COLLEGEVILLE — A fire-eating monk isn’t something visitors to St. John’s University see every day. After all, not many monks have a circus background.
Brother Paul-Vincent Niebauer has been a fire-eater since his teenage years, but these days he doesn’t perform for just anybody.
Last week, the 59-year-old monk brushed off the old trick in the university’s Great Hall. Students and staff watched as he lit two white marshmallow-looking contraptions on metal skewers and dipped them into his mouth.
He hadn’t done the routine in ages, but still keeps his fire-eating kit in his abbey office. This former circus performer is now the vocation director for St. John’s Abbey, and he still uses the circus skills he learned decades ago.
The monastery is seeing an increase in those interested in the monastery and an increase in the number of St. John’s graduates entering, Niebauer said. The monastery welcomed four novices this fall. Two are St. John’s graduates, Niebauer said.
“It’s promotion, promotion, promotion,” he said of his work in vocations. “In the circus, we said, ‘You can have the best show on Earth, but it doesn’t do any good if no one knows you’re in town.’ Today, we are one of many, many, many options. But there are those who would find it attractive, if they knew about it.”
Niebauer has always been interested in the circus.
The Wisconsin native first came to St. John’s as a first-year student in 1970. He hated it, he said. He transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated with a degree in theater.
“That was the closest thing to the circus that I could find,” Niebauer said.
He worked with circuses between 1974-1989. His experiences sound like the plot lines in storybooks. He ate fire, cuddled newborn tigers, served as the ringmaster and handled a 12½-foot python, Cleopatra.
He transformed into a clown. He juggled. He even had a “vivacious assistant” for his acts.
Niebauer loved every minute. In fact, he created a PowerPoint about his former career. He sometimes shows it to students and others interested.
At his prime, Niebauer earned as much as $2,000 a week. But his schedule was grueling. He performed two shows a day in seven towns a week. He calculates he performed about 6,500 shows in his career.
He drove about 76,000 miles a year, most of it alone at night. During those lonely drives, he thought about becoming a priest. He was nearing his 40th birthday.
After doing a religious retreat in Colorado, he fell in love with the idea of a life devoted to God.
He once again turned to St. John’s, and entered the seminary in 1992.
“St. John’s had changed,” Niebauer said. “It was beautiful. Of course, it didn’t change, I changed.”
Niebauer decided not to become a priest. He looked at monastery life. It fit.
The monastery helped Niebauer continue his passion for theatrics. He earned a master’s degree in directing and ran a children’s circus camp for 10 years.
Brother David Paul Lange, an art associate professor and residence hall faculty resident, worked with Niebauer on the circus camp.
The camp wasn’t only entertaining, it also allowed the students to overcome their inhibitions and raise their self-esteem, Lange said.
“Being able to be a performer like that, it was a really positive experience,” he said. “They are so much more confident than their peers. Circus camp, go figure.”
The two discontinued the camp a handful of years ago. It was demanding, Niebauer said.
But he uses his circus skills to educate and entertain students. He answers questions about monastic life to students over pizza.
He once enticed an entire residence hall into listening to his vocation story with a promise of eating fire.
Everyone showed up.
“He’s intensively creative,” Lange said. “He’s got such a skill at motivating people. He’s a great people person. He’s able to bring people together for a common purpose.”
At the same time, Niebauer has a playful side. He likes to joke, Lange said.
One time, Niebauer blew fire in the monastery dining room.
Everyone thought it was hilarious, Lange said.
“The first time I saw it, especially when he’s in a habit, it was startling,” he said.
Niebauer misses the circus, but he’s happy at St. John’s. And he can always visit when the circus comes to town.
He’s still welcome backstage.
“The circus is a pretty small world,” he said.
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Former fire-eating circus performer finds new calling as St. John’s monk
September 9, 2011
St. Cloud Times