Monday, August 31, 2009

Catholic Church Picnics

I’m a little behind on posting on this, but oh well. On Sunday, August 16, Mom, Dad, and I went to the summer picnic at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in St. Thomas, Missouri (a little southwest of Jefferson City). The photos in this post are from that day.

If you’ve known me very long, you already know that I greatly appreciate these church suppers in rural mid-Missouri, despite the differences I have with the dogmas and prejudices of the Catholic Church.

So even though I wish the Catholics would change their perspectives and policies on a whole lot of things, I greatly value the positive role these parishes play in strengthening their small communities, across the generations.

There are several small towns around here that are strongly Catholic in an almost Old World way, where the church sits on a hill in the center of town surrounded by its members’ homes. The city is the parish; the parish is the city. Pretty much.

Thus when Central Missouri parishes like Westphalia, Folk, Koeltztown and Argyle, Bonnots Mill, Meta, and Mary’s Home have their fund-raising summer picnics and fall suppers, these amount to community festivals.

Nearly every weekend around here in the summer and fall, you can find at least one of these parishes hosting a huge dinner for thousands. And members of one community visit the others, so there’s a lot of cross-pollination.

As a general rule, the summer “picnics” have fried chicken and roast beef, and the fall “suppers” have turkey and country sausage. And all meals come with side dishes, beverages, and desserts.

It’s all served family-style, and all-you-can-eat: You buy a meal ticket. You might have to stand in line a little, or a lot, or not at all. Then you’re seated with other diners at long tables, usually in the cafeteria or gymnasium of the church’s school. On the way, you select your dessert from a big assortment of pies and cakes and other home-baked goodies contributed by members of the parish.

As soon as you’re seated, people start bringing food to the table on platters and in bowls. The side dishes vary with the season and from parish to parish, but you can expect to be served things like mashed potatoes and gravy, sauerkraut, green beans, corn, coleslaw, fresh sliced tomatoes and bell peppers, marinated cucumbers, applesauce, homemade bread, and the aforementioned desserts. Plus iced tea, water, coffee to drink. Yes, it’s grandma food. Mom food. Country food.

Sounding good yet? Here’s the thing that gets me: The communal effort. All the generations participate. The older women supervise the cooking and serving, the older men sell and take tickets. The youth serve food and drinks, help set and bus tables, and oversee the kiddie games (like the bean bag toss and fishing pool).

There are plenty of activities that make the church supper into a festival. In addition to the kids’ area, there’s almost always a quilt raffle and auction, a beer wagon, a bake sale, a “country store” (with items ranging from home-canned dill pickles and gooseberry preserves to knitted Kleenex-box covers with geese on them and decorated bookmarks for your Bible).

Of course, visiting the bake sale always makes me happy.

Sometimes, there’s a Schützenfeste—a shooting contest—which is undoubtedly a relict activity from the turn of the century. St. Thomas had a cake walk! And then there’s always bingo.

And then it’s also neat, during these festivals, to take time out to visit the sanctuary of the church, to look at the religious decorations in there and have a reflective moment. Sue and I also like to visit a church’s cemetery, nearly always adjacent to the church, and look at the old tombstones and their names.

We also enjoy the scenery as we drive the rural highways connecting these small towns. We roll down the windows and breathe the fresh air. In the fall, the orange, yellow, green, and red leaves look like stained glass above the road.

I am always impressed by the tremendous amount of preparation and organization involved in pulling off these festivals. Making and stuffing the fresh sausage. Every family preparing loaves of bread and pies to donate. Making stuff for the bake sale and country store. Making the quilts to get raffled off. Setting up tents and tables. Lining up the musical entertainment. And all the other details. This is real work, and it takes a serious time commitment.

Most of all, I have to say I admire the sheer continuity of these communities and their festivals. I know that elsewhere in our country, happenings like these are going extinct in favor of socially stratified and subculturally segregated events. You hear it in other congregations—“Well, the younger generation just lost interest, so we quit having our festival.”

But I asked a teenager at Rich Fountain about this subject a few years ago, and she assured me, “Oh, we’ll never stop having these festivals.” And an attitude like that amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy. God love ’em.

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