By Carol Zimmermann
WESTMINSTER, Md. (CNS) — Lenten Friday fish fries, a staple at many Catholic parishes in some regions of the United States, were among the many things put on the back burner during the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, parishes got in one or maybe two fish fries before the country went into lockdown. By the following Lent, most parishes either didn’t have them or only offered them as carry-out, and often drive-thru, events.
But this year, as the country looks to reclaim some sense of normalcy with numbers of COVID-19 cases decreasing and mask mandates lifting, fish fries are cautiously coming back with both to-go and dine-in options. Still, not as many churches are hosting them as they were pre-pandemic.
“We need this!” a parishioner at St. John’s in Westminster said at the start of the second fish fry of the year March 11, when the parish served about 560 meals.
St. John Church, in a rural area about an hour from Baltimore, started doing fish fries in 2006 and has kept up the tradition ever since, although the parish had to stop them abruptly in 2020 and only offered carry-out meals last year.
For this year’s fish fries, lines already form before the doors open at 4 p.m., and steady crowds have continued until cutoff time three hours later.
“It’s extremely important in this day and age and with the war going on. … It brings the parish together,” said Gini McKain, who was working the dessert table to benefit the Ladies Sodality group at the parish.
Jean Ditman, a longtime parishioner, who came with her husband, Dean, agreed that it brings the whole community together. Her husband pointed out that you run into parishioners you might not normally see because they go to different Masses.
The St. John’s fish fry also is the “only game in town” right now, the pastor, Father Mark Bialek, told Catholic News Service. He noted that other local churches aren’t doing them this year, so the parish is getting diners from the greater community and even farther away.
His comment also was a reminder that Lenten fish fries aren’t solely Catholic, but something Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran churches offer.
The priest, who was greeting people who filled the parish hall March 11, said the parish event is a combination of community-building, fundraising and evangelizing. Confessions start at the church during the last hour of the fish fry and right afterward are the Stations of the Cross.
Parishioners not only come to the dinners but they also are involved in the volunteer work needed to make them happen.
Once customers select baked/fried fish or vegetable lasagna and two sides they get a number. A youth volunteer — from a group of about 30 at each fish fry — fills the order in the kitchen — staffed with volunteers in a cafeteria assembly line — and delivers it.
But the work starts long before the crowds line up and finishes long after they have left as Teresa Richardson and Anna Ludwig — co-chairs of the fish fry and the last to leave when the hall is clean — can attest.
Ludwig orders all the food each week — including 215 pounds of farm-raised basa, a type of catfish — and plenty of tartar sauce.
Fry cooks get going a few hours before doors officially open. No secret recipes were divulged to this reporter but since it was in Maryland, the two big containers of Old Bay seasoning on the counter were no surprise.
Throughout the dinner, Richardson is back and forth between the kitchen and the dining area like a restaurant manager making sure people have what they need and that her team of young waiters is on top of their game.
The St. John’s fish fry is advertised by word of mouth and a sign at the end of the parish driveway. It also was listed in a directory of Friday fish fries of the Baltimore Archdiocese along with a handful of others including some sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, frequent fish-fry sponsors across the country.
The Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese, and The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese, both list 57 parishes offering fish fries this Lent.
That number is lower than usual for the St. Paul and Minneapolis parishes, the newspaper points out, noting that some churches are waiting until next year to resume the dinners. At the start of Lent in 2020, 93 of these parishes had fish fries and only 24 did last year.
Fish fries around the country have different menus, such as catfish, lobster, crab cakes or shrimp with sides ranging from potato salad to hush puppies and different vegetables but almost always coleslaw. They are said to have started in the 1920s in Wisconsin German communities; today they take place in church halls and even restaurants around the country.
One thing the parish events have that is a definite draw is the unlisted serving of tradition and camaraderie. At St. John’s this was as palpable as the smell of fish in the air in the parking lot. People just seemed happy to be together after a very long two years of pandemic uncertainty.
And although the former pastor, Msgr. Art Valenzano, who came up with the idea for this parish 16 years ago, had no idea what parishioners would end up going through with the pandemic, he had one main reason the church on the hill, as St. John’s is described, should start this event.
He thought it would build community.