Lent begins on Wednesday, Feb. 17, for Christians here and everywhere. The six-week Lenten season is a solemn time of reflection, renewal, and the deepening of one’s religious faith in the days leading up to Easter. In Greater Cleveland, Lent is also synonymous with church fish fries.
These weekly meals, held Friday evenings throughout Lent and run by volunteers at dozens of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland’s 185 parishes, do more than build community and demonstrate faith; they raise much-needed fundraising dollars for church ministry work and various projects. And this year – the second time these popular Lenten events have been affected by the pandemic – many church fish fries are either taking different forms or being canceled altogether.
At Church of the Assumption in Broadview Heights, the phones have been ringing for weeks with callers inquiring about the church’s “Fabulous Fish Fry” and whether it’s still happening this year, said Business Manager, Al Pytel. The church’s weekly fish fry draws visitors from as far away as Akron, Mentor, and parts of Portage County, said Pastor Justin Dyrwal.
“It is a staple of our parish to have the fish fry on an ongoing, yearly basis and people expect it,” Pytel said.
After much debate and discussion among parish staff and team members, their “Fabulous Fish Fry,” rated No. 1 last year in the Diocese, is a “go” with extended hours from 4-8 p.m., an inaugural online ordering platform that allows users to designate their meal pick-up time (telephone orders will still be accepted), and a drive-thru format. More than 135 volunteers have signed up to answer phones and serve as “food runners” taking meals out to motorists lined up in the church parking lot.
The menu, available via the church’s website and Facebook page, features homemade pierogi varieties (the team will have hand-made 24,000 pierogi by next week), homemade haluski (cabbage and noodles), and other mouthwatering, meat-free offerings like cod, orange roughy, shrimp, and crab cakes. This year, Church of the Assumption has teamed up with Nomad Culinary, a catering company that operates out of the church kitchen, to help prepare the food using the traditional Assumption recipes. Nomad Culinary will also have some fun of their own with new weekly specials like chocolate-filled pierogi.
In North Royalton, the team at Saint Albert the Great Church has decided to cancel its weekly Lenten Fish Fry, said Service and Volunteer Coordinator, Denise Bobulsky. She noted that not enough of their kitchen crew would be vaccinated against Covid-19 and social distancing protocols would be too difficult to maintain in the kitchen and near the fryers.
“In terms of the Fish Fry, we as a parish will not only miss the great food, but also the sense of coming together as a community,” Bobulsky said in an email. “The other piece to the cancellation is that the proceeds of the Fry benefited our Feeding the Hungry ministry which is still providing meals to our neighbors in need, so it puts our ministry in a position of caution in terms of spending. Fortunately, since we are a partner agency of the Cleveland Foodbank, we have the resources to acquire food items for the meals, but we gladly accept donations. We are on track to providing 18,000 meals this year.”
The Wallings Road church typically serves about 700 meals at each Friday night fish fry, said Pastor Edward Estok. Their Lenten fish fries raise upwards of $10,000 each year with all proceeds benefiting missions to feed the hungry. With the cancellation of their fish fry this Lent, Estok is asking parishioners to consider making a monetary meal donation to the church’s ministry. Much of its Lenten parish programming will be virtual this year, including a live-streamed book study club and a small-group faith sharing program called Church@Home.
At Church of the Assumption, Pytel noted how the pandemic has affected church life.
“We’ve had to modify things, for example, there was no parish picnic, so we turned our focus on our raffle,” he said. “We know there is an aspect of community to church events and we will get back to that once we get beyond this pandemic. In the meantime, these are activities that the church relies on for funding.”
Pastor Dyrwal, who has presided over the Broadview Heights Catholic church for 20 years, echoed Pytel’s words. Staff considered canceling the popular Lenten event, Dyrwal said, but many feared it may never come back.
“The Assumption Fish Fry provides the parish with a substantial shot in the arm for us to operate the parish and its ministries,” Dyrwal shared in an email. “It is our most valuable endeavor in this regard.”
Dyrwal noted how the weekly Lent fish fry is “Christian Community at work.”
“Fish fries stem from Catholics’ observance of the Friday Lenten abstinence from meat, but there is more. Catholic Christians worship, pray and gather as a faith community,” he said of the tradition. “It’s never just a ‘me and God’ proposition. It is us and God. This reflects itself in everything we do: we pray, worship, mourn and celebrate together. This is a way for Catholic Christians to observe Lent together, seeing the face of Christ in one another as they serve one another and enjoy one another’s company.”
While Pytel suspects the drive-thru format may affect revenue, it’s a thought that’s quickly overshadowed by longtime church tradition.
“People expect it, and we have to continue to supply it,” Pytel said confidently. “I think we will look at it once it is over and be glad we did it. People are going to remember those kinds of things. We’re a pillar of the community and we have to continue to act like that.”
Dyrwal thanks everyone, especially Jack Wahl, who has worked to make the church’s “Fabulous Fish Fry” a reality year after year.
“Often we hear of how the pandemic caused a myriad of cancellations. We were almost at that point, but God works in mysterious ways. While some said cancel, others worked to find ways to make the fish fry a success and found ways to hold the fish fry while observing the protocols demanded by the pandemic,” Dyrwal said. “Necessity is the master of invention, so now we are using online ordering for the first time in our history. We have no idea what the results of this will be, but we’re doing our best and placing it in God’s hands.”
Contributing Writer