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His Parish Is Full of Clowns, but for Father David Hennessy, It's All in a Day's Vocation

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In Father David Hennessy’s parish there are 66 clowns, a human cannon-ball and a woman who hangs by her hair. Hennessy is Roman Catholic chaplain to the Ringling Bros, and Bar-num & Bailey Circus. “Circus people are not abnormal,” he says. “They have the same problems and emotions as all human beings. To the people in the seats, the show is like a fairyland, but backstage you’re dealing with real flesh and blood.”

In recent years the Vatican has shown a growing interest in ministering to the world’s transients—circus people among them. Finally last January Hennessy, 65, was transferred from the New York waterfront, where he had served a decade as assistant port chaplain, to the small camper that is his personal rectory. In his first three months he shuttled back and forth, introducing himself to Ringling’s “Red,” “Blue” and “Monte Carlo” units (currently playing in New York, Rochester and Cleveland). Whether visiting the railroad cars where many troupers live or in the arena for rehearsal, Hennessy generally carries his suitcase containing vestments, a miniaturized chalice and candlesticks, Communion Hosts and a small bottle of holy water.

Always a polyglot mix, circus people share no common tongue or single religion. Hennessy speaks five languages and augments his fluency with four well-thumbed bilingual dictionaries. Like a military chaplain, he regards his mission as embracing all faiths. He says Mass in the ring between shows and lures children to their catechism with the promise of candy. Fascinated by the show’s dazzling pageant, he seldom misses a performance and is always available for counseling or hearing confession.

“Circus life is very demanding for the artists,” he explains. “It takes years of practice, hurts and falls to make something perfect. Many of the performers realize they are attempting feats that are extremely dangerous. Sometimes one will say to me, ‘Father, I don’t feel much like it today. Give me your blessing.’ ” Though many of his new parishioners avoided him at first, he has found growing acceptance. “It is beautiful to have him,” says Marguerite Michele, the aerialist who twirls by her long hair. “He helps keep everybody together.”

A circus buff since his childhood in England, Hennessy helped pitch tents and water the animals whenever a traveling show was in town. The son of a seafaring family, he joined the merchant marine when he was only 14. “I never wanted to be a priest,” he admits. “I didn’t want to give myself 100 percent to saving souls. Besides, who wants to work on Saturday and Sunday? It was a spiritual battle between myself and God.”

Higher authority prevailed, for at 21 Hennessy entered a seminary in Paris, fleeing on foot just two days before the Nazis invaded France in 1940. After his ordination he worked for 15 years as chef at a Catholic college (“God forgive me, but I’m a damn good cook”) before getting a requested transfer to America in 1955.

Though he still daydreams of a career as an animal trainer, Hennessy has never been happier with his priestly lot. “My sister says, ‘There’s that nut again—why can’t you just be a normal priest in a parish?’ ” he reports with a laugh. But the guidance Father Hennessy feels most appropriate for lion tamer, cannonball or himself, comes from elsewhere in the family. “Don’t do anything,” he advises, “that you would be ashamed to tell your mother.”