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St. Cecilia's Fish Fry
Jeannette Cooperman
Source: St. Anthony Messenger magazine
Published: Friday, February 24, 2012
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Gloria Valenzuela, a volunteer at St. Cecilia Parish in St. Louis, works at the fish fry.
During Friday nights in Lent, a group of dads at St. Cecilia Parish in St. Louis—scout leaders, mostly—used to get out the two big deep fryers and dunk salmon, cod, shrimp and fries. Parishioners would eat on paper plates in the parish hall, drink a couple beers with their friends and talk about the neighborhood.

By the late ’90s, those Friday nights had started to feel like wakes. Crime and vandalism were up, and nobody was bothering to pull weeds or tuck-point the redbrick two-stories on the surrounding grid of city streets. Instead, people were leaving. At Mass, the church wasn’t even half full. The Lenten fish fry felt like a weekly obligation, but it didn’t feel holy.

Then two things happened. In 2005, St. Cecilia became Parroquia Santa Cecilia with Masses in Spanish and a welcome sign that read “Bienvenidos!”

Three years later, a fresh-out-of-the-seminary pastor suggested reviving the fish fry by adding a few of the new parishioners’ favorite recipes.

“We used to think we were doing good if we had 150 people show up,” says Mark Politte, one of the scout leaders. “Now we’re hitting 1,000."

It’s late Friday afternoon, and school’s just let out. Three little girls walk the playground’s low stone wall like a balance beam. About 50 volunteers are already inside the school kitchen, madly chopping onions and mashing huge trays of refried beans. When Latin music blasts through the outside speakers, 8-year-old Irvin Garza looks up and grins. He’s hanging around outside the door of the parish hall, waiting patiently for his favorite meal: fried fish and macaroni.

Santa Cecilia still serves the traditional fare alongside its new offerings, and, in a twist nobody expected, many of the Latino parishioners prefer it. The non-Latinos, though, want chiles rellenos and fried quesadillas (an improvisation made hurriedly one year when the kitchen ran out of food). Tamales are wheeled through the parish hall or taken outside when the line of hungry patrons stretches across the playground and out to the street.

Those faithful scout leaders—some of them grandpas now—are out in the garage getting ready. Breading flies from Politte’s gloved hand as he waves to Fernandez, who was one of the first Latinos to join the parish. Another parishioner arrives, saying she’s ready to spoon out 5,000 plastic cups of salsa.
Five thousand? She grins. “I’m Spanish. Everything we say, cut it by 100, and it’s probably close.”

The 778 chiles rellenos stuffed that afternoon are carefully counted. Yanit Carranza got here early in the morning to start roasting, peeling and seeding poblano peppers, which will now be filled with refried beans and Chihuahua cheese, according to parishioner Marta Torres’ old family recipe. Then they’ll be battered, floured and fried.

People come from all over to taste them. Dr. Robert Pozzi, one of the fish fry’s many regulars, is both a devout Catholic and a serious foodie. He’s pronounced the chiles rellenos a minor miracle.

Carranza is wearing brown jeans and a coral shirt, her long, dark hair stuffed up under a baseball cap.
“I love cooking,” she says. “I learned from my grandmother and my mom in Monterrey.”

She followed her husband to St. Louis in 2006. Their children go to St. Cecilia School, and she’s been volunteering here since the Mexican fish fry started.

“There’s more help now,” she says with relief. “The first year, I came early in the day, and I was by myself!” She came back, though, for a second year and a third.

“I think it helps me a lot to be more humble, get to know people,” she says. Edgar Ramirez, pastoral associate for Hispanic ministry,overhears her and nods.

“For me it’s an example of humbleness, too. We are giving up our Fridays—Friday is normally my day off. But once I get here, it’s so fun when you see the place crowded and people enjoying the food and getting up to dance.”

He nods toward a guy who’s walking between tables with a black Hefty bag.

“You see that guy? He’s a lawyer, and his job is taking out the trash.”

In the next room, the lemonade ladies have assembled. A brigade of old friends, they parcel out condiments and vigorously stir up at least nine jumbo canisters of powdered lemonade every Friday.
Asked his favorite dish, Ramirez grins. “I have to be honest. I don’t eat any of it anymore. I’m done. This is the fifth fish fry this Lent, and I have not had a single chile relleno or piece of fish. I always bring a salad.”

What he loves is the way the fish fry, though intended as a fundraiser, builds community.

“You see African-Americans, whites, Latinos all working together in the kitchen, and the kids are giving tours of the church. People have sent us emails and cards saying they felt this was what heaven would be like.”

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