By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
McKenna Rommel, volunteering at this year’s final Lenten Fish Fry at St. Alphonsus Parish in Davenport, reached over to give a hug to a special diner, her grandpa, Russ Rommel. Seated at a folding table in the parish gym, he balanced a cane against his knees and reminisced about the 14 years he volunteered as “chef of the baked fish.” Being a guest at the Special Fish Fry in the gym took a little getting used to, he admitted. The April 7 event, held in tandem with the general Fish Fry in the basement-level parish hall, gave people with mobility issues the first opportunity ever to participate onsite in the popular fish fry.
“God bless Diane (Dankert) for putting this group together. It worked out real well,” Russ said of the Special Fish Fry. Diane, the wife of Deacon Larry Dankert, belongs to St. Peter Parish in Buffalo. “My sister is in a wheelchair and she couldn’t come to the fish fries because she can’t do steps,” Diane said. With encouragement from Father Paul Appel, who leads the three-parish cluster of St. Alphonsus, St. Peter and St. Mary (Davenport), Diane recruited around 20 volunteers from St. Peter’s to help make the Special Fish Fry happen. “We had 100 reservations,” Diane said. “Next year I’m sure there will be even more.”
St. Peter parishioner Ken Tisinger, wearing his fish fry T-shirt, walked around the tables offering to refill plates from a serving container that held fried and baked fish, French fries and onion rings. “I know how much people like this food,” he said. “This gives an opportunity for those who otherwise would not be able to come here to enjoy it.”
McKenna, 17, guided this reporter to “Ground Zero,” the basement hall and kitchen which resembled a beehive of organized activity. Some volunteers dipped fish in creamy batter; others pulled golden-fried fish out of sizzling fryers. Someone else grilled cheese sandwiches. Still others placed food in assembly-line fashion on diners’ plates. Others washed and dried dishes, all with a good sense of humor.
“I mostly do silverware; it’s my volunteer job,” Marilyn “Mim” Rommel (Russ’ wife), said with a smile on her heat-moistened face. “I worked the window last week. It’s an upgrade,” she joked. Rylee Rommel, 13, stood right beside her grandma washing silverware. It’s bonding time.
Mary Klauer, AKA “Queen of the St. Alphonsus Fish Fry” (printed on her apron) strolled through the busy kitchen. The 84-year-old keeps track of inventory. Her late husband, Paul, started St. Al’s fish fry tradition about 35 years ago. He and some buddies were cooking fish they caught in the Mississippi River. “They thought, ‘Why don’t we try to have a fish fry for the public?’” Mary said, speaking seriously while wearing a yellow cap adorned with three fake fish.
Indeed, the fish fry has become an invaluable fundraiser. But it’s more than that; it’s a humongous family dinner inside the packed parish hall and in the gym. And, “the people who work here come back every year. We don’t have to ask them, they just come back,” Mary said. So she does, too.
Father Guillermo Trevino, who serves the cluster parishes, explains three keys to the fish fry’s wild success (more than 6,000 meals served this Lenten season): “1. The food, it’s really good. 2. The west end. People from all over who live there, used to live there — Catholic or not — come to support the parish. The mom of the pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church was there a few weeks ago and a lot of their parishioners attend. 3. The family atmosphere. Since it’s packed, you sit where there’s room. You meet a stranger and pass a plate or two — like it were a family meal.”