Sure, some of it is the fish: Pacific cod, about 800 pounds of it, flown in from Alaska directly to St. Viator Catholic Community and served every Friday during Lent baked or fried with fries or a baked potato and coleslaw and accompanied, for a small additional charge, by a home-baked dessert.
But the success of St. Viator’s Lenten Friday fish fries can be seen in more than that good and affordable (just seven bucks for adults and four bucks for kids) fish dinner.
It’s also seen in the hubbub of conversation that fills the parish hall, the handshakes and hugs with which diners and volunteers greet one another, and the smiles of parishioners getting to know each other and creating, along the way, a stronger parish community.
Friday fish fries are a weekly Lenten tradition in many parts of the country. Here, St. Viator Catholic Community, 2461 E. Flamingo Road, and Christ the King Catholic Community, 4925 S. Torrey Pines Drive, are among valley churches that offer fish dinners, or variations on Lenten fish dinners, on Fridays during Lent.
The theological underpinnings: Catholics abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter. So, in the Midwest, the Northeast and other areas of the country with strong Catholic populations, parishes traditionally have held weekly fish fries as a means of both raising money for parish projects and giving parishioners a means of extra-worship socializing.
St. Viator fries are sponsored by Knights of Columbus Council 8282. Grand Knight David Saeva says the events are the council’s major fundraiser during the year, and proceeds go back to various parish programs.
This year, the K of C members have served between 150 and 250 diners each night. Some diners are members of St. Viator, others members of other parishes around town, but all arrive with an appetite to socialize.
“It’s just amazing,” Saeva says. “People just come and sit down with each other and start talking and get to know each other.”
The sociable vibe even extends into the parish hall kitchen, where K of C volunteers are working the fryers and the ovens. Member Tom Dennis admits that “it’s labor intensive, but we love doing it.”
Dennis has lived in Las Vegas since 1995. Back in California — where he worked at Disneyland for 27 years before retiring — parishes sponsored fish taco dinners during Lent, says Dennis, who’s been doing the abstaining-from-meat-on-Fridays thing ever since converting to Catholicism 57 years ago.
“I was raised Baptist. I’m the only one in my family who’s Catholic,” he says. “Back in my day, every Friday was no meat, and now it’s just during Lent.”
Over at the dessert table, Charlene Saeva — she makes the cheesecake that’s been a big hit this year — agrees that fellowship is as important as the meal or the fundraising here.
“There are a lot of people who come here and meet different friends and have a meal together,” she says. “It’s another place to gather and congregate.”
The same is true at Christ the King, which has been doing weekly Lenten fish fries for at least 10 years, says ticket seller Roseann Tabick, who estimates that more than 200 dinners are served on a typical Friday.
Both St. Viator and Christ the King will have their final Lenten fish fries of the season on Friday, which is sure to mean withdrawal for everyday gourmets who appreciate this particular niche of the culinary universe. Tabick says that, as ticket seller at Christ the King, “I’m the first one they see, and some people, will say: ‘This is so wonderful. I used to go to them when I was a kid.’
“There’s not many of them around. ‘Could you do this all year?’ they tell me. I tell them, ‘It’s not up to me.’ ”
“It’s just so wonderful when you look and see everyone mingling and all the tables are full and they’re chatting,” Tabick adds. “Even though they see (each other) at Sunday or Saturday Mass, it’s wonderful to see. It’s like a social.”
Scott Anderson, dining at St. Viator with Lyn Bates, is a Friday fish fry veteran. He grew up in Chicago and frequented parish fish fries even though he wasn’t Catholic.
After moving here last fall, “we went through all the (church) bulletins looking for a fish fry, and we found this,” he adds.
“I was glad. I was born and raised in Chicago, and even though I wasn’t raised Catholic, it was always a thing to do during lent to seek out Catholic churches that have a fish fry. So we decided we were going to seek one out and this is what we found. We were here last week and we’ll be here again next week.”
Bates grew up in California and also is familiar with Lenten fish fries.
“So,” she says, “this is like old home week to me.”
Anderson adds, “It just brings me back to when I was in Chicago.”
And their meals? “Very good,” Anderson says. ”They give you ample portions. Nothing to complain about here.”
Nearby, a group of women are meeting again on this Friday, just as they have every Lenten Friday this year.
“We look forward to Lent because of the fish fries,” says Carol Lamkins.
“It’s a social thing,” Margo Whyte adds.
“It’s like a little social group here,” Lamkins says. “We see each other, and it’s lovely.”
And that’s pretty much the point, says the Rev. William F. Haesaert, who has served at St. Viator for 19 years and is stopping in today for a meal before heading to the church next door to lead Stations of the Cross.
The popularity of the weekly fish fries has grown each year, Haesaert says, but “it’s not only the food that draws people, it’s the community and the camaraderie.
“There are people living in the neighborhood who are not Catholic who still come because they know about us.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0280.