Lenten fish tales

Jim Nessellrode cooks tilapia fillets on a propane-fired grill inside a tent that serves as the kitchen for St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in this 2013 photo. (Key file photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — As far back as the first century A.D., Christians fasted and abstained from meat on Fridays to commemorate Christ’s death on Good Friday. As centuries passed, more days of abstinence and of fasting were added — Wednesdays, Fridays, of course, and all weekdays of Lent and Advent. There were also holy days —Ember Days, Rogation Days and the vigils of Christmas and Easter — when fasting and abstinence were part of the observance. Along with meat, forbidden foods included milk, cheese and eggs and often, wine.

In recent years, Catholics have been able to undertake different kinds of penitential fasting, including giving up television for a Friday for example. Now in the 21st century, Catholics have taken abstinence into the church, by hosting parish fish fries during Lent that raise money for parish projects and organizations, and build community among the hosts and those attending.

The first to mention eating fish during Lent was Socrates of Constantinople, 380 – c. 450 A.D., a church historian who wrote of abstaining from meat, dairy and eggs during the season. Faithful Christians abstained from all forms of meat and animal products. For example, Pope St. Gregory I (d. 604), in a letter to St. Augustine of Canterbury, issued this rule: during Lent, “We abstain from flesh, meat, and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese and eggs,” a rule later incorporated into Canon Law — Church law.

There was always a close connection between fasting and almsgiving; Catholics were taught that money saved on food should be given to the poor.

As more days of abstinence became part of the calendar, the fish price rose and continued rising until King Henry VIII of England broke away from the Catholic Church and the Pope in order to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. With the king naming himself the head of the church in England, replacing the pope, days of fasting and abstinence became part of the “popish past,” and the eating of “popish flesh,” fish, disregarded.

Fish prices plummeted and fishermen suffered as a result. When Henry’s son, Edward VI, became king in 1547, he reinstated fast days by law — “for worldly and civil policy, to spare flesh, and use fish, for the benefit of the commonwealth, where many be fishers, and use the trade of living.”

Abstinence — fish fasting — continued to influence global economics until the mid-20th century. On the eve of Vatican II, fasting and abstinence requirements in many Catholic countries were already greatly relaxed compared to 50 years earlier; fasting was often reduced to just four days annually (Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, the vigil of Christmas, and the vigil either of the Immaculate Conception or of the Assumption).

Ever wondered where a hamburger joint got the idea of serving fish? In 1962, Lou Groen, a Cincinnati McDonald’s franchise owner found selling hamburgers on Fridays during Lent almost impossible in his predominately Catholic area. So, he tried serving a fish sandwich, and that was the origin of the Filet o’ Fish. In 2017, more than 25 percent of all Fillet o’ Fish sandwiches sold world-wide were Lenten purchases.

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence during which only one full meatless meal is to be taken. Smaller collations may be taken to keep up strength, but all together should not equal a full meal. All Lenten Fridays are days of abstinence from meat, food that comes from animals living on the land and birds of the air. Fish, both salt and freshwater species, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted.

Enter the parish fish fry!

After almost 30 years of parish-hosted Lenten fish Fries in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, parishes, Knights of Columbus, Boy Scouts and other organizations, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians at Redemptorist Church, know how to throw a Fish Fry or a shrimp boil. In 2016 and 2017, more than 21 parishes hosted fish fries. Some were relatively simple, fried fish and sides. Others were closer to feast than fry, serving baked or fried fish, boiled and spiced or fried shrimp, or fried catfish with a variety of sides. Several served enchiladas or fish tacos.

One parish has maître d’ seating diners, a server takes orders and brings them to the table, another has a live band playing, a third involves several organizations within the parish in the event and the profits and a fourth offers Bingo games after the fish fry.

Knights of Columbus councils put on most of the fish fries around the diocese. Knight John Roseborough of St. Elizabeth’s Msgr. Kennedy Council #527, recalled their first in 2008, and said it has really grown in the past decade. The Knights, which number about 160 now, expect to serve between 500 – 650 people per dinner this year. To avoid competing with other parishes nearby, the Council has three fish fries during Lent. They serve the traditional fried fish and sides, with extra goodies like fried calamari with saffron sauce. Girl and Brownie Scout troops prepare and sell desserts. Members of Rockhurst University’s Knights of Columbus Council, also named in honor of Msgr. Kennedy, help with cooking, serving and bussing. Knights run the bar. Calamari, cookies and cold beer … maybe even some live music.

Want to have a maître d’ seat you? St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Lee’s Summit makes sure families are seated together and make new friends around the table. When they hosted their first fish fry in 2011, Deacon Joe Whiston recalled, then-pastor Father Robert Stewart was dubious about a maître d’ and about doing all the cooking outside as the church didn’t have a kitchen, and still doesn’t. They served about 300 people their first fish fry. After two years, they had to get volunteers to help with the set-up, cooking outside, the serving and cleanup. It takes about 100 volunteers per fish fry, he said.

Parishioners, many of whom are Knights of Columbus, run the fish fries. K of C Ladies Auxiliary members, youth groups and WINGS, the parish Christian Women’s group, take turns with the desserts. Knights of Columbus run the bar.

The maître d’ isn’t the only attraction. The setting is also unique. Not having a parish hall, or a large narthex, volunteers remove all the church furnishings from the nave, stack it around the altar in the sanctuary, set up the tables and chairs, then put the nave back together afterwards.

Deacon Whiston said people drive from Arkansas and Oklahoma to come to one of St. Margaret’s fish fries, after hearing of them from friends.

Last year, he said, average attendance was 750 – 775, and this year they expect about the same number.

Our Lady of the Presentation, also in Lee’s Summit, has hosted fish fries since the early 1980’s. Today they are run by the parish’s Youth Ministry. Christy Gruenbaum, Youth Ministry Director, said her office coordinates the whole thing, as the fish fries are the biggest fundraisers for their annual youth mission trip.

Usually about 100 volunteers work each fish fry — about 30 plan to go on the mission trip, others are confirmation candidates fulfilling service requirements, and some just like working fish fries and having fun. Other groups also work the fish fries, including Knights of Columbus.

Despite having to work with an “itty-bitty kitchen,” Presentation’s fish selections include fried tilapia, shrimp and baked fish, all with sides. Homemade Macaroni and Cheese is also a hit, she said. No alcohol is sold or served as it is a youth-run event.

Presentation hosts a fish fry each Lenten Friday except Good Friday, with attendance averaging 575 – 715 each time.

Gruenbaum’s favorite part of the fish-fries are the people. “We’re all about community,” she said. “People in the parish look forward to getting together at the fish fries. We also get a sense of whom we’ve lost; we remember those who came every year but are now gone. We love our memories of them!”

Ash Wednesday is Feb. 14. Many parishes will host their first Lenten Fish Fry of 2018 on Feb. 16. The dedicated page of Fish Fries will be published in the Feb. 9 issue of The Catholic Key.


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October 26, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph