 1 p.m. now and the midway is getting crowded. The carnival workers are suddenly more animated. There are smiles. Some laughter, and in the spirit of Buffalo Bill Cody, the original carnival showman, there's a faint "Step right up."
And off in the distance Father John can be seen leaning on the counter of a booth, listening.