Friday Lenten tradition
builds parish communities

Sacred Heart youth member Theresa Gutierrez receives a fish taco plate from Christian Zajdzinski to serve to patrons at the Fish Taco Friday event March 3 in the parish hall. The youth group organized the first Friday dinner of the Lenten season for the Prescott parish. (Lisa Dahm/CATHOLIC SUN)

Mike and Cheryl Lau don’t attend St. Henry Parish in Buckeye. The Verrado couple isn’t even Catholic. But after a decade of attending fish fries in their former home of Cincinnati, the Laus know a good fish fry when they see one — make that taste one — and the March 3 event at the church hall on Lower Buckeye Road filled their bill.

“It’s really good, tasty,” said Mike between bites of his fried cod, shrimp and a side of cole slaw.

“We come for the fish,” added his wife.

St. Henry drew a healthy crowd, according to Jacob Yanez, Grand Knight for the Knights of Columbus Council 9467, which hosted the event that coincided with a 5 p.m. Stations of the Cross.

“We had a good flow,” Yanez said. “We try to have something (with the fish fry) in conjunction with Lent.”

St. Henry is one of countless parishes throughout the country — and significantly more than a handful in the diocese — that participates in the parish “fish fry,” an American Catholic tradition born out of the law of abstinence from meat on Fridays. And the menu doesn’t have to be fried, or even fish, to bring the community together.

Savory soups and Stations

Tracy Pawlak ladles soup for her children, Tommy, Tony and Colin, at Our Lady of the Valley Parish’s Stations and Soup Supper March 3. (Karen Mahoney/CATHOLIC SUN)

For 11-year-old Tony Pawlak, carrying the San Damiano Cross through Our Lady of the Valley during Stations of the Cross was a significant way to begin the season of Lent.

“I really liked being able to carry the cross and I love coming to Stations. It is very calming and peaceful to participate with everyone,” he said. “My family and I have come for this nearly every week during Lent since I was really little.”

Approximately 50 parishioners of St. Raphael and OLOV Churches attended the first Stations and Soup Supper of the Lenten season on March 3. The two parishes operate as one community and alternate hosting duties each year. Various groups from both parishes share in the leadership of hosting the Stations and Soup Suppers.

Hosting the Soup Supper was a group of volunteers from the OLOV Young at Heart Club. They gathered in the kitchen and lined up about a dozen slow cookers filled with a variety of aromatic meatless soups.

“It’s nice to do something with the parish during Lent and a great way to have a little social time with everyone,” said Ida Szmyt, president. “People really like the soups and we have great camaraderie with each other.”

Tony Pawlak, an 11-year-old Our Lady of the Valley parishioner, carries the cross during the evening’s Stations of the Cross prior to the weekly Lenten Soup Supper. (Karen Mahoney/CATHOLIC SUN)

Amelia Sury, faith formation director, led the catechists through the Stations and stayed for the Soup Supper with her husband, Joe.

“I feel at home here and attending Stations helps me get deep and thinking about what I can do to be a better person,” he said. “It is also a way to support my wife and her ministry.”

Amelia agreed and enjoys seeing the young and the elderly mixing socially. “We share our lives and our stories.”

Pawlak sat with his parents Vince and Tracy, and brothers Colin, 6, and Tommy, 8, as they sampled their first bowl of soup.

“There is no charge for this, but they take donations to go to St. Vincent de Paul and André House,” said Tracy. “We take the money we would have spent on eating out and give it to the poor and charity. All the soups are awesome, so it is really not a sacrifice.”

Octogenarian Gordon Pemberton of St. Raphael Parish has attended the past four years.

“The soup is great and it is a chance to meet people and experience the spiritual aspect,” he said. “I really like coming.”

A taste of the East

“Masgouf,” fish prepared over mesquite embers and served with warm pita bread, onions and tomatoes, is a fixture of the Lenten season at Mar Abraham Chaldean Catholic Church. “Masgouf” is the Aramaic word for crucified. (Photo courtesy of Mar Abraham Church)

At Mar Abraham Chaldean Catholic Church in Scottsdale, the Fridays in Lent are marked by an evening Mass followed by a dinner that features masgouf.

Basically, it’s tilapia impaled on metal skewers in the shape of a cross and cooked over mesquite embers. Served with pita bread and a generous helping of onions and tomatoes plus a mixture of mangos and spices, masgouf is a tantalizing delicacy that’s becoming more well-known as a result of the Chaldean diaspora. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have left their homeland since 2003.

Volunteer and longtime Mar Abraham parishioner Raad Delly has been helping out with the Lenten masgouf dinners for years. He remembers visiting the fish markets near the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq, where he grew up.

“You go there, you pick the fish you like and then they take it out,” Delly said. Due to Baghdad’s proximity to the Tigris and Euphrates, fish was a regular part of his diet, and not just a Lenten practice.

Transplanted to Arizona, Delly brought his love of fish and the Catholic Church together. When there was just a sprinkling of Chaldean (Eastern Rite Iraqi) Catholics in the Valley, he and other Iraqi ex-pats gathered to enjoy masgouf dinners. These days, the Chaldean community has mushroomed into hundreds of families at three centers within the Diocese of Phoenix boundaries. Many attend the masgouf dinners at Mar Abraham.

The men of the Mar Abraham Chaldean Catholic Church assist Corbishop Felix Shabi, parish pastor (center), in preparing the “masgouf” dinner. (Photo Courtesy of Mar Abraham Church)

Mar Abraham pastor Corbishop Felix Shabi — who is also vicar for the San Diego-based Chaldean Catholic Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle’s Eastern Vicariate, which encompasses Arizona and Nevada — explained the significance of masgouf.

“Jesus did it 2,000 years ago,” he said, pointing to the passage in John 21 in which the resurrected Christ cooked fish for the Apostles. “The word masgouf comes from the Aramaic word for ‘to be crucified’ or a person to be crucified.”

When it comes to the fish dinners at Mar Abraham, he said, “The tool we have here to put the fish in is in a semi-shape of the cross.” While some area restaurants have masgouf on the menu, it’s actually grilled fish they are serving. The traditional way to prepare masgouf is on the wooden or metal skewers.

Delly said preparing for the dinners is a lengthy process. A volunteer orders the fish the day before and the mesquite wood has to be cut and carried to the pit. After the fish are cleaned, they are sprinkled with sea salt and left to sit for a few hours. Next, volunteers stack the mesquite wood in the pit.

“Then they crucify the fish,” Delly said. “It takes 15-20, sometimes 30 minutes for it to cook.” Parishioners gather around, waiting for the masgouf to be served. Clustered at tables, murmured and lively conversations in Chaldean, Arabic and English fill the cool night air.

“They come and relax and eat,” Delly said. “They talk about family, work — they can’t talk when they are at church. But here — here they sit and communicate with each other.”

A Southwest twist

Sacred Heart Parish youth group members pose with their “Fish Taco Friday” sign in the lower hall during their event on March 3. (Lisa Dahm/CATHOLIC SUN)

Sacred Heart Parish in Prescott offered a new Arizona twist to the traditional Lenten fish fry — a Fish Taco Friday. Organized by parish youth ministry leader Candice Fabrie and her core team, the youth transformed the parish lower hall into a Mexican restaurant for the evening with colorful streamers, tables adorned with bowls of chips and salsa, and festive mariachi music playing. They presold more than 80 tickets.

“We wanted to do something different,” Fabrie said. “We have a large Hispanic community here and we are trying to do more things that integrate both communities. So we thought, ‘Why not have the typical fish fry and then also do a fish taco dinner?’”

The youth ministry core team, parents and a couple of the parish Knights of Columbus manned the kitchen during the event, and skilled parish families made the rice and the beans.

Gary Regnier, a member of the Knights of Columbus Council 1032, volunteered to serve drinks. He also brought his grandson, Jacob Bowen, for the dinner.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” Regnier said. “I enjoy helping and I have always believed … that the youth are the future.”

Gary Regnier, parishioner, and his grandson, Jacob Bowen, enjoy fish tacos during the Lenten event at Sacred Heart Parish in Prescott, on March 3. (Lisa Dahm/CATHOLIC SUN)

The Sacred Heart Parish youth ministry group will also offer their traditional fish fry event the Friday before Holy Week, and they provide soup during the Fridays in between the two fish dinners. The parish fish fry is now in about its fifth year and typically draws approximately 200 people. Fabrie said about 30 middle and high school students help at each dinner by setting up the hall the day before, making signs and serving as hosts and waiters.

“It is a great way to get them involved,” she said.

Fabrie believes parishioners respond well to the events because the youth are bringing the parish together during the Lenten season.

“We thought by providing a service and Stations of the Cross afterward, it is a way to build community and include everybody,” Fabrie said. “It’s also really about preparing their hearts for Easter.”

Couples’ Night Out

From left to right, Ron Evans, Jim White, Dotti White, Velma Zogelman, Audrey Evans and Stan Zogelman, have turned their parish fish fry into a “couples’ night out.” (Gina Keating/CATHOLIC SUN)

Stan and Velma Zogelman have been coming to the fish fry at St. Bridget Parish in Mesa for 13 years. They both agree it’s “the best fish fry around,” and their friends Ron and Audrey Evans now make the 30-minute commute each way since moving out of the parish boundaries.

What began as a couple’s night out quickly evolved into a group of six couples meeting weekly for a Lenten meal.

Cindy Low has managed the hall set-up and volunteers for the fish fry for the past 13 years. Seating is available indoors or out, with 53 tables that seat six.

Glancing over her shoulder down the hall, Low said the “pop-up restaurant” was busy because “several dozen purple aprons have been checked out by volunteers.”

Fish Fry patrons enjoy their meal in the makeshift outside restaurant at St. Bridget Parish in Mesa March 3. (Gina Keating/CATHOLIC SUN)

And what a restaurant it is; the only thing paper at this fish fry are the napkins lying on the linen tablecloths next to the silverware. Each plated meal comes on a ceramic plate to the table by a volunteer server.

“We’ve tried other fish fries but we didn’t like them,” Velma said, adding, “We really enjoy the camaraderie and the food here.”

The men from Knights of Columbus Council 9800 sponsor the event with the help of their wives. The kitchen prepares about 500 meals in two hours every Friday during Lent, except Good Friday.

The annual dinners not only attract parishioners, but are an ecumenical event that draws nearby churches and centers. Money collected each week goes to help a local charitable organization in the community. The East Valley Men’s Center, an emergency shelter for homeless men in Mesa, was the beneficiary of the first fish fry.

Jim and Dotti White joined the couples again this year because it’s something they look forward to.

“The food is excellent, the friends are great,” Jim said, adding, “Look at all the people! It’s a small building but a big restaurant.”

One insider tip: Hang around long enough and a tray of seconds makes its way through the maze of tables. Use the napkin to flag down the server.

Not just fundraising fish

Mike and Cheryl Lau of Buckeye enjoy the cod during the first fish fry of the Lenten season at St. Henry in Buckeye March 3. (Jeff Grant/CATHOLIC SUN)

St. Henry has held fish fries for years, both at its current location and in the former site in downtown Buckeye, and will continue throughout Lent this year. The Knights charge $8 a plate, which also includes french fries, cookies and a beverage, and will raise over $2,000 toward scholarships they award annually to Buckeye college-bound high school students and eighth-graders heading to high school to help meet expenses.

But fish and fundraising aren’t the only factors behind the events.

Mike Lau found the community atmosphere appetizing. He called it “a good environment,” music to the ears of Fr. William Kosco, St. Henry pastor.

“I’ve told the Knights, ‘Don’t treat it as moneymaker. If it provides anyone a chance to do something with their community, it’s worth it. People meet at things like this, (whereas) they normally won’t see each other in town. Buckeye isn’t a little town. It gives people an opportunity to see each other.”

And in the case of people like Mike and Cheryl Lau, continue a tasty family tradition.

Contributing to this article were correspondents Joyce Coronel out of Scottsdale, Lisa Dahm out of Prescott, Jeff Grant out of Buckeye, Gina Keating out of Mesa and Karen Mahoney out of Phoenix.