Mass in the Big Top and other unusual places

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, February 9, 2014

He is: Father Charles Watkins, pastor of St. Columba Parish on the East Side and Dean of Deanery VI-C. Was appointed by Cardinal George in 2005 as chaplain of the Circus and Traveling Show Apostolate. He has also taught in the permanent diaconate program of the Archdiocese. As a “late vocation,” he was ordained in 2003 at Mundelein Seminary at age 58.

Early years: His life’s journey has taken him down at least three paths. “I grew up in north Alabama in a town called Florence. My younger sister who also lived there, passed away some six years ago; and I have a brother 11 years younger than me, who still lives in that North Alabama town. After World War II my Dad ran a furnace reduction department for Union Carbide. My mother was essentially a stay-at-home Mom and housewife. When I was 17, I became the family bread-winner because Dad had died early in my life. I had plans to go to medical school, but to make a living I got a college degree and taught in public school for about four years.”

Eventually he was able to pursue his dream and spent some 26 years in the medical field. “I became a physician assistant specializing in surgery and worked at the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. I also taught in the Medical School there. I came to Chicago in the early ’80s and was affiliated with the University of Chicago as coordinator of the cardiac surgery section of  UofC, and as a research clinician in that department.”

The Big Top:  As a young man in his spare time and vacations he worked with the circus. “I had relatives on my dad’s side of the family who were from a circus background. You could say I was sort of born with sawdust in my veins. From a young age I was interested in that way of life. It led me to various fan groups and support groups in the business. I had an active involvement for many years and amassed a modest collection of circus memorabilia.

“For a while as an associate pastor, I would travel a radius of about 250 miles from Chicago to visit shows and show people. The apostolate includes the race car circuit, carnivals, ice shows, rodeos and the like. My main interest was in the circus. I’ve done Masses in the United Center, in the Big Top, and many other unusual places. I’ve even celebrated Mass in the circus cook-house when it was the only place we could gather. I’ve baptized children under the big top and performed other spiritual services for people involved in the business.”

Priesthood: “When I was a boy, like many kids brought up in religious families of that day, I had a leaning toward ministry. That disappeared fairly early because I wanted to study medicine. My great grandmother was a ‘country doctor’ of sorts. She traveled around with a horse and buggy and her black bag and was rather well known. I can recall meeting her on several occasions as a child.

“Everywhere I moved in my professional life, I always seemed to have a ready-made family available. In Chicago there was a group of about 12 people, many who lived in the same building I lived in, who got together every Saturday after Mass. The group was lovingly nicknamed ‘The Hail Marys.’ Being devout Catholics, who attended various parishes, we formed a support group for many years.  It kept the whole notion of catholicity, camaraderie and spiritual support in the forefront of my life.

“Subsequently, the people I was serving medically were gradually leading me back into the spiritual realm of my life. I found for the last few years I practiced, I spent as much time doing spiritual work with patients as I did with physical healing. It was a gradual evolution from a professional life to a vocational life.”

“Finally, becoming a student at Mundelein Seminary was the most interesting and productive five years of my life. It was the third time I was in graduate school; I thoroughly enjoyed it and the experience prepared me for ministry as a priest.”

Leisure: “I try to take time to read and to study. A favorite author among others is Flannery O’Connor. Of course she’s a southerner and a marvelous wordsmith.

“For many years I collected circus memorabilia and built a large quarter-inch scale model circus reminiscent of the 1930s-1940s, which I displayed around the country. When I came to the seminary I donated all that to a circus museum in Peru, Ind. I no longer actively collect but I’ll pick something up occasionally here or there. I currently have a Facebook page where I reach out with ministry to hundreds of mostly circus people. I probably touch more people on Facebook than I ever did traveling.”

Favorite Saint and Scripture: “The Little Flower is a favorite saint – my birthday is Oct. 1. And psalm 25: ‘To you, O Lord, I lift my soul, teach me your paths, let me know your ways…’ God has always led me. There are always doors and windows of grace open to you. I’ve considered myself an extremely fortunate person because I’ve been blessed to be able to do the things I thought were important to me.”


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