By JOANNE FOX
FOREST PARK, Ill. – A diocesan priest presided May 17 at Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery to mark the centennial of one of the most-deadly railroad disasters in U.S. history.
On June 22, 1918, a locomotive – whose engineer was asleep at the controls – plowed into the back of a circus train near Gary, Ind., causing a fire to break out, killing 86 men, women and children and injuring more than 120 individuals. The dead were among 400 members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, one of the biggest in the U.S. at the time.
In a “Holy Spirit moment,” the Showmen’s League of America – a fraternal organization of outdoor show people – had bought a cemetery plot in Woodlawn Cemetery for carnival workers the previous year. When the train wreck happened, Showmen’s Rest was made available for 56 of the victims.
“There is a big difference between circus (animals, trapeze, tents) and carnival (ferris wheel, carousel, county fairs), so opening a carnival cemetery to so-called, non-member circus people was a true act of charity,” said Father John Vakulskas Jr., a retired priest of the Diocese of Sioux City, who is a member of the Showman’s League.
The former diocesan pastor is the only member of the U.S. clergy with a permanent ministry to carnival workers. Father Vakulskas was asked to be on the League’s event planning committee, which had been fine-tuning the ceremony for six years.
The 90-minute ceremony was held a month before the anniversary of the disaster, so more League members could participate before the summer carnival season kicked off, Father Vakulskas noted.
“We had hoped Cardinal Blase Cupich (of Chicago) could be the featured speaker, but he was scheduled to be in Rome,” he said. “So, I was asked by the committee to take his place.”
Father Vakulskas, who was ordained for the diocese in 1969, stated he “was honored to be the featured speaker, not only since I have been doing carnival ministry for almost five decades, but also because in any cemetery, we have memories of people buried there.”
“If we stop and think about it – since we are all God’s children – we are all part of God’s family,” he said.
In his comments at the event, Father Vakulskas stressed that “our lives are enriched when we know more and more about our history.”
“In this way we remember that these cemeteries contain only the bodies or ashes of those who have died,” he said. “Their souls are very much alive, and we pray they are with the Lord, and their spirits remain alive in all who knew them and loved them.”
The observance at the cemetery – which is bordered by five sculptures of elephants with their trunks lowered in mourning – also featured the performance of a brass band and supportive insights from Chicago-area dignitaries.