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Lenten season brings hard-working volunteers to area churches, fire halls
(Editor's note: This story was corrected after publication.)
Volunteers at Corpus Christi Church in McKeesport prepare pierogi dough for assembly for annual fish fry. (Emily Pidgeon photos for Tube City Almanac)
Deep fryers pop and hiss, phones ring, volunteers shout out orders and collect totals. The air smells of fresh seafood and butter, cabbage and onions. Lines of people form, all waiting to place or pick up their order on the first evening of the Lenten season.
It’s just another Friday for church members and firemen alike at local area fish fries in the Mon Valley.
For the West Wilmerding Volunteer Fire Dept. in North Versailles Twp. and Mary Mother of God Parish in McKeesport, frying fish and serving the community go hand in hand with Lent. Both institutions cite religion and tradition as the reason for the fish fries each year.
“God and Money,” said Bud Pusey, West Wilmerding assistant fire chief. “That’s how we live here in the Steel Valley. That’s all we know. We get up and go to work each day to make a living and try to do the right thing. We work and we eat, and that’s how it’s always been.”
During Lent, Catholic and some other Christian denominations abstain from consuming meat on Fridays.
This practice has been documented as far back as the Middle Ages, and in some texts, even further back in history, said the Rev. Terry O’Connor of Mary Mother of God Parish, which includes Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church and St. Patrick’s Church in McKeesport, St. Angela Merici in White Oak and St. Robert Bellarmine in East McKeesport.
The practice “brings the wealthy and the poor together” in their somber appreciation of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, O’Connor said. “It’s us trying to get closer and closer to the Lord.”
Lent is not only about sacrifice, he said. “We are called to do good works as well,” said O’Connor.
Mary Mother of God Parish donates 10 percent of all the proceeds from its fish fry directly to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The parish will hold its fish fry every Friday except Good Friday at the social hall of Corpus Christi Church, located on Market Street in Downtown McKeesport.
In West Wilmerding, the fish fry was created eight years ago as a way for the fire department to raise money for its operations while also providing a service back to the community, said Pusey, who also serves as the fire department’s treasurer.
They serve fresh fried fish sandwiches, crab cakes and fried shrimp alongside traditional sides such as haluski, macaroni and cheese and french fries.
The department allows people to call-ahead and make advance orders, but also serves walk-ins and delivers to the surrounding communities.
Picking up the bread used for their fish sandwiches each and every Friday — as well as Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent — allows customers to have the freshest experience possible, says Pusey. All the food is prepared the day of the fish fry.
No food is precooked. “Everything is homemade,” Pusey said. “Certain people make certain things. It’s all homemade by our firemen, firemen’s families and volunteers that just want to help.”
Pusey said they receive good feedback on their portion sizing: “Many seniors in the area enjoy our food because we serve larger portions to assist the community in making the food last. They can get two meals out of one serving.”
Calling ahead to pre-order is key for the fire department. Once they are sold out, that’s it. “A 135 pounds (of fish) goes fast!” Pusey said.
All call-ahead orders are held to ensure they are fulfilled should the department run out. The department serves an average of 225 meals on any particular Friday and serves as long as it can until supplies run out.
The Halaszynski family takes a break while assisting in the assembly of pierogi and haluski for the Corpus Christi fish fry. From left to right, Vanessa, Jennifer, Eric, Cassandra and Kathy Halaszynski. (Emily Pidgeon photos for Tube City Almanac)
In McKeesport, Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church also uses the “call-ahead” or pre-order method during their busiest times.
The social hall, where all the food is prepped, cooked and served, has a separate “call center” where customers can call in their order for carryout or delayed pick-up, or to request an order be delivered.
Walk-in orders are also welcome, but wait times could be long and availability may be limited depending on the time of day.
“Folks really enjoy the delivery feature,” said Joann Dorazio, who is running the fish fry for the parish this year. “Some people just can’t get out or get down to us, so they appreciate that we deliver.”
Dorazio and many other church members dedicate hours of their time to prepare over 12,000 pierogis for the fish fry season, just as they have for the past 15 years.
The dough and fillings are prepared each Tuesday for six weeks leading up to Lent. The goal is to make 2,000 pierogi each week to meet their quota. Church members make the dough and pre-measure fillings to allow other volunteers quick access and a fast turnaround.
Every Tuesday, about 50 volunteers fill and pinch each pierogi by hand, and once they are turned over to the kitchen staff, other volunteers check the pierogi to ensure they are closed properly and meet the church’s standards.
After combining several family recipes and trial and error, volunteers found the recipe they believed to be the best one that could be made in large batches.
Joann Dorazio, head of Corpus Christi's annual fish fry, helping Noah Pidgeon pinch pierogi. (Emily Pidgeon photos for Tube City Almanac)
Once all the pierogi have been made, the leftover dough is utilized to make noodles for one of the parish’s side dishes, haluski. Each noodle looks different. No volunteer is turned away, and grandmothers can be found assisting their grandchildren in rolling the noodles and sprinkling flour to keep the noodles from sticking.
Mary Mother of God Parish, Corpus Christi Fish Fry is open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. every Friday during lent, except Good Friday. The social hall is located at 803 Market St., McKeesport.*
West Wilmerding Volunteer Fire Dept.’s Fish Fry is open Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent (including Good Friday) from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., or until they are sold out. The department is located at 330 Kline Ave., North Versailles Twp.
Emily Pidgeon is a freelance writer from McKeesport. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* — Editor's Note: Corpus Christi did not have a fish fry on Ash Wednesday. This story was corrected after publication.
Originally published February 26, 2020.