|Levi Guzman, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lewisburg and member of the Knights of Columbus council at the parish, prepares French fries during the parish’s March 10 fish fry. Parish fish fries have long been a tradition during Lent, so Catholics can abstain from meat while enjoying a meal and fellowship with members of their parish. Photos by Theresa Laurence|
Visit any number of parishes across the Diocese of Nashville on a Friday night during Lent, and chances are, you will catch a whiff of frying fish and hush puppies, served up with a side of community and spirituality.
It’s a tried and true recipe that has been successful for generations and still endures in parishes large and small, urban and rural, in Middle Tennessee.
On a busy Friday evening in March, Martin Ryan, Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus council at St. John the Evangelist Church in Lewisburg, mingles with those anxiously waiting in line for a fresh batch of fried fish. “There’s more people here than I’ve ever seen before,” he said, surveying the crowd, somewhat disbelieving the turnout.
The parish advertised the event through social media and with a simple poster board sign in front of the church, but organizers were pleasantly surprised that word got out to so many people in this small town, including Lewisburg Mayor Jim Bingham, who chatted with neighbors while waiting in line.
“This is huge for our parish,” Ryan said of the fish fry undertaking. The Knights of Columbus take the lead on the event, promoting it, setting up deep fryers in the church garage, hand-breading the fish, and making sure enough slaw, hot sauce and sweet iced tea are on hand for patrons.
|Martin Ryan, above, right, Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus council at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lewisburg, talks with fellow parishioner Susan Tonsetic at the March 10 fish fry. The Lenten fish dinners are an annual tradition at the church and draw a good crowd of parishioners and community members alike.|
Members of the parish youth group pitch in, running food between the fry station and the serving line. Pastor Father Jose Kariamadam, CMI, makes the rounds, greeting people with a smile. The Knights joke around with the people they’re serving.
At St. John’s, the fish fry is clearly a community-building event. “You need time to spend with your family, not cooking; come on down to the church and relax and have a meal,” Ryan said. “It’s good for the community and the parish to get together.”
Any extra funds raised from the fish fries are donated to the two Nashville seminarians St. John’s has “adopted” to support spiritually and financially; the Knights also donate money to the local food pantry, and give some back to the parish.
The Lenten fish fry tradition grew out of Church teaching that requires Catholics to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Back before vegetarian diets were commonplace, and meat was widely considered an essential component of a complete meal, it was a real challenge to forgo it. Fish was viewed as the best option for meatless days.
|A handmade sign beckons cars from one of the main roads in Lewisburg to the fish fry.|
Historically, Christians abstained from meat on all Fridays as an act of penitence and reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, commemorated on Good Friday. The Second Vatican Council simplified and streamlined many Catholic customs and laws, and limited abstinence from meat to Fridays during Lent, rather than every Friday.
While abstaining from meat is a penitential practice, that doesn’t mean it has to be a dreary or isolating experience. It can bring people together and serve as a springboard for Lenten devotionals and Scripture study.
The Knights of Columbus at Good Shepherd Parish in Decherd were also busy in early March hosting their annual Lenten fish fries. Like their brother Knights in Lewisburg, the Decherd Knights put in the work on the fish fries, which were scheduled in between two opportunities for spiritual growth. The evenings began with the Stations of the Cross, followed by the fish fry, and wrapped up with Scripture study with Deacon Philip Johnson.
At Good Shepherd, the fish fry is “absolutely” part of a spiritual experience for parishioners, according to Knight Mike Wiedemer. In addition to the fish fries, the parish’s Council of Catholic Women and the youth group were planning Soup and Scripture events to take place along with Stations and Scripture study.
“This is a great opportunity to socialize with fellow parishioners and also study the word directly following the meal,” said Knight Bruce Rawson.
At St. Catherine Parish in Columbia, the parish fish fry tradition helped spark a renewed interest in Friday evening devotionals during Lent. Pastor Father Davis Chackaleckel, MSFS, started the fish fries five years ago “when I found the number of people coming for Stations declined steadily.” Now, he said, “I saw the church almost full for the Stations with this new program.”
By involving the Knights of Columbus, the Ladies Club, and various other ministry leaders at the parish, the Friday fish fries and Stations of the Cross have brought the St. Catherine’s parishioners together in a new way.
“It’s a chance for people of the parish to get to know each other,” Father Davis said of the Lenten get-togethers.
Back at St. John Church in Lewisburg, a gregarious Martin Ryan continued to work his way through the crowd of people in the parish hall, greeting friends and strangers alike, telling stories and sharing laughs with fellow parishioners. Taking a break for a moment to survey the community gathered to enjoy a good meal and good company, he noted, “This is what it’s all about.”