Baraboo's Circus World brings in ministry; requires practice, faith

Tucked alongside the Baraboo River, beneath the big top sits hallowed ground to anyone who’s ever loved the circus. Opening day at Circus World brings thrills and some jitters.

"It’s exciting," performer Ian Laidlaw said. "It’s a little nerve-wracking always at first."

"Blast Off to Circus World" is debuting to more than a thousand people in the same city the Ringling Brothers once called home.

"I really just have to zone in and just do what I know," Laidlaw said ahead of the opening show.

In order for the big performance to happen, a lot goes on behind the scenes.

"You feel the people’s energy," performer Viktoria Zsilak said. "Of course you feed from that."

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For Zsilak, the circus is in her blood.

"I’ve been born in the circus, my parents have been in it, my grandparents and of course I now have my kids right now with me," she said.

Zsilak has been juggling many acts over the years. Each requiring a lot of dedication.

"Practice two to three hours a day conditioning yourself and getting new tricks," she said.

Beyond that, sometimes performing death-defying acts requires a little faith.

"It’s probably one of the best kept secrets in the church in many ways," Father Frank Cancro said.

For almost as long as the circus has existed in Baraboo, another unexpected act has been alongside them.

"We’re that foundation, we’re that strength, we’re that familiarity that allows them to have a place to go to, as it were to find nurture and support," Father Cancro said.

It might be considered the most unique congregation on earth. Throughout the past century, the Catholic Church has been bringing the ministry to the circus.

"We serve everybody, not just Catholics on the show and in that sense, we’re companions on the journey," Cancro said.

Father Cancro is the National Church Chaplain. For nearly 15 years, he’s been traveling the country as a guiding light to performers.

"There’s preparation for sacraments, there’s births and deaths and marriages," he said.

The retired North Carolina parish priest stepped into the role after a sister from the Circus Ministry showed up to his church asking for money.

"She saw a picture of me on my office wall as a clown and wanted to know what that story was about," he said.

More than 50 years ago, Cancro had his own dreams of joining the circus. He performed as a clown before ever becoming a priest.

"I never imagined somehow that life would hook into what it is now in terms of being present to the circus community and being able to walk with them," Father Cancro said.

In mid-May, Father Cancro was joined by Gary Nosacek for an annual blessing asking God to watch over the performers.

"They appreciate that a priest or a deacon or a nun will say you can’t get to the church, we’re coming to you," Nosacek said.

He’s been a deacon in Milwaukee for a decade. When Archbishop Jerome Listecki asked him to join the Circus Ministry, he had the same reaction many do when they tell him about his job.

"They say oh wait, you’re serious. This is really a thing," he said. "I’m like yeah, it’s really a thing."

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For the circus, the blessing is more than just a visit. It strengthens their connection to a higher power.

"I know it’s vitally important to our cast of performers for this day to happen," Circus World Director Scott O’Donnell said.

Performers say it keeps their spirits high. It reminds everyone what they’re watching is bigger than what’s in front of them.

"Performers are a sign of grace that what you are experiencing is not just entertainment," Father Cancro said.

Circus World has created an exhibit highlighting the ministry. It will be on display for the 2024-2025 seasons. You can catch a "Blast Off to Circus World" performance through Sept. 1.