Briar Cliff Honors Presidential Distinguished Leadership Award Winner

May 12, 2024

(Sioux City, Iowa – May 11, 2024) Rev. John Vakulskas, Jr. had diocesan parish assignments but also spent many years in service ministering to generations of workers in the outdoor amusement industry. In 2020, he passed away due to the coronavirus at the age of 76. His sister, Jan Masteller, is here to accept the award on his behalf. 

Father Vakulskas grew up in Sioux City and graduated from Trinity Prep Seminary, a boarding school in Sioux City. He earned a bachelor's degree from Loras College and a Master of Theology from Aquinas Institute of Theology in Dubuque. He was ordained in 1969. 

In his early parish years, he would take servers and religious education students to Sioux City for pizza, followed by a sporting event, including at Briar Cliff. He was also a great supporter of students pursuing an education at Briar Cliff. His endowed scholarship supports nearly 20 students per year. 

Beyond his dedication to Briar Cliff, his service to the outdoor amusement industry is significant. 

As a young pastor in Le Mars, Iowa, he received a call from the wife of an outdoor amusement industry owner. Her husband was seriously ill, and few hospitals would send help to workers in this industry. He prevailed upon a doctor in town to visit the man. After receiving care, the man proposed he begin a ministry for the outdoor amusement industry people. He carried out this ministry while serving in parishes throughout the Sioux City Diocese for more than 45 years, working on his days off and vacations and visiting fairgrounds nationwide. Upon his retirement from the Sioux City Diocese, he moved to Florida and served six parishes there. 

Pope John Paul II, one of three Popes to honor his work, appointed Father Vakulskas International Coordinator of Carnival Ministries in 1993. In one instance, he was invited to Rome to provide testimony for a Pope's encyclical on ministering “to people on the move." By that, it would mean folks in the professions of carnivals, circuses, race car drivers, and more.  While there, he met an Indy driver, Helio Castroneves, and a friendship was formed.  Father John would provide spiritual support to these drivers with a Mass celebrated on the morning of a race. These races were all over the country. 

During his memorial service, which he planned, the following prayer was shared: "The 'jump' from earth to Heaven Will be the grandest one of all, Without a single breakdown, With no truck-motor to stall. So, let's make the Show a good one, While here on earth we dwell, So when we set it up in Heaven, God will say, 'A job done well.'" 

It is Briar Cliff’s pleasure to present the 2024 Presidential Distinguished Leadership Award to the sister to Fr. Vakulskas, Jan Masteller.  

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