DURING FRIDAY NIGHTS in Lent, a group of dads at St. Cecilia Parish in St. Louis—scout leaders, mostly—used to get out the two big deep fryers and dunk salmon, cod, shrimp and fries. Parishioners would eat on paper plates in the parish hall, drink a couple beers with their friends and talk about the neighborhood.
By the late ’90s, those Friday nights had started to feel like wakes. Crime and vandalism were up, and nobody was bothering to pull weeds or tuck-point the redbrick two-stories on the surrounding grid of city streets. Instead, people were leaving. At Mass, the church wasn’t even half full. The Lenten fish fry felt like a weekly obligation, but it didn’t feel holy.
Then two things happened. In 2005, St. Cecilia became Parroquia Santa Cecilia with Masses in Spanish and a welcome sign that read “Bienvenidos!”
Three years later, a fresh-out-of-the-seminary pastor suggested reviving the fish fry by adding a few of the new parishioners’ favorite recipes.
“We used to think we were doing good if we had 150 people show up,” says Mark Politte, one of the scout leaders. “Now we’re hitting 1,000.”
It’s late Friday afternoon, and school’s just let out. Three little girls walk the playground’s low stone wall like a balance beam. About 50 volunteers are already inside the school kitchen, madly chopping onions and mashing huge trays of refried beans. When Latin music blasts through the outside speakers, 8-year-old Irvin Garza looks up and grins. He’s hanging around outside the door of the parish hall, waiting patiently for his favorite meal: fried fish and macaroni.
Santa Cecilia still serves the traditional fare alongside its new offerings, and, in a twist nobody expected, many of the Latino parishioners prefer it. The non-Latinos, though, want chiles rellenos and fried quesadillas (an improvisation made hurriedly one year when the kitchen ran out of food). Tamales are wheeled through the parish hall or taken outside when the line of hungry patrons stretches across the playground and out to the street.
Those faithful scout leaders—some of them grandpas now—are out in the garage getting ready. Breading flies from Politte’s gloved hand as he waves to Fernandez, who was one of the first Latinos to join the parish. Another parishioner arrives, saying she’s ready to spoon out 5,000 plastic cups of salsa.
Five thousand? She grins. “I’m Spanish. Everything we say, cut it by 100, and it’s probably close.”
The 778 chiles rellenos stuffed that afternoon are carefully counted. Yanit Carranza got here early in the morning to start roasting, peeling and seeding poblano peppers, which will now be filled with refried beans and Chihuahua cheese, according to parishioner Marta Torres’ old family recipe. Then they’ll be battered, floured and fried.
People come from all over to taste them. Dr. Robert Pozzi, one of the fish fry’s many regulars, is both a devout Catholic and a serious foodie. He’s pronounced the chiles rellenos a minor miracle.
Carranza is wearing brown jeans and a coral shirt, her long, dark hair stuffed up under a baseball cap.
“I love cooking,” she says. “I learned from my grandmother and my mom in Monterrey.”
She followed her husband to St. Louis in 2006. Their children go to St. Cecilia School, and she’s been volunteering here since the Mexican fish fry started.
“There’s more help now,” she says with relief. “The first year, I came early in the day, and I was by myself!” She came back, though, for a second year and a third.
“I think it helps me a lot to be more humble, get to know people,” she says. Edgar Ramirez, pastoral associate for Hispanic ministry,overhears her and nods.
“For me it’s an example of humbleness, too. We are giving up our Fridays—Friday is normally my day off. But once I get here, it’s so fun when you see the place crowded and people enjoying the food and getting up to dance.”
He nods toward a guy who’s walking between tables with a black Hefty bag.
“You see that guy? He’s a lawyer, and his job is taking out the trash.”
In the next room, the lemonade ladies have assembled. A brigade of old friends, they parcel out condiments and vigorously stir up at least nine jumbo canisters of powdered lemonade every Friday.
Asked his favorite dish, Ramirez grins. “I have to be honest. I don’t eat any of it anymore. I’m done. This is the fifth fish fry this Lent, and I have not had a single chile relleno or piece of fish. I always bring a salad.”
What he loves is the way the fish fry, though intended as a fundraiser, builds community.
“You see African-Americans, whites, Latinos all working together in the kitchen, and the kids are giving tours of the church. People have sent us emails and cards saying they felt this was what heaven would be like.”
It Takes a Village
In the meantime, the money does help.
“It pretty much all goes to the school,” Ramirez says. “We have a commitment to help these students, financially, through our school here and on to the best high schools we can help them get into. We also do whatever we can to put them in college, and for that we need lots of help and prayer and money.”
He glances toward a beautifully laid table in the center of the room—bright ceramic plates in Mexican colors, flowers as a centerpiece. The seats were auctioned off earlier in the year, and the top bidders were a group of women lawyers and judges who sponsor a little girl at the school.
Christy Sieve, the church’s office manager, comes up to say hi. She’s worked here 11 years, and now that her own parish is Vietnamese, she’s started coming to Mass here, too. On her orange T-shirt is a frog-green, skinny-legged poblano pepper in a sombrero, announcing “The Original Mexican
It all started when the St. Louis Fish Fry Club showed up. This informal group of friends who make it their solemn duty to review and rank this city’s many fish fries blogged about Santa Cecilia’s. The dining critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed up. He raved about the food and offhandedly mentioned that it was served in the church’s “ramshackle gym.”
Word went out, and at 5:30 p.m. that Thursday, volunteers showed up in their oldest clothes. They finished painting just past midnight, and when people arrived Friday evening for the fish fry, the gymnasium walls glowed.
There are miracles of solidarity, and there are crises, such as right now—10 minutes before the doors open. One of the electrical wires overhead just sparked into flames and turned a piece of the pearly-gray sky bright orange. Politte, who’s worked in security in the past, drops his fish and starts cordoning off the area to keep everybody safe.
Another scout leader calls the fire department. Somebody finds the P.A. system and leads a hasty prayer: “God, dear God, please let us not lose our electricity for the fish fry.”
Only one phase goes down, and Santa Cecilia has three. All will be well.
Larger crises, too, have been averted. Before the Latin fish fries started, St. Cecilia was being threatened with closure, and its school had only 124 kids. This year, it has 215, and it’s opened a preschool and added 100 kids to the parish school of religion. There are more than 150 baptisms a year now, and, thanks to the kids’ knowledgeable tours of the church on fish-fry nights, the church is drawing 10 or 11 weddings a year.
Diversity and Determination
As the dinner crowd builds, little girls climb onto a stage in the center of the main dining hall. In unison, they lift their long, full skirts by the ruffles, making arcs of bright red, green, turquoise and purple as they spin and stomp their heels.
Caroline Battles, chief of staff for U.S. Representative Russ Carnahan, finds a seat with her husband and their toddler. Photographer Ken Konchel and his partner run into an old friend,Janet Wilding, deputy director of the Great Rivers Greenway District. Her young son, Joel Ashrafzadeh, pronounces this particular fish fry the best because “it has more music. And it filled my appetite right away.”
Many of the people who’ve made this fish fry a Lenten ritual aren’t even Catholic. Fans come from across the river in southern Illinois and from small towns in rural Missouri. Yet, for Santa Cecilia’s own parishioners, the festivity carries extra meaning.
It’s brought them together—the Spanish peakers from Mexico; the family from Nicaragua; the old-time Germans from the South Side; the refugees from St. Francis de Sales, a city parish that closed. Labels no longer matter; everybody’s at the same table, part of the celebration.
If only the rest of the world would follow suit. Three years ago, the parish had no soccer teams. Last season, it had 10. The eighth-grade boys’ team starred nine Hispanics, seven Anglos, two African-Americans and one Vietnamese player. They passed and scored smoothly, but when they reached the finals, the other team’s parents started chanting, “Cut our grass!” It stung, but they worked through it.
Even some of St. Cecilia’s loyal, lifelong parishioners left when the parish “went Spanish.” One told Politte, “Mark, I was baptized here, I had my first Communion, my confirmation. And now we’re doing this?”
But Politte and his wife found they enjoyed the cultural mix. When the new Latino parishioners participated in Las Posadas, a Mexican custom where people walk to people’s homes during Christmas week dressed like Mary and Joseph, looking for a place to stay, the Polittes hosted.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” Politte says cheerfully.
Most of the parishioners at Santa Cecilia work two or three jobs and live very simply. They’ve been through hell just to get here. Their faith doesn’t click only on Sunday morning. It anchors every breath, every word. There is a constant, unbreakable connection between faith and the ordinary. People pray about everything— even electricity. And they need little excuse to party.
Ramirez, who came here from Mexico City at 20, points out that “Latinos are passionate about everything, whether it’s suffering or celebration.”
Hernandez remembers a previous priest asking him, “Juan, if these people are so poor, and we are supposed to be helping them, how can they afford to have all these parties?”
“Everybody pitches in,” Hernandez explains. “They maybe don’t pay anything. But they bring food, play music. You’ve got enough friends to have a big party.”
In his hometown, San Miguel Regla, Hidalgo, a baptism can last three days.
“When I came here, there would be a party and, at 9 or 10, people would go home! If we have a party, we stay all night. It’s just something you feel in your heart. A baptism means a big party.
“At the presentation, when a child is 3, you have another party, because he is still alive. Then there’s the quinceañera—it’s a presentation of young women to society. It’s like a debut, except we celebrate through our religion.”
Politte is still out in the garage frying, but he taps his foot to the mariachi band and looks wistful. He says the mood is so much livelier these days, sometimes he’d love to just drop what he’s doing and watch the dancers.
“We put in a sink and new lights and set up counter space in the garage just for the fish fry, and now we’re talking about buying our sixth fryer. That’s been our biggest disaster—lack of fryers,” he says.
“Some of these fryers are older than my children, and we’re still using them. And one is very temperamental: I went to light it last year and walked away with no eyebrows. Now we kind of stand to the side and hope for the best.”
One of the volunteers brings a huge plate of leavings to Joy Stinger for her chickens—she keeps 35. She came on impulse tonight. She now lives in a well-to-do suburb across town but grew up in this neighborhood and played on the church’s softball team.
“I used to walk on those stone walls,” Stinger says.
When asked what she thinks of the old redbrick church being a parish for Spanish-speakers, she exclaims, “Cool!”
Some might even say miraculous.