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March 15, 2009

Hooked on fish and funFor 20 years, a tight-knit group at St. Ferdinand Parish in the Northwest Side has served up Lenten fare for eat-in and drivee-through guests

By Michelle Martin


By Karen Callaway


When the doors open and the tables start to fill up on the first Friday of Lent, the crew at St. Ferdinand’s fish fry is ready.

Phone volunteers have been taking carry-out orders since 4 p.m., ready for the 4:30 p.m. opening.

Eat-in guests find tables, then go to place their orders.

Order takers add up each guest’s bill, make change and send the order back to the kitchen with a runner. Guests make their way to the bar for soda, water, beer or wine, before a runner delivers their meals to them.

Music floats through it all, as families greet one another, teens gather in knots to chat and meals make their way to tables.

The fish fry has been a fixture at the parish, on 5900 W. Barry Ave., for nearly 20 years, and Pat Wenzl has been part of it for 15 those years.

Wenzl, who runs the show with “right-hand woman” Mary Ellen Leavy, said that the fish fry served maybe 150 or 200 people a night when she started working with it.

Now, the average night draws about 600 people, she said. On Feb. 27, the first night in 2009, 900 dinners were served. The cold weather that day — with no snow — probably helped, Wenzl said, but crowds have gotten bigger as word has spread.

“It’s gotten pretty big and we’re proud of it,” she said. “It’s a place for a family to come and share a Lenten meal.”

It’s a good deal, too, with the most expensive item on the menu a baked scrod dinner for $8, including a baked potato, cole slaw, bread and dessert. The least expensive full meal is $6.50, although a whole cheese pizza can be had for $6 (that’s $1.50 a slice). The committee worked hard this year not to raise prices, with the state of the economy, even though it meant trimming some other costs. Regular volunteers, for example, bought their own T-shirts; others simply wear paper name tags cut in the shape of fish.

Of course, opening night isn’t usually the biggest. That’s usually Elvis night — they do ask the Elvis impersonator to sing a little gospel music — set this year for March 27. The last Friday of Lent, April 3 this year, is “Fish Fry with the Easter Bunny.”

That day, the designated hostesses will be the girls from Notre Dame High School, whose school will be moving in to the third floor of St. Ferdinand’s school building next fall. The high school girls – longtime volunteers at the fish fry — look especially cute with their Easter bunny ears and do a good job helping the small kids make their way to the bunny for pictures, Wenzl said.

“We involve our whole community,” she said. “We have our young people, we have our seniors, we have our middle segment.”

The families who eat there often are also volunteers. It takes about 70 people to pull each fish fry evening off, starting the night before when the Highlanders, a Polish group from the parish, sets up the tables. The St. Ann Society — a women’s group — bakes the cakes for dessert, and the usher’s club runs the bar. It’s mostly highschoolers who run in and out with orders for the drive-through, with Leavy and a core of older volunteers keeping track of the teens’ service hours for their various school requirements.

“We try to get everybody involved,” Wenzl said. “For the kids especially, it makes them feel like they belong.”

Last year, the fish fry netted a profit of $10,200, Wenzl said. “The real profit is in the camaraderie of all the people who work the fish fry,” Wenzl said.