By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
LEE’S SUMMIT — Lots of parishes have fish fries during Lent. But lots of parishes have kitchens and parish halls.
St. Margaret of Scotland Parish, located in rapidly growing eastern Lee’s Summit, has neither a kitchen or a parish hall.
That didn’t stop parishioner and Knight of Columbus Chuck Paquette from saying to pastor Father Robert Stewart, “Let’s have a fish fry!”
It also didn’t stop Father Stewart from thinking, if not saying, “Are you nuts?”
“I thought it would be a total flop,” Father Stewart admitted, as he watched, for the third year in a row, both the parish parking lot and the sanctuary converted into a dining hall fill up to capacity. “I didn’t think we had the wherewithal to do it without the facilities.”
But where there are fish to be fried, there is a way, Paquette assured him.
Yep, they’ll make some money but not enough to provide for all the young parish’s future plans — such as a kitchen and a proper parish hall. But that’s not the real reason any parish has a fish fry. Its more important purpose is building community.
“It’s amazing how much something like this makes people feel more like a church,” Paquette said.
He pointed to a folding table with two families seated in eight plastic chairs, waiting for their meals.
“They don’t know each other right now,” he said. “Before they are done, they will say, ‘Hi’ to each other.”
Building community is vital to any parish, but perhaps especially important in a parish that was born in 1999, and moved into its first permanent home in 2004, and in an area where virtually everybody is a recent arrival.
Paquette said he is typical. He moved to eastern Lee’s Summit not that many years ago from Bellevue, Neb.
Paquette also said that his experience with fish fries in Nebraska taught him how community-building they are, but he also wanted the fry at St. Margaret’s to be different.
And it is different.
As customers enter the parish’s front door and into narthex, they are greeted by a tuxedoed maitre d’. Then another one of a small army of tuxedoed waiters will lead the party to the first available table, where waiters and waitresses will take their orders and bring it to them.
If there is a “head waiter,” it would be Joe Liccar, who wears the cheesiest fake mustache and speaks in the worst French accent this side of Inspector Clouseau.
“Hey,” said Paquette. “He’s Italian.”
Paquette said that once the skeptical pastor was on board, he put his full support behind it. But even he was surprised by how quickly the parish took to the idea.
“Father Stewart asked for volunteers, and we had an amazing turnout,” Paquette said. “We even had people showing up and saying, ‘How can I help?’”
There was plenty for everybody to do, he said.
The first problem was where to cook. In that first year, the Knights of Columbus put up three 10 foot by 10 foot tents to hold the propane grills and gas-fired portable deep fryers, while inside, side dishes such as veggies and baked potatoes the size of a shoe were cooked in portable crock pots and roasters.
And every Friday afternoon, said Chuck Klingsick who took over supervising the event from Paquette this year, an army shows up to take up the chairs in the church’s present sanctuary — a general purpose space that will serve until a more permanent worship space is constructed — set up the folding tables and chairs, then take it all back down again while mopping the entire floor and setting up the sanctuary for weekend Masses.
That whole process usually means that volunteers don’t leave until 9 p.m.
But happy diners, choosing from a menu of boiled shrimp, or generous servings of grilled tilapia or farm-raised and deep-fried basa, weren’t complaining.
Dan and Linda Cline said they come to “Chez St. Margaret” several times every Lent.
“It’s really good,” Dan said. “The food is good. The service is great. We’ve never been to a fish fry where they wait on you.”
And if you think the service is good in the main dining room, try the elegant private dining room converted from the parish’s Elvin Gardner Room.
Klingsick said that for $200 and an advance reservation, a party of eight will be fed their dinners on a candlelit table, with white tablecloth, cloth napkins, and fine china and stemware.
“We want people to have a unique experience,” he said.