COVID-19 doesn’t stop annual Lenten fish frys

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2021

COVID-19 doesn’t stop annual Lenten fish frys

Volunteers fill orders for fish dinners for carry-out on the first Friday of Lent, Feb. 19, 2021, at St. Symphorosa Parish, 6135 S. Austin Ave. While many parishes cancelled their fish frys this year because of the pandemic, others switched to offering take-out meals. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Janine Brzezicki fries fish as volunteers fill carry-out orders. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Nincy Giron cooks fries as volunteers prepare fish dinners for carry-out orders. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Tom Derose serves up pierogi for orders. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Lara Hess and Mary Lou Kolasinski sort through orders of fish dinners. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Fish fry volunteers pose for a picture at the end of the evening. Several volunteers are wearing T-shirts with the message “On Fridays we eat fish.” (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Nena Zialkowski has been running the fish fry at St. Benedict Parish in Blue Island for more than 15 years, and she has it down to a science: the menu, the number of volunteers, how much fish to order to serve up to 1,200 meals each Friday during Lent.

But when it came to ordering the fish this January, she wasn’t sure what to do. The parish cannot host fish-fry diners on site because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Zialkowski didn’t know how many people to expect for curbside and carry out service.

She ended up ordering enough fish for 600 meals each week, hoping there would not be too much left over.

Then a funny thing happened on Feb. 19, the first Friday of Lent. People came by the hundreds to get their fish fry dinners. The woman who takes the train from Chicago, gets off in Blue Island to get her food, and gets back on the train to go home to Joliet or Mokena was there. The man who lives in Hanover Park but shows up every week without fail was there.

There were enough people lined up in cars for curbside service that the Blue Island police asked organizers to direct waiting cars into the parking lot because they were blocking traffic, and enough people lined up at 6-foot intervals in the gym to require additional markings on the floor.

There were enough people that Zialkowski had to stop selling dinner tickets at 5:15 p.m., despite advertising that the fish fry would be open until 7, after selling 713 fish dinners that day.

“Imagine if we had the fish to keep selling until seven o’clock,” Zialkowski said. “We would have hit a thousand easy.”

She doesn’t know exactly why St. Benedict’s fish fry is so popular; it could be it’s 51-year history, or it’s menu (the homemade cole slaw recipe is a closely guarded secret and the rye bread comes from the Racine Bakery). But she knows that the parish needs the funds the fish fry brings in, and now it appears that the people who love it need it as well.

“I really don’t know what it is,” Zialkowski said. “They keep coming back and they keep coming back. We are so very happy that we have our following.”

St. Benedict is one of several parishes and Catholic organizations that decided to move ahead with their Lenten fish frys despite the restrictions imposed by COVID-19.

Several others decided against holding their fish frys this year: St. Christina Parish, 11005 S. Homan Ave., said on its website that leaders wanted parishioners to support local restaurants rather than competing with them, and leaders at St. Ferdinand Parish, 5900 W. Barry Ave., worried about bringing people into the school hall that is used both for the parish elementary school and for Polish school on Saturdays.

“The principal really didn’t think it would be safe,” said Father Jason Torba, St. Ferdinand pastor.

Instead, the school worked with a couple of area restaurants where families can purchase fish dinners on Fridays and have a portion of the bill donated to the parish.

Torba said he looks forward to the fish fry returning.

“It’s not so much about the money but about the community-building,” he said. “People would come for dinner and stay for Stations of the Cross.”

One parish that chose to continue its fish fry was St. Symphorosa and St. Rene Parish, despite only having one year of a Lenten fish fry under its belt — and that in a COVID-19-shortened year.

“We had done Lenten suppers before with homemade soups, pierogis, potato pancakes, quesadillas for the kids,” said Mary Lou Kolasinski, chair of the parish’s transition team, which runs the fish fry. When the group added fish to the menu last year, it generated a lot of interest.

“We had a tremendous amount of people on the two that we held before we had to cancel for COVID,” Kolasinski said.

The parish had a carry-out and drive-thru fish fry in August 2020 to see how it might work for Lent, and decided to go ahead, although they planned to do only three Fridays instead of six, and limited the menu to fish dinners, soup and bread or kids’ meals with peanut butter and jelly.

The traffic pattern has been delineated with one door for entry and one for exit, the floor is marked so people stay socially distant while they wait, and order-takers are stationed behind plexiglass shields.

Attendance was down at the first dinner, Kolaskinksi said, but the weather was bad, so she is hoping it gets better. She was happy to hear that people who normally went to other fish frys were coming to theirs.

“One woman said to me that her father was sad that he couldn’t get to a fish fry because of the COVID,” Kolasinksi said. “She told him she’d get it for him from here. I’m spreading the word. People are happy that this is somewhat normal.”

That’s what Kevin Neenan, grand knight of Knights of Columbus Queen of Peace Council 3954 in Lake Zurich, is doing too. The council has its own hall, which has been the site of Lenten fish frys for years.

Members were able to pivot to a drive-thru fish fry during the season in 2020, and there wasn’t much discussion before deciding to go ahead with a drive-thru this year, he said. Proceeds benefit area organizations that serve people with intellectual disabilities.

“We were kind of nervous,” Neenan said. “We didn’t advertise like we used to. We used to put up banners and yard signs and things, and we didn’t do that this time.”

Even so, the council served 265 meals on Feb. 19, which was more than Neenan expected.

“It’s the most we’ve done for any drive-thru meal,” he said. “In one way it was great, but people did have to wait in line. Everybody kind of came at once.”





  • lent
  • covid-19
  • fish fry

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