July 7, 2006

A rite of summer:
Parish festivals bring communities together

By John Shaughnessy

A. J. Ploughe loves this time of year—and not just because it will soon give him the chance to savor the special, 65-year-old secret that is kept secure in a safe at St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis.

He also loves this time of year because it’s the season when children squeal in delight while playing games and riding amusements in parish parking lots across the archdiocese.

He loves this time of year because he knows it’s when droves of people lick their lips as they line up to feast on fish, chicken, hot dogs, homemade brownies and—if you’re truly blessed—a slice of Wanita Clark’s mouth-watering pistachio cake.

For Ploughe and many others, this is the season of parish festivals, a time when the Catholic embrace of communion overflows from the parish church and onto the parish grounds, preferably on sunny afternoons and moonlit evenings marked by soft breezes and clear skies that don’t have a hint of rain.

“Parish festivals are like a rite of summer,” says Ploughe, one of the chairmen of the St. Christopher Mid-Summer Festival. “It’s a tradition within the Catholic Church. I don’t think the summer would be the same without them. People look so forward to them, and it’s a tradition people want to continue.”

The tradition continues in small, rural parishes like St. Mary’s in the southern Indiana community of Navilleton where parishioners will celebrate the 100th anniversary of their first parish picnic on July 16.

The tradition continues in ethnically-rich parishes like St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceburg where German dinners of brats, strudel and German potato salad will be part of its festival on July 7-9.

The tradition continued at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Terre Haute where the faithful marked the 50th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of their church on June 18.

The tradition continues at numerous Indianapolis parishes—St. Jude, St. Mark, St. Ann, St. Bernadette, Holy Spirit, Christ the King, St. Gabriel the Archangel (just to name seven)—including St. Christopher, which is holding its 69th annual parish festival on July 20-22.

In a way, the St. Christopher festival begins each year with the opening of the parish safe where two of the special, 65-year-old secrets in the parish are stored.

“Two of the things we’re famous for are our homemade barbecue sauce and our homemade coney sauce,” Ploughe says. “Those sauces have been made from the same recipes since 1941. We have the original handwritten recipes. They’re locked in the parish safe and only used once a year.”

Sauce recipes in the parish safe are the kind of quirky details that make each festival fun. So are the stories of the people who volunteer for them.

Consider Wanita Clark, the St. Christopher parishioner who has made as many as 55 cakes from scratch each year for the festival.

“Last year, I wasn’t feeling as well and I only made 33,” says Clarke 72, a cancer patient who also has arthritis. “I can’t be away from home, but I just feel it’s my duty to the parish and the Catholic Church. I feel God calls me to do this every year.”

Consider the Noblet brothers—Jerry, Basil, Tom, Vince, David and Al—who have been washing dishes at the festival for about 25 years, continuing the family tradition that started with their father who washed dishes for more than 35 years.

Consider Herb White, an 82-year-old parishioner who will be volunteering for his 51st year at the festival. He even has the scars to show his longevity.

“My first festival, I tripped going up the steps with a 4-gallon pot of baked beans,” White says. “They splashed and some got on my right arm. I still have the scar. We have nine electric cookers that hold four gallons of baked beans. I fill them every day. In three days, that’s 108 gallons of baked beans I have to get ready.”

Add those 108 gallons of baked beans to the 5,000 pounds of cod that they prepare each year at the festival. Throw in the 150 gallons of barbecue sauce and enough coney sauce for 4,000 hot dogs. Then add a taste of the 600 dozen deviled eggs that volunteers make—all ingredients for another story from Ploughe.

“We had one lady, Pearl Blind, who worked for us in her 90s, stuffing deviled eggs,” he says. “She’s in a nursing home now, but I still think of her.”

At 36, Ploughe also lauds the youths who help at the festival, including his step-daughters, 14-year-old Brittany and 11-year-old Kirsten Simmons, and another parishioner, 13-year-old Casey Moorman.

“Brittany and Casey probably work in excess of 60 hours the week of the festival,” he says. “They help with the decoration, fish battering, trash detail and corn husking—2,000 ears in three days. I think it is so important to have my girls, Casey and other kids get involved. I want them to understand the meaning of being a member of our community.”

The festivals often serve as major fundraisers for parishes. The festival at St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceburg supports its school and its church.

St. Christopher uses its festival profits to maintain the parish’s grounds and buildings. In recent years, Ploughe says, the funds have made it possible to add air conditioning to the school, to put on a new roof and redo the plumbing and electricity.

Still, organizers insist that the best result of parish festivals is the building of a closer faith community.

“Working side by side, you’re able to get the parish members to work together and spend some time together outside of the religious realm,” says Frank Stephenson, the festival chairman at St. Lawrence Parish in Lawrenceburg.

Jenni Naville sees the connections between generations at the parish picnic at St. Mary Parish in Navilleton.

“It’s community working together,” says Naville, the picnic’s co-chairperson. “The families go back for generations here. The church was established in 1845. Families live here and stay here and worship here. The picnic is a tradition. I believe that tradition is a strong word in the Catholic faith.”

Festivals can be especially important for large parishes, Ploughe says.

“When you’re a parish as large as ours, people can get lost in a crowd,” he says. “Working at a festival gives people a sense of belonging. They get to meet other parishioners. It lets them put a name on someone they see at Mass. Some of our volunteers come back to work at the festival even though they’ve moved to other parishes. It’s like a tradition for them.”

The St. Christopher Mid-Summer Festival is a tradition that involves more than 1,500 volunteers, Ploughe says.

For three days, the crowds come so children can enjoy the amusement rides and adults can gamble or play bingo. They come to savor the baked beans that Herb White cooks, the cakes that Wanita Clark bakes and the secret sauces that Ploughe and others make. They come for the music, including the rock-polka sounds of the Indianapolis band, PolkaBoy.

And when the festival ends late Saturday night, Ploughe takes part in another tradition. He enters St. Christopher Church where the pastor, Father Michael Welch, holds a special midnight Mass for the festival workers. Kneeling in one of the pews, Ploughe traditionally offers a prayer of thanks for everyone who makes the festival possible.

“You have a great sense of accomplishment, but you’re almost sad when it’s over,” he says.

Ploughe has no time for sadness now. The St. Christo-pher festival is just weeks away. He has the feeling of every child who has ever waited in line to play a game or get on a ride at any one of the many parish festivals in the archdiocese.

“I can’t wait,” he says. †


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