Big plans for ‘The Big E’
Legate injects faith into nation’s 6th largest fair, plans its expansion into gaming .. .
Priding itself as New England’s “state fair,” The Big E is the biggest annual event of the Eastern States Exposition (ESE). It’s a lot like most state fairs, but with one unique Catholic difference: Sunday Masses on the fair grounds — including one celebrated by Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield, Mass.
Betting on The Big E
If there are no yelps from Massachusetts liberals, it helps that The Big E is not a state fair per se. Exemplifying Yankee self-reliance, the 96-year-old institution receives no taxpayer funding, and it’s led by many committed Catholics — including the ESE’s CEO, Gene Cassidy.
A member of Legatus’ Western Massachusetts Chapter, Cassidy took the helm last year after having served the previous 10 years as director of finance, vice president, and COO of the non-profit organization dedicated to promoting New England agriculture, history and culture.
“I want people to see the company I lead as a faithful organization,” said Cassidy. The public Masses, he said, are an effective means of re-evangelizing fallen-away Catholics and introducing the faith to newcomers. “I’ve had some warm discussions with people saying they had not been to Mass in 35 years and it was a great experience for them.”
This year’s fair — Sept. 13-29 — follows a record-setting 2012, which saw an unprecedented 1.3 million visitors. And Cassidy plans to make The Big E even bigger with the proposed addition of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino New England on the fairgrounds. It’s a gamble he believes the ESE needs to take.
A native of West Springfield, where the ESE’s 175-acre fairground is located, Cassidy was raised in an Irish Catholic household, “so my life has been heavily influenced by people who took going to church seriously.” He also credits his faith to the nuns who taught him to lead a life of prayer and to be mindful of others.
“I listen a lot and put other people first and foremost,” he explained. “That informs me in making decisions mindful of the greater good, both of our employees and an audience of 1.3 million. It helps me make successful decisions.”
One of those decisions has been tough for Cassidy personally: lobbying for a modest-sized gaming resort on the fairgrounds. “My father was a degenerate gambler who, when I was eight, left my mother and brother and me, so I suffered the ill effects of gambling.”
However, he said, it’s “providential that I’m here in charge of this incredibly responsible institution and that we could be the ones in charge of gaming in Western Massachusetts.”
Cassidy said he believes it’s the right move.
For the first time ever, Massachusetts will be awarding gaming licenses — two in Eastern Massachusetts and one in western, and the ESE has been working to convince the city of West Springfield to support having a casino in its city limits.
Not only would the city receive a share of the gaming revenues, but a casino would likely sustain the ESE, which attracts money-spending visitors to the region and affords incalculable cultural benefits. The city will hold a referendum on Sept. 10 to decide whether to place a bid for a gaming license. And the state’s gaming commission will decide on the lucky three next April.
Why the need to persuade West Springfield on the benefits of gaming?
The clinch is that the neighboring city of Springfield is already a primary contender for Western Massachusetts’ sole gaming license, Cassidy explained. And if it should win the bid and build a casino as well as a proposed convention center, that could lure away many of the 120 or so organizations that currently host exhibitions on the ESE fairgrounds — from trade shows to antique fairs.
“These year-round events sustain the ESE,” Cassidy said. “The Big E is a big part of what we do, but it alone can’t finance running the fairgrounds.”
Spreading the faith
No fan of gambling himself, Cassidy said his fellow Legates helped him realize that gambling is no vice if enjoyed rightly. It even can serve virtuous ends.
“They’ve helped me make the decision in the context of preserving my own organization,” he told Legatus magazine. “How would Christ think about gaming in an altruistic environment? I came to realize they’re not mutually exclusive because having a modest-size gaming resort with a concert venue, too, can afford us the economic capacity to help us continue our mission: to propagate agricultural education, the industry of agriculture, and the history of New England.”
And propagate the faith.
Masses at The Big E started in the late 1970s when the ESE asked the local bishop to celebrate Mass on the fair’s first Sunday. It became a tradition, eventually expanding to two Masses every Sunday of the fair — one under the big circus tent and another at a small Baptist meeting house from the 1860s, one of many historic New England structures reassembled on the fairgrounds. A Protestant service is also held on Sundays.
“We get a 100% positive response,” Cassidy said. “I receive many letters, phone calls and emails from people who are especially moved by having Bishop McDonnell here.”
Monsignor Chris Connolly, diocesan vicar general and Legatus chaplain, calls every Mass “a key moment for evangelization, whether celebrated in a basilica, cathedral, or under a tent. And the fair gives expression to some of the important aspects of our faith, including the celebration of Mass as well as having the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, who staff a pro-life display.”
The Big E will also host the local Legatus chapter’s September meeting. Monsignor Connelly will celebrate Mass for Legates on Sept. 19; Cassidy will speak and give a behind-the-scenes tour.
Legate Larry Eagan said that like Cassidy, The Big E has been a part of his life for a long time — providing amusement, business (he is president of Collins Electric Co., which has been providing services to the ESE for over 90 years), and spiritual edification.
“Sunday mornings at The Big E have become a special time for our family — a refuge of holy calmness as vendors and performers prepare for the 100,000 visitors that day,” Eagan said. “Attending Mass under the circus’ big top is a unique experience. Despite a backdrop of dangling trapeze ropes, stacks of hula hoops and the aroma of hay, the universality of the Mass has struck me every year. Ironically, the ‘circus-like’ atmosphere helps me focus more on the Liturgy of the Word and Eucharist.”
And Eagan’s family isn’t the only one in on that sanctifying act.
“One year, while walking up to receive Communion,” Eagan said, “I saw some vaguely familiar faces. Then it hit me: They were family members of a balancing act I had seen at the circus the night before!”
MATTHEW A. RAREY is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.