Midway Moments: ‘Carnie priest’ makes time for the OC Fair faithful

It wasn't a church in the traditional sense, but they made it one.

On Thursday morning, before the rides were turned on and the barbecue grills lit up, about 30 workers at the Orange County Fair gathered below a white tent for a Catholic Mass.


It's been tradition for a few years. Father Leandro Fossa, of the Missionaries of St. Charles Scalabrinians in Los Angeles, comes down to the OC Fair and gives a bilingual service in English and Spanish. He's sometimes known as the "carnie priest."

This week, they celebrated Mass below the employee tent of RCS, the carnival operator, off the midway. The tent is a regular break spot and dinner gathering area, but on Thursday, crews set up chairs before a small table that acted as an altar.

From there, Fossa gave a roughly 30-minute service.

Compared to the fun mayhem of a fair day, it was a spot of serenity: the sounds of babbling water fountains, recorded church music playing from a single speaker, the comfort of shade.

It was also dress casual. Employees came wearing their RCS T-shirts. Others came from Chuckwagon Concessions or Brander Enterprises. The morning was a chance for them to observe their faith on a day other than Sunday, when they're usually working. Fossa visits the fair to offer a service at least once per season.

Dominic Palmieri, RCS' food manager known as the "Midway Gourmet," met Fossa in 2012 and saw how he regularly worked with migrant workers. Because many carnival employees are constantly traveling and/or on work visa programs, Palmieri thought Fossa would be a good fit for them.

"His sermons ... really hit home with kindness, service, respect and devotion," Palmieri said in an email. "I have seen a huge amount of appreciation from all our employees, that he takes the time to visit with them, spiritually guide them and allow them to participate in their services."

Palmieri called Fossa "a champion for all of us" at the fair.

At the outset of his service, Fossa, a native of Brazil whose only fair services are for O.C. and another in Houston, distributed flowers to attendees. He preached a message about avoiding the perils of selfishness and alienating one's self in an age where selfie photos "are the most famous things."

Before the service, Fossa said that while his is a Catholic Mass, "We try to include everybody. The whole message is God is with you. We are with you on the journey. This is a moment for you to pray and be connected with your soul and your faith."

"We let them pray for the needs they have back home or the needs they have locally," Fossa added.

After the sermon and reading of Bible passages, the congregants took communion. They offered prayers and concluded the morning with a group photo.

"It was a pleasure meeting you all again," Fossa told the crowd.

After the service was over, Fossa noted how, even in the white tent, everything worked out for the faithful, who had by then left went back to work.

"The church goes," he said, "where people need it."

Midway Moments is a recurring column chronicling the Orange County Fair.

Twitter: @BradleyZint