Frydays In Lent

Blair Tretter of Huntingburg, 13, center, led a prayer with friends before their fish fry meal at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Huntingburg on Feb. 13. In Dubois County, fish fries provide non-meat meals in observance of Lent as well as an opportunity for church members to connect with each other and their faith. “If you pray before you eat your food, I think it’s just holier,” Blair said. “If I don’t pray before I eat, then I kinda notice it. It doesn’t taste the same. I mean, it’s not like it really scientifically changes, just in my mind, it’s different.”

Story by Candy Neal
Photos by Marlena Sloss

On every Friday of Lent, a public fish fry can be found in Dubois County.

And it’s guaranteed that months of planning have gone into making those events operate efficiently.

Take Holy Trinity Catholic School, which has two fish fries each year during Lent.

Organizers Kris and Jason Wehr pretty much work on the event all year round — securing dates early on to make sure they don’t coincide with spring break, setting up the schedule of when fish needs to be ordered, determining when the coleslaw juice needs to be made, securing fryers from Sander Catering, things like that.

“It takes a lot to plan these,” Kris said.

And it’s no wonder. The Holy Trinity fish fry, held this year on Feb. 16 and March 2, is one of the biggest in the county. Jason said that each fish fry, about 1,700 plates are sold. In the past, they sold out of fish. But that was a few years back. And, as Kris explained, the process has become more fine-tuned.

“As we go through each year, we learn something new, tweak something for the next year,” Kris said.

Youth gathered in the St. Mary’s Catholic Church Parish Center garage Feb. 23 to fry fish, take turns running fish to the kitchen and keep each other entertained. Morgan Stapleton of Huntingburg, 18, played the ukulele. Meredith Heim of Huntingburg, 15, appreciated the lively atmosphere. “I think it’s fun to be able to, well for one, eat the fish,” Meredith said. “And (to be) here with all my friends.”
A line of cars formed from both directions on Church Avenue in Jasper well before the start of Holy Trinity Catholic School’s fish fry on March 2. A line remained for nearly two hours. The school served 1,650 plates at its first fry Feb. 16 and 1,450 at its second on March 2.

The Wehrs have chaired the fish fry events for the last seven years, though the school has had fish fries for about 20 years, the last three years as Holy Trinity; prior to that, they were known as the Holy Family Catholic School fish fries.

The first fry this year used 960 pounds of swai fish. The second was a little smaller; 885 pounds of fish. That kept up with the demand this year.

People have questioned why more fish isn’t purchased and cooked. Kris said they only have so much space to store the raw fish.

“That’s all we can handle and keep the same fresh fish quality,” she said.

Keeping that quality means that fish is fried as the event goes along, instead of all of it being cooked early on and stored. “We pride ourselves on having fresh fish,” Kris said. “We don’t cook it all early, because as it sits, the condensation will make the fish become soggy.”

Because they do cook the fish as they go, there are times when diners are waiting for the fresh fish to come out of the fryer. “We don’t like having the line back up,” Kris said. “But many say the fish is worth it.”

Timing is everything. Therefore, each part of the planning is done at a specific time. For instance, trays of cherry delight, a favorite of diners, are made by seventh-grade students and some of their parents at the school the Wednesday before the fry. Students bring in other cakes from home on that Friday. The coleslaw juice is made Thursday night, and the slaw is mixed and put in containers early Friday afternoon. The boxes of fish are in the cooler and by 3:30 p.m. are moved to the shed out back to be breaded and fried. A crew of cooks using other fryers have been working on the German fries since 10 a.m. Friday morning.

By 3:30 p.m., some early diners arrive, although the event doesn’t start until 4:30 p.m. It’s not unusual for people to start showing up early, Jason said. By then, the school’s cafeteria is in full swing with adults and some older students moving about and setting up stations for dine-in, carryout and drive-thru.

The seventh-graders and some adults are in charge of the dessert tables, since proceeds from the desserts go to their Washington, D.C. trip the following year. Students also help with moving supplies to different stations, icing down sodas and bottles of water and being message runners.

Maya Blackgrove of Huntingburg, 9, gave her brother Cody, 4, a look after he spilled macaroni and cheese on the counter at the St. Mary’s Catholic Church Parish Center in Huntingburg on Feb. 23. After the kitchen stopped serving food, the two played with the serving spoons and eventually helped clean up.

By 4:25 p.m., the cafeteria is about a third full of eating diners and many vehicles are in the two drive-thru lanes outside. The first few batches of fish have been fried and the chaos of the evening will continue for a few hours.

It is a religiously accepted tradition that people, especially Catholics, do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Because of that, groups, mostly Catholic, offer fish dinners on those days. The fish fry schedule is usually full, with the first Friday of Lent being the fullest. Ferdinand Kiwanis, the Sisters of St. Benedict, Divine Mercy Parish, Holy Trinity and St. Mary’s Parish in Huntingburg all had a fish fry the first Friday. The St. Isidore Parish, Sacred Heart Parish, Knights of Columbus in Jasper, Ferdinand American Legion, the Jasper Moose and both St. Mary’s parishes, in Ireland and Huntingburg, held dinners on the Fridays in Lent prior to Good Friday. St. John’s Bosco Youth Ministries will have a “We’re not tired of fish yet” fish fry after Easter.

St. Mary’s in Huntingburg uses the manpower of its youth group for its dinners. The youth group, which includes students from grade seven to college, pretty much run the events, which are held on four Fridays during Lent — Feb. 16 and 23, and March 9 and 16.

More than 30 volunteers — including Michele Kordes of St. Anthony, from right, James Kelley of Schnellville, Kelly Schroering of St. Anthony and Janet Lubbers of St. Anthony — prepared and served food at the Divine Mercy Parish in St. Anthony on Feb. 16. The parish’s fish fry was a fundraiser for a mission trip to Kentucky in June. “We try to have fun with it,” Kordes said. “It’s all about just working together like we have to on a mission trip. It’s not for us, it’s for the people that we’re serving, and that goes with the mission trip exactly.”
Declan Nord of St. Anthony, 5, ate his fish at the Divine Mercy Parish fish fry in St. Anthony on Feb. 16.

“We have adults who do supervise,” said Don Heim, the leader of the youth group who also runs the deep fryers. “But the kids do the work. We want them to serve and be responsible.”

Students dish up the meals of pollock fish on a bun and two sides — baked beans, macaroni and cheese, or coleslaw. One line of servers makes meals for dine-in or carryout orders. Another line of servers works on drive-thru orders.

Some of the college students help Heim fry the fish in a shed behind the church. One of those fryers, college student Daniel Pund, said that helping with the events makes the idea of abstaining from meat on Fridays more real.

“We don’t eat meat on Fridays,” he said. “But we can have fish. That’s part of our faith.”

Abstaining from warm-blooded meat on Fridays during Lent was imposed by the Catholic Church to commemorate Christ’s crucifixion, Michael P. Foley, an associate professor of patristics at Baylor University and author of the book “Why do Catholics eat fish on Friday?” According to catholicism.org, Foley shares some instances to explain why fish is allowed for consumption on those Fridays — drawing a fish in the dirt being the way that early Christians knew each other when it was dangerous to admit in public that one was Christian and Jesus stating that the disciples would be “fishers of men” for the Kingdom of God.

A student runner takes cooked fish to the different serving stations. Students cut up and package desserts, while another youth helps warm up buns.

The students arrive to help after they’re out of school. The early prep work includes moving some tables, setting up signs and marking off the drive-thru area with cones. By 6 p.m., all students are moving fast, serving meals, running to and from the drive-thru, making more drinks of tea and lemonade and restocking desserts on the dessert table.

The dining room is filling up with people — students and seniors, white-collar and blue-collar workers, priests dining with parishioners, people from all over the county sitting side-by-side and chatting. And the student servers walk around to make sure everyone has what they need to enjoy their meal and their time at the dinner.

“The students really take ownership of this,” Heim said. “We want to keep our youth involved with the church and with the community. Having these dinners is a way to do that.”

Proceeds from the dinners are used to further that engagement. This summer, students will go on mission trips to Mishawaka and to Michigan; they will also host hundreds of people who will come to this area on a mission trip in July.

So the fish fry is not just about honoring the religious tradition of no meat on Fridays. It’s also about gathering to partake in a meal together and teaching youngsters how to serve their communities.

Colton Frick of Huntingburg, 18, delivered fish from the parish center garage to the kitchen at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Huntingburg on Feb. 23.



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