Gail Block, left, and Chuck Buscher fry fish March 1 at St. John the Evangelist Church in Valley. To the far right is Chris Petersen, and Richie Lewis has his back to the camera. Parishioners volunteer to work at the fish fries, which are offered during five Fridays of Lent, and now in itís 45th year, might be the longest running fish fry in the archdiocese. Courtesy photo.
3/8/2013 8:00:00 AM Valley parish claims fish fry longevity title Lenten tradition raises money, builds community By JOE RUFF Catholic Voice
For 20 years, Bernadette Dickau has been preparing coleslaw for Friday fish fries at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Valley - but that's less than half the story.
Irene Boardman was in charge for many years before Dickau, and perhaps someone before her, stretching back to 1969.
Dedication from parishioners such as Dickau and Boardman has helped the parish operate the longest-running fish fry in the Archdiocese of Omaha.
At least, an extensive check by the Catholic Voice did not turn up any title contenders.
"If we're not the longest running, we're one of the longest," said parishioner Paul Magiera, current grand master of the operation. "I'm not aware of anybody longer running."
Holy Name Parish in Omaha appears to come closest at 32 years - and it brings in the most money, about $165,000 in gross receipts a year, compared with St. John the Evangelist's annual $50,000 and St. John the Baptist in Fort Calhoun at $85,000.
Fish fries at some parishes have been held less than a dozen years, others 20 years or longer, and they often gross from $12,000 to $34,000.
Run by parishes, local Knights of Columbus councils, altar societies or other groups, Lenten fish fries have become a staple across broad areas of the archdiocese, raising money for a variety of causes such as support for Catholic schools, parish general funds and local charities, and creating community among volunteers and patrons.
"It's wonderful; we have a lot of fun," Dickau said of her five Thursdays spent each Lent preparing coleslaw with about five other parishioners at St. John the Evangelist's parish center.
It's a secret recipe of oil, vinegar and sugar passed down from the earliest days of the fish fry, Dickau said. In the old days men and women sliced up the cabbage, now it comes in packages, pre-sliced and ready to mix with the special sauce before being placed in six large, plastic tubs that are refrigerated until Friday evening's dinners are served.
Add the fried carp, pollock or shrimp, baked potato, macaroni and cheese, desserts and beer, soda pop, coffee and lemonade and it's enough to draw about 1,000 people to each dinner, to a parish of 470 families in a town of about 1,800, Dickau said.
"It's a rural area but we get people from all over," she said.
Holy Name Parish in Omaha serves more than 2,000 people at every one of its seven Friday fish fries, said Rick Peterson, a member of the fish fry committee for the parish's men's club, which runs the dinners.
$585,000 IN PROFITS
And the money adds up. Over the last 15 years alone, fish fries have taken in about $1.5 million, and about $585,000 in profits have been plowed into Holy Name School's athletic department, various parish needs and tuition assistance to parishioners sending their children to Catholic high schools, said Fred Bender, treasurer of the men's club.
Lines to the fish fry often snake around the school and bands have been known to set up and play for the crowds outside.
The menu is simple - fish, coleslaw, French fries and bread, ice cream for dessert, beer, wine, soda pop and water to drink, he said. There are no plans to expand into shrimp or other items.
"This seems to work and the crowds just get bigger every year," Peterson said.
Mary Our Queen Parish in Omaha draws a crowd, too - about 1,800 people each of six Fridays during Lent, said Eron Welchans, the grand knight at Knights of Columbus Council No. 11700, which sponsors the dinners.
Other fish fries have their own claim to fame.
St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Omaha serves fish nearly all day - from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn features fried catfish as well as pollock and St. Stephen the Martyr Parish in Omaha adds baked salmon and shrimp to its menu.
At St. Mary Parish in Bellevue, members of Knights of Columbus Council No. 6192 take orders from a large menu that includes shrimp, salmon, pizza and baked and fried fish, and they serve the food to seated patrons.
"We're one of the few, maybe the only one, that does table service," said Mike Parente, who runs the council's hall.
St. Pius X Parish in Omaha doesn't even serve fish - it turned to pasta 11 years ago and serves six different sauces, including marinara, spicy marinara and beer cheese.
"We knew we had to come up with something different; everybody was doing fish," said Peg Monzu, parish secretary.
It's been a successful formula, serving about 500 people each night, said Bill Kellen, who helps run the program through the parish's men's club.
Knights of Columbus Council No. 1793 draws about 700 people to each of seven fish fry dinners it offers at Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, and the council takes in about $34,000 a year, said Dan Svitak, a council trustee who heads the effort.
"Everyone has fun," Svitak said. "There's a lot of camaraderie."
The Knights also are testing an expansion of the fish fry - to first Fridays of each month through July, Svitak said.
"This is our first time making a go of it," he said.
In Columbus, Knights of Columbus Council No. 9264 at St. Anthony Parish brings in about $24,000 a year, serving between 270 and 400 people a night for eight Fridays during the Lenten season, including two Fridays before Lent starts, said Rey Jarecki, council director.
And at St. Michael Parish in Central City, Knights of Columbus Council No. 10386 and the parish Altar Society operate seven fish fries, draw about 300 people each night, and take in about $15,000, said Msgr. Nelson Newman, pastor.
Some parishes coordinate fish fries, hoping to bring larger crowds to each. That is the case for St. James and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishes in Omaha, where Knights Councils alternate the Fridays of Lent.
A similar arrangement works well for St. Joseph Parish in Atkinson and St. Boniface Parish in Stuart, said Patti Skrdla, a parishioner of St. Joseph who has made coleslaw for the dinners. More than 150 people are served each night, traveling from one town to the other, she said.
St. John the Baptist Parish in Fordyce, Holy Trinity in Hartington, St. Rose of Lima in Crofton and St. Andrew in Bloomfield also work together to share nights.
"We're smaller communities, and we don't want to draw customers away from each other," said Father Michael Schmitz, pastor of St. Rose of Lima and St. Andrew.
The dinners often draw between 400 and 700 people and the money helps parish general funds, area Catholic schools and charitable activities, organizers said.
"People go from one place to another, and it's a social time," Father Schmitz said. "It builds community."
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