"I don't do anything here ... and it just runs."
That's what the Rev. David Rizzo had to say about the annual Lenten fish fry at Our Lady of Lourdes on Broad Avenue.
Lenten dinners and fish fries are one of the biggest fundraisers held by local churches with a lot of effort put into them.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Jules Lusk, 15, of Altoona was one of the volunteer servers Friday during the first fish dinner of Lent at Our Lady of Lourdes.
It takes hours of planning and labor, carried out almost entirely by volunteers, to bring together the five- or six-weeklong season.
They serve hundreds of pounds of fish and dish out endless servings of a fish-fry staple: homemade macaroni and cheese.
Lourdes' self-proclaimed "fry man" Ted McKillip has been volunteering with the fish fry for five years, after being recruited by 15-year veteran leaders, Judy and Don Beeler.
"It's a church thing," McKillip said. "We all try to help out and make it enjoyable for people to come and get a good meal."
Judy Beeler said it's a special feeling knowing there are so many volunteers willing to "come out and do whatever you need," whether that be taking food orders, battering fish like McKillip or busing tables.
The Rev. D. Timothy Grimme of St. Therese of the Child Jesus on Fifth Street said between 50 and 75 volunteers help out each week during Lent.
The key to St. Therese's fish fry, he said, is variety: People have the choice between fried or baked fish, or fried or steamed shrimp, plus sides with the most popular, not surprisingly, being macaroni and cheese.
Grimme said between $6,000 and $8,000 is raised every Lenten season to help pay the parish's bills, with more than 2,600 people being served.
"We always try to outdo our previous record" of dinners, Grimme said; the standing record is 595 dinners in a night.
Marry Potter, coordinator for St. Patrick's Lenten seafood buffet in Newry, said up to 100 to 150 families volunteer throughout the season, with 40 to 60 people helping out in four shifts: morning table setup, afternoon food preparation, evening cooking, serving and table busing, and lastly, evening cleanup.
Potter said volunteers include students from Bishop Guilfoyle, parents and retired parish members, who help serve St. Patrick's 600 to 700 weekly meals during Lent.
She said people come from all over Blair and surrounding counties to the buffet, sometimes from as far away as Cumberland, Md.
The money raised goes toward counseling and faith-enrichment programs, Potter said, as well as a mission run by the church in Mandeville, Jamaica. Last year the church raised $19,000, she said.
Aside from seafood, with options including baked fish, fried fish, clams and shrimp, Potter said the most popular items include homemade haluski, pierogis, coleslaw and macaroni and cheese.
But raising money isn't the only goal of a fish fry, Rizzo said.
In the 20-plus years of the fish-fry tradition, Rizzo said people have made making good food a personal goal.
"From what I've seen, there's a great pride in the parish in celebrating our faith as Catholics," he said, as well as the pride from volunteering in service to God.
Rizzo said between 50 and 60 volunteers help out every week to prepare, cook and serve hundreds of dinners each Friday to their friends and neighbors, usually selling out before the dinner ends at 7 p.m.
Bishop Guilfoyle senior Allison Worley said she's been volunteering at Our Lady of Lourdes' fish fry since third grade, when she helped with drinks. She's moved up to serving and after-dinner cleanup and said she doesn't mind giving up her Friday evenings.
"It's just a little sacrifice that resembles what big sacrifice God gave to us," she said.
Worley also volunteers with a Thanksgiving soup kitchen and said it's worth it to see the gratitude on peoples' faces and, especially now, excitement for a fish dinner some wait all season for.
Lines stretched to the door and tables were filling up at 4:45 p.m., just 15 minutes after the parish began serving sit-down dinners.
Servers loaded up cookie sheets with fish dinners, drinks and desserts and made their way around the hall.
People standing in line looked hungrily at the food, waiting for their turn to dig in.
"I have about 63 desserts coming each week by volunteers," Beeler said.
"And we have the best fish in town," said fry man McKillip. "If you don't believe me, just taste it."
Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.