Chryesetta Reid, a member of the Haiti committee, works over the stove at St. Columba Parish.
Carrie McClish The Catholic Voice
Despite the Bay Area's proximity to seafood it's almost a
'No Fry' zone
The small kitchen in the parish hall at Oakland's St. Columba Church was literally as hot as an oven while several women took turns cooking catfish and tilapia in the deep fryer. Once the aluminum pan is filled with hot and crispy portions of fish, it is placed on the banquet table next to pans of green beans, brown rice, cole slaw and green salad.
A couple of people standing outside the kitchen are given containers of food to take home with them while near by people sitting at separate tables enjoy their meal as a DJ plays music.
It's Friday, March 8 and the Oakland parish is one of a few parishes in the diocese hosting a fish fry. Proceeds from the dinner will allow the parish to fund scholarships for disadvantaged children in Haiti, a country still healing from a massive earthquake in 2010 that killed thousands and left many more homeless.
In many parts of the country the fish fry has been and still is an important part of the season of Lent. In St. Louis a local television station advertises its "fish fry finder" to help their audience find the nearest meat-less meals. Large ads for fish fries also fill the pages of diocesan newspapers.
Archbishop Alex J. Brunett, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Oakland, fondly remembered the days when fish fries were more prevalent. "Fish fries were almost as popular as Bingo," he told The Voice earlier this month. The archbishop had the good fortune to have attended quite a few during the years he served as an associate pastor and pastor in Michigan parishes before he was named bishop of the Diocese of Helena, Montana in 1994.
"Hundreds of people would attend," said the archbishop. In recent years enthusiasm for fish fries have waned, he added.
While he misses fish fries back in the day, Archbishop Brunett noted that fish fries are not just about the cod. Not only was the food delicious but the meal also helped build community, he said. "It was about the parish family coming together."
Finding a fish fry in the Oakland diocese, however, is more of a challenge. While a handful of parishes use The Voice's Datelines page to publicize the event, it took an email blast to parishes throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties to smoke out the whereabouts of this Lenten meal.
Fish fries are not only alive and well at St. Ignatius of Antioch Parish in Antioch, they have been "incredibly successful," said Rev. Robert Rien, parochial administrator. Diners arrived at the parish hall before the doors are open and "they stay even after we are supposed to stop serving."
Father Rien described the Lenten fish fry as "obviously an outlet, a time for gathering, being with friends, doing something that is very much a part of many of our older parishioner's experience," he said.
"I am amazed at how many senior couples and young families with children attended … and what a great time they all had," the priest noted. Proceeds benefit the parish's Capital Campaign for the building of a new educational center.
The same sentiment applies at St. Raymond Parish in Dublin where the Knights of Columbus, Branch 7987, have been hosting a monthly fish fry for decades. During the Easter season the Lenten Fish Fry takes place every Friday until Easter, except Good Friday, said Grand Knight Rich Domanski. "Our patron following is measured in the hundreds each Friday."
Those attending the fish fry receive a hearty meal for the money. "The St Raymond Fish Fry is well regarded by the senior community of the Tri-Valley area, who appreciate the great value given their fixed income lifestyle," Domanski said.
For $5 price a plate — children under 5 free — patrons are served either fried (fresh batter dipped) or baked fish, french fries, cole slaw, green salad and fresh rolls/butter. Grilled cheese sandwiches are served on request. Sodas are available for $1 and dessert is served and sold independently by the Catholic Daughters who participate in this event.
"Accordingly, everyone can always depend on a well-balanced meal at a price that hasn't fluctuated in 10 years," Domanski said. During the Lenten period, the children and parents of the parish school attend the event and add to the crowds. "Our crowds can reach as many as 450 persons throughout the course of a Lenten Friday evening."
Opportunities to bring together a parish family over a meal are not limited to fish fries. Several parishes have hosted soup dinners that included prayer or Stations of the Cross. At St. Monica Parish in Moraga these gatherings, held on Wednesdays, are called "Soup and Stations." "Folks gather for a simple soup dinner, contribute money to "Rice Bowl" and then go to the Stations of the Cross," said Rev. Wayne Campbell, pastor. "These weekly gathering have drawn about 150 folks."
Stations of the Cross and "simple soup suppers" are hosted at St. John Vianney Parish in Walnut Creek.
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