Hooked on fish fries: Lenten dinners bring people together

Guests gather at St. Mary Parish in Oxford for a Lenten fish dinner Feb. 23.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

(See fish fry schedule at the bottom of this article)

Gary Swenka’s taste for cooking developed in a supper club kitchen during high school. Though he went on to make a living as a farmer, he never lost his passion for preparing tasty meals. “I love to cook! I probably cook 80% of our meals here at home,” he told The Catholic Messenger. He also cooks during Knights of Columbus fish fries at St. Mary Parish in Oxford, using the same breading recipe he learned as a teenage chef 50-some years ago.

Knights of Columbus councils throughout the diocese offer fish dinners during Lent as a way to raise money for charitable causes and to bring people together. Swenka and fellow Knights from the Oxford parish and St. Peter Parish in Cosgrove began hosting fish fries about 17 years ago. “It started as a fundraiser to give scholarships to seniors from our parishes,” he explained. The Knights hosted one fish fry the first year, with about 125-150 guests. Now, the Knights and their wives serve fish dinners to about 300 guests every other week during Lent. “It grew bigger than what we expected and it’s doing great.” Swenka has yet to miss a fish fry but he doesn’t brag about it since several Knights can say the same. “Some customers have been to every one as well!”


A year-round effort

Houghton Knights host fish fries year-round in the KC Hall. The monthly dinners, twice monthly during Lent, offer people of all faiths an opportunity to see neighbors and friends they haven’t seen in a while. “It’s a good place for meeting people,” said longtime Knight Gary Thompson. Attendance often outnumbers the population of Houghton; an average night will draw about 200 people; a good night about 350. A majority of guests come from Houghton, St. Paul, West Point, Mount Pleasant and Farmington. “Some have come from 50-60 miles away and raved about our fish,” he explained. He credits the late Ed Schinstock, who served as head cook for more than 30 years, for perfecting the recipe.

Putting on the fish fries is a lot of work, but Knights and wives are eager to help, he said. A core group is present for every event and other Knights serve in a 12-month rotation. The fish fries help fund Knights of Columbus projects and causes, such as the KC Vocation Fund.

A taste of togetherness

Tammy Bellrichard of Divine Mercy Parish in Burlington/West Burlington doesn’t go to fish fries for the food; she’s never had a taste for seafood. The sense of community keeps her coming back. Parishioners may not know each other or connect often because Masses are celebrated in three locations, says Bellrichard, the parish’s director of religious education. She enjoys meeting new people and chatting with old friends in the Ss. Mary & Patrick Parish Hall in West Burlington on Fridays during Lent. “It’s a good reunion,” she said.

The Des Moines County Knights of Columbus council, whose members are from the Burlington/West Burlington parish and St. Mary Parish in Dodgeville, have been serving fish in the West Burlington location for the past decade, said Jon Riffel, a past Grand Knight. Fish fry proceeds benefit community organizations, he said.

Some fish fries in the diocese offer youths an opportunity to get involved and raise money by bringing in and serving homemade desserts, including in West Burlington. Youths from Divine Mercy Parish who plan to attend the 2024 National Catholic Youth Conference ran the dessert bar the first Friday of Lent. The group raised about $200 to offset travel costs. “The kids really seem to enjoy this great learning experience through their volunteering. Some even help with serving and cleanup,” Riffel said.

Catholics in action

The Knights council from St. Mary Parish in Centerville put a pause on fish fries in 2023 after more than 60 years due to a lack of volunteers. However, former guests, many of whom are not Catholic, missed the Lenten dinners. “They were very disappointed last year when we didn’t have it,” said Ed Pancrazio, a Centerville Knight and a former state officer. Knights, wives and parishioners worked together to bring back the fish fries for 2024. “It’s been well-received by the community… friends come in together and spend the night socializing.”

Fish fries and other community events offer Catholics an opportunity to evangelize, Pancrazio said. “Anytime we donate money or are in the community helping, whether it’s a pancake event or a fish fry, we’re visible,” he said. When guests see Knights and other volunteers working together and having a good time, they may want to join in and see what it’s all about.

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