Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People
People on the Move
N° 99 (Suppl.), December 2005
OF Little Sister Priscilla Buhlmann
Carson and Barnes Circus
When I got the invitation of Cardinal Hamao to speak to all of you, my first reaction was "impossible", but the theme of the Congress touched me deeply ... and, so, here I am, still feeling a bit panicked and thinking this is impossible, but I'll try. Monsignor Chirayath suggested I speak to you about my family background and my vocation.
My father's family owned a circus in Switzerland, Circus Pilatus. My mother was not from a circus milieu, but she fell in love with my dad, followed him to the circus, and liked it. She worked trapeze and highwire and I walked the highwire with her up until a month or two before my birth. My dad died from a highwire accident when I was 4 and my sister 1, but we stayed on for a few more years performing with the circus before my mother returned to where her mother was living. I went back to the circus many times until I was 12.
I have good memories about Catholic schools. We circus kids always wanted to go to them because the sisters welcomed us there. Even though they knew we would only be there for a few days, they didn't put us in the back of the classroom as the teachers in other schools did. When I was 14, though, I wanted to go to a boarding school but I was not accepted because of my circus background. After that I rarely spoke about my background again. If asked about my father's job, I just said he was an artist but avoided to say what kind!
At 15 I got involved in parish groups where two priests helped me to discover Jesus in a deeper way and I felt a call to religious life. I was first attracted to the Carmel but, being involved in the Young Catholic Workers, I also wanted to work in a factory. So, when I heard about the Little Sisters who try to live as contemplatives in the world, working in factories and living in poor neighborhoods, I knew I'd found my place. But there, too, I didn't dare to speak about my circus background.
Our foundress Little Sister Magdeleine had a great love for the "nomad milieux". Our congregation began in 1939 in Algeria where she was living with tent-dwelling nomads. This nomad beginning has greatly marked our congregation.
After founding a community among gypsies in 1949, LSr Magdeleine also began dreaming of foundations in carnival and circus milieux... in order to be a presence of the Church there as well. A little sister who was on our general council at the time made a connection between my name and my family's circus in Switzerland and went to visit it! She met my family and she and another little sister travelled with them for a while.
I was a novice in Germany at the time and was a little shocked when I found out about it! I was still wanting to work in factories... but the Lord had other plans for me. The two times I worked in a factory I lost weight, was pale, and LSr Magdeleine asked me to stop. Thanks to the office job I had before entering the Little Sisters, I was asked at times to type for LSr Magdeleine who never failed to ask me about my circus family! Little by little her love of the circus awakened in me my own buried love. After my first profession in Assisi I had the chance to travel with LSr Magdeleine and we stopped in Switzerland to visit my grandmother at the circus. That did it! And my love affair with the circus began. At my final vows in 1960 I offered my life for the circus and in 1961 joined the little sisters who were just starting up with Circus Knie in Switzerland. Since then, I have been on the road for 43 years with:
and since 1978 in the USA with:
For those of you who are not familiar with our form of life, we want to live in little communities of 3 or 4 in the midst of the world's poor and marginalized - somewhat like we would imagine Jesus lived in Nazareth - a life of prayer and sharing the work, housing, and living conditions of the poor. Brother Charles (Charles de Foucauld), who in the early 1900's first wrote of this form of religious life, was fond of saying that we are to try to "cry the Gospel through our life". And so it is our hope to give witness, by our whole lives, to the deep meaning of Bethlehem and Nazareth and to how ordinary life can be a meeting place with the Father. This is our specific mission in the Church: a mission of being leaven hidden in the dough, a mission of preparing the soil to welcome the seed which others will come to sow.
At the circus we live in a trailer that we pull with a van. In the van we have a small chapel with the Blessed Sacrament which our circus people can also use if they like. Through the years we have been hired for different jobs: cooking, selling tickets, taking tickets at the entrance, ushering and welcoming people in the tent, working the handicap entrance, brushing animals, grocery shopping, doing the laundry, going to the Post Office, selling T shirts and souvenirs, and working in the wardrobe sewing.... At Carson & Barnes there are around 170 people mostly from Mexico, Peru, other South American countries and also Russia. We travel almost everyday and present 2 to 3 shows a day in a big 5 ring tent. Carson & Barnes is one of those tent shows nicknamed "mud shows".
I work in the wardrobe, a big trailer at the performance entrance where 16 showgirls and all the performers come for their costumes for the different parades and acts and where we give out the uniforms for the various work crews. This year I work with a lady from Peru putting the costumes in and out and cleaning and repairing them... in between taking care of all kinds of emergencies: from repairing broken zippers to giving out safety pins, band-aids, aspirins, cough drops, a glass of water, etc. And there is the everyday sharing of joys and sorrows: the joy of a new trick or the debut of one of the kids in the ring; the sadness of a missed trick or the pain of a fall. The performers' entrance is a little bit the heart of the show.
Carson & Barnes moves almost everyday without a day off for 9 months. On this show we have managed to keep our mornings free in order to be able to get away once a week for a few hours to pray (usually in the quiet of a state park) and to have other mornings for community life, daily prayer, and being there for our neighbors, baking birthday cakes or homemade bread, etc. One morning a week, however, we have to hunt up a local Laundromat and do not only our laundry but also the wardrobe laundry... a big job! In off season we take a longer time of retreat and also try to visit friends we've traveled with through the years.
In each circus we've traveled with, the performers and workers alike have eventually asked us if we couldn't have Mass there, so we've tried to find priests for special feasts and events: baptisms, first communions, confirmations, quinceañeras, weddings, memorial services. As we do not feel it is our particular vocation to teach, we've provided books and have tried to encourage parents or others to help. One summer we found a seminarian who came teach a group of young people: one was preparing for Baptism and the others for Confirmation (he is still in contact with some of them and has been with them through the years for wedding and funerals!). Occasionally, when a priest was unavailable, we prepared and led memorial services, communion services, and this year even a tent blessing. A new experiment this past season was group Lectio Divina once a week with 3 Peruvian workers and it was very enriching for all of us.
Because of its constant moving from town to town, a circus tends to be a rather closed community. The show is the center of its life and its people work together to bring joy and relaxation to others. This main goal unites us in a special way. In the circus we have no parish while on the road and, with the schedule and trips, it's very difficult for any of us to go to Sunday Mass, confession, etc. One performer told me how he finally made his First Communion at 20 years old, thanks to a priest who helped him because he'd never been able to go to the required classes. Another friend finally made it with her daughter. Some of the church rules and traditional ways of doing things are difficult for us to follow or fit into because of our nomadic lifestyle. We found it so helpful during the past few summers, to have had a priest travelling with us for a few weeks. He came primarily to work with the tent crew during his vacation, but also celebrated Mass and was available to everybody!
Circus life teaches us a lot for our religious life and Christian life! For exampl:
The circus gave birth to me physically and spiritually and I want to thank each of you as Church for welcoming me here today to address you in the name of my circus brothers and sisters and in gratitude for your attention to and concern for us travelling show people.