Parish festivals raise community spirit, funds

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, June 3, 2012

Landing at Our Lady of the Snows, 4810 S. Leamington Ave., two years ago as the South Side parish’s new pastor, Father Stan Rataj flashed a smile as he looked upon the church’s oversized parking lot.

“My first thought was what a great carnival we could put on,” said Rataj, who joined the parish following a lengthy stay at St. Nicholas of Tolentine, 6200 S. Lawndale, a parish with a longrunning festival of its own.

Throughout his first two years at Our Lady of the Snows, Rataj put out routine feelers to gauge interest in hosting a parish festival. As excitement and interest swelled, the planning began in earnest.

This August, Rataj’s vision will become a reality when Our Lady of the Snows hosts its first annual parish carnival Aug. 2-5.

Across the archdiocese, dozens of parishes will host similar festivals this summer, a chance for many to energize their ranks, heighten parish fundraising efforts and cement the church’s position as a community staple.

Myriad benefits

When Blessed Sacrament, 3615 S. Hoyne Ave., was formed four years ago from the merger of SS. Peter and Paul, Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Maurice, there was a successful movement to continue Our Lady of Good Counsel’s long-running parish festival.

Joanne Amedeo, a member of Blessed Sacrament’s festival planning committee, said the annual event has played a vital role in building collaboration between the three distinct parishes, while also producing significant financial gains.

Last year, Blessed Sacrament earned more than $50,000 over four days, funds that went to maintain 13 aging buildings across three parish campuses.

As the only outdoor festival in the McKinley Park neighborhood, Amedeo added that the carnival becomes the must-attend summertime event for many local residents, a good number of whom cannot afford the Chicago area’s larger festivals or a trip to Great America.

“That alone makes it such a special event,” said Amedeo of the festival, scheduled this year for Aug. 16-19.

After a long hiatus, St. Mary of Czestochowa in Cicero resumed its parish festival — Summer Fest — earlier this century. About 6,000 people attend the four-day event, which brings the parish the bulk of its $40,000 archdiocesanmandated fundraising goal.

Above all, however, the summertime event, slated this year for Aug. 23-26, rallies the diverse, trilingual parish toward a common aim.

“There’s no doubt that this event brings our parish together and inspires new relationships,” festival co-chair Terry Zaworski said.

In Schaumburg, the Church of the Holy Spirit has been running its parish festival for more than three decades. The five-day festival makes upward of $50,000 each year and, according to Father John Dearhammer, gives the parish “cohesion.”

“There’s the monetary benefit, of course, but also a sense of people from all different walks of life coming together for a good cause,” said the pastor, whose festival will run June 20-24 this year. “People get involved because they love the church, but it quickly becomes a conduit for them to meet new people.”

A major endeavor

On Chicago’s northwest side, the St. Pascal Carnival and Family Fest, 3935 N. Melvina Ave., has been a community staple for the last 31 years. Volunteer coordinator Yvette Ilic said the event connects parishioners to one another, while also strengthening the relationship between the parish and school.

Last year, St. Pascal, the boyhood parish of Cardinal George, raised $17,000 at its festival. Event leaders are hoping to surpass $20,000 in 2012.

Much of the money has been earmarked for capital improvements, including renovations to the church’s bell tower and roof as well as electrical and plumbing.

For all of a festival’s benefits, however, such an event demands hundreds of hours of planning, labor and oversight as well as a resolute spirit to overcome inevitable challenges.

St. Pascal’s festival, for instance, is a massive undertaking. Slated for June 13-17, the event includes a carnival, beer garden, petting zoo, bingo, crafters, live entertainment and more. In total, event organizers will lean on about 300 volunteers to run the event.

Unfortunately, St. Pascal stands with a number of other Chicagobased parishes battling the city over new fees that threaten to cut into each parish’s ambitious fundraising goals.

Earlier this year, the City of Chicago announced that it would now charge for once-complimentary services, such as electricity and street closures. Many festival organizers expect the new fees to reach into the $5,000-$8,000 range, weakening each festival’s profit line and inspiring trepidation.

“With the new city fees, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of hit we will take,” said Brian O’- Donnell, co-chair of Blessed Sacrament’s parish carnival.

Yet, passion and energy continue to carry each festival forward.

At Our Lady of the Snows, Rataj’s carnival committee has been meeting monthly to assemble the entertainment line-up, navigate the sea of city permits and coordinate about 100 volunteers. More than a dozen subcommittees, meanwhile, are handling areas, such as publicity, food and beverage, games, security and donations.

“This really has brought the parish together,” Rataj said. “People have come out of the woodwork to lend their talents and fill voids.”

Though any maiden voyage can inspire fear, Rataj refuses to be deterred.

“We’re very enthusiastic and hopeful,” he said.