On Friday nights during Lent, St. Joseph Parish in Avon Lake is a popular place. As many as 1,000 people from across the region head to the parish center for the popular fish fries 4:30-7 p.m. every Friday — except Good Friday — during Lent. Dinners can be eaten in the hall or taken home.
“We encourage visitors to stay for Stations of the Cross immediately afterward in the church,” said Father Ron Wearsch, St. Joseph pastor. “I want you to be at St. Joseph both spiritually and socially. We want to build community and we’re intentional about our evangelization,” he added. And the approach seems to be working, because attendance at both the fish fries and stations is growing. Also, if anyone is curious about the faith, volunteers and parish staff are ready to answer questions or steer them to someone who can help.
A group of longtime fish fry volunteers talked with Northeast Ohio Catholic magazine about how they work to provide the best meal and the best experience possible for visitors. And nearly 5,000 people who tried St. Joseph’s fish fries last year seemed to agree.
The parish also snagged bragging rights in the magazine’s first favorite fish fry contest. Readers said they enjoyed “an excellent grade of food … a wide choice of sides … smiling, welcoming volunteers … camaraderie … the right price and homemade soup.”
Sisters-in-law and longtime parishioners Elaine Rotz and Ellen Bolognia, Kayla Goodwin and Father Ron shared their thoughts on what makes the fish fries — which started in 2014 when Father Ron arrived as pastor — so successful. They have an advantage because Father Ron loves to cook and was a professional chef before answering the call to his priestly vocation.
The first fish fries took place in the old church, which was remodeled for use as a social hall, but they soon outgrew the space and moved to the parish center building.
“It was hectic for the volunteers,” Ellen recalled, as overflow seating was set up in the second location and food was taken back and forth. Now they use the school cafeteria kitchen for the fish fries, but do prep work in the social hall kitchen.
They offer three types of fish: baked cod, baked salmon, which can be topped with Father Ron’s special chardonnay cream sauce, and breaded, deep fried perch. They bread Lake Erie perch and cut and weigh the salmon.
“On Thursdays, we make the cabbage and noodles and bread the fish,” Ellen said. Among the 15 side dishes they prepare — some of which are gluten free — are cole slaw, baked potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, green beans and sautéed pierogi. Father Ron also prepares two homemade soups each week.
Also on Thursdays, volunteers fill small cups of tartar sauce, sour cream and ketchup for the takeout orders. The prep work enables parishioners who don’t work during the day or senior citizens who might not be able to volunteer at the dinners to help.
“And we have a big dessert table,” Ellen said, noting about 50-60 pies are donated each week, as well as brownies and other goodies.
Kayla said the fish fries are family friendly. “We get a lot of big groups and we have high chairs,” she said.
They’ve fine-tuned the process to help get customers in and out as efficiently as possible, with two food lines. A host directs people to the shortest line. Takeout orders can be placed and picked up at the express drive-thru, which has a limited menu. “We also deliver fish fries to the homebound,” Father Ron said.
To help with parking, those attending the fish fry can park at the nearby Avon Lake aquatic center and walk to the church or use the shuttle service. A police officer is hired to help direct traffic.
It takes about 125 volunteers each week to keep the fish fries running at peak performance. Volunteers wear nametags, which Father Ron said helps people in the 1,900-family parish connect names and faces.
“The school and parish operate as a single unit,” Father Ron said, with students and parents signing up to work together. Volunteers sign up online and can do prep work, act as hosts, cook, wash trays and clean up.
Ellen said waste is kept to a minimum and food is cooked as needed. Uncooked fish is frozen and used the next week. Father Ron said they are moving away from using Styrofoam products. The Ladies Guild purchased dishes for parish use and additional supplies can be borrowed from local caterers.
Kayla said their efficiency netted the parish $40,000 from last year’s fish fries.
There are other chances to enjoy a meal at St. Joseph’s, to build community and to help the parish including at the parish carnival, where food offerings include perch fish sandwiches and a steak/salmon dinner. Parish breakfasts and dinners take place several times each year. St. Joseph’s teams with area restaurants for the entrée and parish volunteers prepare the rest of the meal. Donut Sundays also promote the sense of community.
Kayla noted that one school mother bakes cookies and sells them with proceeds benefitting the tuition fund. This venture raised about $4,000.
“We want people to make return visits. We’re trying to offer a warm, friendly environment,” Father Ron said.