Tulip fest work unites Catholics

Michelle Laughlin and Tom Eyre work in St. Mary Parish’s food stand during Pella’s Tulip Time festival.

By Celine Klosterman

PELLA — Each spring, St. Mary parishioners sell bologna-based Dutch Tacos, deep-fried, spiral cut potatoes and grilled bratwursts to throngs of locals in sneakers and sunglasses. The Catholics’ food stand at Pella’s Tulip Time festival is not the first place you’d think would foster church life. But those who tend the fryers and cash register at the festival say the work has helped them strengthen parish ties.

“How do you build faith community? One way is by worshipping together; another way is by working together,” said Leo Laughlin. He’s spearheaded the food stand project for about 14 years and is prepping for this year’s Tulip Time, May 7-9. “That’s how you really get to know someone — by working with them.”

His volunteer efforts have helped him meet plenty of parishioners at Pella’s annual festival, which he said St. Mary’s started taking part in around 1990. The three-day event is designed to celebrate the town’s Dutch heritage, a heritage St. Mary Parish shares.

“It’s a nice way to meet some of the new parishioners or parishioners who haven’t gotten involved yet,” said Ramona Malsom, a Tulip Time stand shift coordinator. The fundraising effort gives local Catholics another opportunity to step forward, she said.


“It really does get the parish together for one goal,” said Frank Walczyk, also a shift coordinator.  He said the stand is St. Mary’s biggest fundraiser; Laughlin said it makes $12,000 to $15,000 each year. About half of that money goes toward food, supplies and the city of Pella, but the rest this year will help send teenagers to the National Catholic Youth Conference in November and toward the new church St. Mary’s will dedicate  in June.

Funds raised in the past have gone to local charities, North Dakota flood relief and the family of a boy with cancer, said Laughlin.

St. Mary’s has been able to raise more money selling its trademark Dutch Tacos — secret-sauce-laden treats that Walczyk said “really caught on” — since Laughlin helped design a more efficient stand he’s continued to update since the mid-1990s. A parishioner-built grill cooks 100 bratwursts at once, and a chiller cools a pop bottle in 12 minutes. Now, parishioners can and do serve roughly 4,000 meals over three days.

Sometimes, volunteers will even serve up a spiritual side order.

“Many times we get people coming to town who say, ‘I didn’t know Pella had a Catholic church,’” said Laughlin. Then, a volunteer might hand out a map to the church and share Mass times. “Sometimes, people then show up at Saturday evening Mass,” Malsom said.

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