SEDALIA, Mo. -- The Rev. John Vakulskas walks tall here in the midway, among the twirling rides and twinkling lights, where the scent of cotton candy wafts and the playful cries of children resound.
This is his church. These are his parishioners.
For 35 years, Vakulskas has ministered to ride operators and game booth attendants -- folks who spend their lives on the road, who raise children expected to follow in their footsteps, called "carnies" by outsiders.
"This business is not for sissies," Vakulskas tells workers at the Missouri State Fair in a late-morning Roman Catholic Mass held steps from the Ferris wheel and colorful stands offering corn dogs and snow cones. "This business is very important because we're bringing entertainment to God's families."
Vakulskas had just been ordained in 1969 when the wife of a carnival owner phoned him. Her husband was seriously ill; she needed a priest.
The man survived and helped convince Vakulskas he should more regularly serve the needs of carnival workers. He agreed.
"I call it my traveling parish," said Vakulskas, 60, whose "day job" is being pastor at two Iowa churches.
Vakulskas has Catholic counterparts elsewhere in the world who will gather this December in Rome for the Seventh International Congress of the Pastoral Care of Circus and Traveling Show People. The church's carnival outreach is overseen by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, the same office in charge of ministries to pilots and truck drivers and seafarers.
But Vakulskas is the only member of the clergy with a permanent ministry to carnival workers in this country, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He's working to get priests to help out when a fair comes to their town and will give the pope a paper on the subject when he visits Rome.
Vakulskas's job is ecumenical. He wears a stole embroidered not only with a carousel horse and a Ferris wheel, but also with a Star of David. About 30 percent of carnival workers are Catholic, but Vakulskas ministers to them regardless of their faith.
Few are able to attend services regularly, so Vakulskas offers workers a handout entitled "Spiritual Survivor Kit," with biblical references on dealing with everything from divorce to finances to jealousy.
He has traveled to carnivals in nearly every state, staying anywhere from a few hours to a few days, his expenses paid by the shows' owners. All told, he's only able to make visits to 12 to 15 of the hundreds of carnivals a year, blessing rides, baptizing children, memorializing the dead and celebrating Mass, often late at night, when the rides have stopped and quiet falls over the fairgrounds.
"Sometimes we just want to give up because the hours are so long and the work is so hard," said Tanya Ledet, 28, a carnival worker from Natchez, Miss. "He just brings out the best in us. He gives us the uplifting that everybody needs and makes us feel important."
In his homily, Vakulskas tells workers they're doing God's work.
"Happy things are happening here. But there are a lot of people hurting here, too," he said. "You're providing entertainment to people that are carrying a lot of grief and a lot of sorrows in their life."
Pope John Paul II has made a point to acknowledge the hardships of their lives.
"They open for their audiences a place of celebration and friendship, they bring a smile to the face of a child, and illuminate for a moment the desperate eyes of a person who is alone," he said in 1993, when carnival and circus workers gathered at the Vatican. "Through spectacle and amusement, they render people nearer to each other."
Vakulskas's effect on this group is evident. A walk down the midway brings smiles and handshakes. His words during Mass move some to tears. Many ask for a blessing, while others want one-on-one time from an outsider with a friendly, familiar face.
"He cares and he just really caters to us," said Bryant Murphy, 34, of Gibsonton, Fla. His 8-month-old son, Corbin John, was one of three children baptized during Vakulskas' visit here.
Toward the end of Mass, the Ferris wheel begins to spin and a marching band is heard in the distance. Vakulskas concludes the service with a prayer that paints a picture of heaven as the perfect carnival. Visitors get a taste of that peacefulness here, he said.
"You get the sugar on your face and the caramel apple running down your chin," Vakulskas said. "Everything's okay for a while."