By WARREN DILLAWAY - firstname.lastname@example.org
The long-held tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent nurtured the custom of fish dinners in churches and fire halls throughout the country.
That tradition is alive and well in Ashtabula County as area parishes provide a way to abstain from meat and enjoy fellowship at the same time.
Vern Kirkingburg coordinates the fish fry events at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ashtabula. He said the tradition has been in place for nearly 30 years.
The parish gets a head start on Lent with five weeks of fish dinners before Lent and then five during the Lenten season, Kirkingburg said.
“We average 200 to 300 people (a week),” he said.
About 25 volunteers make the event, that also serves at a fundraiser for the parish, possible, Kirkingburg said.
Kirkingburg said he puts the first fish in around 2 p.m. on Fridays. He said other volunteers make potatoes and macaroni in the morning.
“I’m here for everyone of them that’s why I’m the boss,” he said while wearing a white hat complete with the word “boss” on the brim.
The dinners become a big part of parish life. “If we don’t have a sign-up they will ask me about it,” he said.
Bill Maskal said he has been helping serve the dinners for the last three years. “Everybody is fun back here,” he said.
“It is really part of the tradition of the parish,” said Father Raymond Thomas. He said people come to the dinners from all over Ashtabula County.
Jill Valentic said the dinners are a great way to get multi-generational families together. “We get to catch up with people we haven’t seen in awhile. It’s nice to see friends and eat,” she said.
Father Philip Miller said the St. Frances Cabrini fish fries in Conneaut serve a dual purpose. “It is a fundraiser for the parish as well as a social activity,” he said.
Miller said there are four different work crews that make the dinners a reality during Fridays in Lent. “We have a crew on Thursday that bakes bread, then we have a crew that comes in and sets up on Friday morning, then we have a crew (to) cook and a crew to clean-up,” he said.
The Harpersfield Fire Department has been serving fish dinners for close to 35 years, said fire chief Everett Henry.
The Ladies Auxiliary Lenten dinners draw hundreds of people from surrounding communities as well as from the township.
“We served over 400 (Friday),” Henry said. He said the dinners include a choice of fish, shrimp or chicken as well as fries, Cole slaw, beverage and a dessert.
He said it is a great way to escape winter. “They come out and visit with their friends,” Henry said.