By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
CASCADE — Though many seek out restaurants or prepare fish at home, for a good number of Catholics, the place to be on the meatless Friday nights of Lent is their local church. Many parishes in the Archdiocese of Dubuque – both large and small – hold fish fries during the Lenten season.
The St. Thomas Aquinas Pastorate – consisting of the four parishes of St. Matthias in Cascade, Sacred Heart in Fillmore, St. Patrick in Garryowen and St. Peter in Temple Hill – hold a fish fry each year on the Friday of the first full week of Lent.
This year’s fish fry took place on March 10 at the Cascade American Legion. The pastorate served about 800 people a meal of fried cod, baked potatoes or French fries, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, bread rolls and dessert.
Joyce McQuillen has been chairing the pastorate’s fish fry activities for the past three years. She said she is continuously amazed by the way people of her pastorate come together to put on the annual event.
“When I call people and ask for them to help, they say, ‘whatever you need, whatever I can do to help.’ People are so generous,” she reflected.
McQuillen said parishioners lend a hand in a variety of ways. Some sign up to work in shifts during the night of the fish fry, some bake desserts that will be served at the meal, and others support the fish fry through monetary or in-kind donations.
The pastorate’s confirmation students also volunteer to help at the event, as does the pastor, Father Douglas Loecke, who this year helped with dishwashing duties. Men from a nearby parish – St. Joseph in Earlville – even help by frying the fish.
McQuillen said whatever food was leftover from this year’s fish fry was brought the next morning to the Dubuque Rescue Mission, a men’s shelter in Dubuque.
“Nothing went to waste. They were so appreciative to have the food,” she said.
McQuillen stressed that the pastorate’s fish fry is not a major fundraiser but rather an important social event for members of the four parishes.
“It’s all about community building, about bringing the parishes of our cluster together. It helps to make us all one,” she said.
The theme of community is also emphasized by those who help with the fish fries at St. Patrick Parish in Cedar Rapids.
“It’s really about community building. In the morning you have people filling coleslaw and guys breading fish, buttering fish, washing fish. It’s all about doing this together,” said Ken Goodell, one of the parish’s volunteers.
Each Lent, the parish holds not one, but seven fish fries in total. Goodell said St. Patrick’s held its first fish fry in 2007, but the following year, the parish – along with much of Cedar Rapids – experienced catastrophic flooding. More than 4 feet of water filled the church and 7 feet of water the parish hall where the fish fries are held. But St. Patrick’s renovated and doubled their kitchen facilities in the process. The fish fries were brought back in 2010 and have been held every year since.
The parish now has fish frying down to an art. With 40 fryers, four convection ovens, one traditional oven, and one large and one small grill, the parish serves baked or fried Alaskan walleye, fish nuggets, baked or American fried potatoes, coleslaw and rolls, as well as grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese for the non-fish eaters.
“Every eight seconds, we’re putting out a plate of food,” Goodell said of the hours on Friday nights when they are serving.
An army of 200 volunteers helps with the fish fries – about 100 working on any given Friday night. Workers typically serve more than 1,000 people at each fish fry. About a third of those come through a drive-through option. Goodell said cars are practically backed up to Interstate 380 to be served.
For Goodell, St. Pat’s fish fries are also something of a family affair. He and his family are amongst those who serve as cooks at the fish fries. Goodell arrives on Fridays around 5 a.m. and wraps up sometime after 9 p.m. He is joined by his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.
“It’s a lot of work, but we have a good time,” he said.
St. Patrick Parish still has four remaining fish fries this Lent – March 24 and 31, and April 7 and 14.
McQuillen said that while their fish fry is done for the year at St. Thomas Aquinas Pastorate, it won’t be long and they’ll start thinking about next year’s fish fry.
“We’ll start planning for it already in October, and when next January comes we’ll really start buckling down,” she said. “And then we’ll do it all over again for another Lent.”
Max Emerson volunteers at a recent fish fry at St. Patrick Parish in Cedar Rapids. (Contributed photo)