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Serving takes on new meaning at school’s popular Lenten fish fry

Take up 800 or so pieces of fish, 80 pounds of elbow macaroni, 100 pounds of cabbage coleslaw, baskets of sizzling fries, bowls brimming with juicy lemon wedges and butter pats, and an immeasurable amount of dedication from the volunteer corps and you have a fish fry that has put a small school in Depew on the map.

“It’s the best fish fry in the world,” said Joan Migliore, waiting with her sister Arlene Hoogerwerf for children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to fill their table in the cafeteria at Our Lady of Blessed Sacrament School at St. Martha’s Parish. “We love this fish fry.”

The Blessed Sacrament Lenten fish fry is just one of hundreds served in Western New York every year. In the offerings — glistening battered fish that steams when you break it open, flanked by the classic sides – it’s just like the others. But in the warm welcome, the willing spirit of serving and the excitement of everyone from pupils to patrons, it’s in a class of its own.

Even chairperson Chris Giglia, who manages the volunteer roster and keeps a close eye on the details, and her co-chairperson, Karen Kambow, were quick to name others worthy of credit. Therese Chapman, now the grandmother of a student, brought a pack of relatives Friday to celebrate her 60th birthday by enjoying the coleslaw and macaroni salad she taught the Thursday crew to make. The children of Nancy Suchyna, Jennifer Dunning and Colleen Was have all graduated, but the alumni parents still show up to cut generous slices of cakes, pies and brownies and pile cupcakes and cookies on plates to be sold for $1. “It’s kind of like the loaves and fishes,” said Suchyna as she surveyed the table of sweets, some homemade. “Sometimes we come in and think there won’t be enough, and somehow at the end of the night there is always enough.”

Last year, between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, 6,232 people bought meals. The fish dinners range in price from $10 for the 8- to 10-ounce battered haddock, which rests on a bed of fries, with cold salads and a slice of Costanzo’s rye, to $12 for the overflowing seafood platter, which is all of the above plus fried clam strips and shrimp. There are also clam strip, shrimp and cheese pizza options, as well as fresh shrimp cocktail and creamy New England clam chowder. When the final numbers are crunched, the school sees $35,000 to $40,000 profit from the labor-intensive eight-week enterprise.

“It’s a lot of work, but this money goes directly to the school,” which has 196 students, said Giglia, the mother of a seventh-grader and a high school student, who works on the fish fry between shifts as a bus driver. “This keeps our tuition down as much as possible.”

“We’re a Catholic school, and we’re always trying to find more money,” said Principal Debbie Szczepanski before sitting down to dinner with her husband. “It’s a big part of our fundraising. And it’s developed into a family. In the kitchen, they sing songs, they are enjoying it, and you can tell. When you hear the words ‘fish fry,’ you just smile.”

“Part of our Catholic tradition is serving,” said Donna Sylvester, who was circulating with raffle tickets while her husband, Kevin, assembled dinners and their daughter, Olivia, served tables. “The older people love to see the younger people who are serving the tables. I tell the students this may be the only conversation they have all week with a young person, so make it pleasant.”

“Almost all the volunteers are parents,” said Giglia. “Or grandparents, or neighbors, or whoever they can get,” added Renee Snusz, who starts the weekly preparations by boiling the elbow macaroni for the pasta salad.

“I’m especially proud of my teachers, too,” said Szczepanski. “We all pitch in to help out.”

The work started on Wednesday, when Snusz, who works in the school cafeteria, stays late to fire up five large pots of water for the macaroni. “I do it al dente, so it doesn’t get mushy,” she said. After she drains the massive pots, she douses the pasta with olive oil to prevent sticking and to add a bit of flavor.

On Thursday, parents Teresa Luksch and Gwen Ruppert chop the carrots, celery and red onion into bits, then mix the salads with their gloved hands in large tubs. That means that when they pour in the salad dressing, cut with a little milk, they can ensure that the macaroni is evenly dressed.

How does Giglia know how much to order and prepare? It’s a delicate balance, but basically she looks at last year’s totals, and raises the amount about 10 percent. She also watches the weather, and if snow or freezing temperatures are predicted, she might make a bit less. Better to run out than to have leftovers, she figures.

This year, numbers have been a little down at Blessed Sacrament, mostly due to the weather in the early weeks of Lent. Last year at this time, 3,765 dinners were sold; this year the number is 3,522, some 243 down. On the third from last fish fry of the season, Giglia hoped the numbers would start to meet, or maybe even surpass, last year. For this night, that means they want to sell 720 or more dinners.

While the ingredients for many fundraiser fish fries are delivered and cooked by a hired company, Blessed Sacrament provides the personal touch and saves some money by doing most of the work in-house.

The organizers have high standards. The school kitchen, which turns out a daily hot meal for students, is immaculate. The macaroni salad and coleslaw feature bright shredded carrot chopped small for crunch. The beer batter mix, designed to be diluted with water, is spiked with club soda for effervescence. The plump planks of bare haddock, which were caught, cleaned and flash frozen, are thawed with care.

On Friday, workers stream in as the first diners, mostly seniors picking up take-out, settle into chairs to wait. At the cashier’s table, they are served by Mary Kay Falk and Colleen Thome. “We have people who come every week by themselves,” said Falk. “We make sure they are comfortable and get just what they want.”

In the kitchen, Mary Kay’s husband, Bob Falk, dips each fillet into the thick, cream-colored beer batter and places them on a tray. They are picked up by Kevin Wagner, who immerses each fillet carefully in an uncrowded part of the fryer. As the fish turn golden, they are scooped up by Rob Rusinski, who moves them to a second fryer closer to the broiling herb-sprinkled fish.

“I want four with fries, one with less fries than the rest,” Giglia’s husband, Joe, calls out to the dinner assemblers, who bend to their tasks under heat lamps, grabbing plates already set with scoops of cold salad.

In the hallway, hostess and parent Kristin Schwarz seats people while the students greet diners. Most of the servers, still in their neat school uniforms, are eighth-graders, with some seventh-graders and an occasional sixth-grader.

“They are so excited to be able to do it,” said Giglia.

The pace in the hallway, dining room and kitchen picks up around 5:30, and former principal Sister Janita Krawczyk comes in for dinner with a group, shaking hands and greeting friends along the way. No one has to wait to be seated – somehow it all works – and the buzz continues until about 6:30.

At 7 p.m., dinners are mostly done. The cleaning crew starts working at the large sinks. People in the kitchen begin to relax. The volunteers’ own half-price dinner slips are gathered and the final cooking, of their own dinners, begins.

A final tally shows that 751 dinners were sold, not bad for three hours of hard work. But organizers hope to hit 800 in coming weeks – last year’s 889 on Good Friday was that year’s record – and someday even crack 1,000.

In the hallway, Kambow and Giglia take a quick breather.

“Did she tell you that we have parishioners who want us to do this every week?” Kambow asks.

There’s an instant’s pause, then she and Giglia both laugh, loudly.