BARABOO — Fish fries are a popular tradition in Wisconsin in restaurants, but an increasing number of Catholic parishes are sponsoring fish fries.
The parishes especially offer fish fries during Lent, when Catholics ages 14 and older are obliged to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. But more parishes have been holding fish fries throughout the rest of the year.
One of these parishes is St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo, better known as St. Joe’s. The parish started sponsoring fish fries in 1994. “They were designed to be a fundraiser that would take the place of other ‘small’ type fundraisers, such as wrapping paper and candy bar sales,” said Dan Fitzpatrick, director of operations at St. Joe’s.
The fish fries have been an additional source of revenue for the parish, as well as a way to build community and fellowship, he said.
In the beginning, St. Joe’s held fish fries four times a year. This year, they’re serving 10 times between September and May with two serving dates during Lent. The next one will be held Friday, March 27, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. in the parish gym.
At St. Joe’s, the entire parish community helps put on the fish fries. This includes school, daycare, and faith formation families, faculty, and staff. “We are all one community that works as a whole to accomplish fundraising goals for our parish,” said Fitzpatrick.
How do they get volunteers? “We simply have sign-up sheets,” he said.
People seem to like the St. Joe’s fish fries. The dinners, featuring batter fried or oven-baked cod and baked potatoes or au gratin potatoes, are served family-style. The menu also includes Dave’s famous baked beans, coleslaw, applesauce, bakery fresh dinner rolls, homemade desserts, coffee, milk, and water. There is a kid’s menu with chicken tenders, French fries, and cheese pizza. Carryouts are available.
“The response has been good and we have had a very noticeable growth in our attendance numbers over the last two years,” Fitzpatrick noted. “We have been serving over 500 people in just under two hours during a typical fish fry.”
When asked about whether he would suggest other parishes sponsor fish fries, Fitzpatrick said parishes would have to consider the following:
• Space. A parish would need a very large area. St. Joe’s can seat 288 people at a time in the gym. It also uses the cafeteria for server stations and the kitchen for food production.
• Kitchen equipment. St. Joe’s has redone its kitchen in the past year to accommodate the kind of volume they have for fish fries.
• Volunteers. This is a labor-intensive project. St. Joe’s has a full-time director of foodservice along with a volunteer director of fish fries to run this operation. The fish fries couldn’t happen if the parish did not have the volunteers to help run and service the 500-plus people at each fish fry.
• Proper license and permits. St. Joe’s is licensed by the State of Wisconsin Department of Health to operate as a “licensed restaurant” due to its volume and the number of people served. St. Joe’s is inspected every year for its restaurant license and has a certified food handler on staff in addition to the hot lunch and breakfast programs running at St. Joseph School.
Some parishes may have smaller operations than St. Joe’s. But whatever the situation, parish fish fries are offering a tasty service to the community with a reasonably priced family outing, plus providing a source of income and a way to build community within the parish. With all these pluses, it seems as if fish fries will remain a tradition in Catholic parishes for many years to come.