Wednesday, February 27, 2013
I grew up near a tiny northeast Missouri town named St. Patrick.
Back then, St. Patrick, population 53, was a real town complete with two general stores, a gas station, church, rectory, school, convent and 10 or 12 houses. An Irish-Catholic community, life in St. Patrick centered around the church and school.
Every community function, church-connected or not, was held in the parish hall in the church basement. And at nearly all of those functions the women of the parish cooked and served a meal.
If the function was one to which admission was charged, such as the St. Patrick’s Day dance, a portion of the money taken in through the sale of tickets was used to pay for the meat, but in other instances the women simply donated the food they prepared. But, in all instances, the meal was cooked right there in the church’s kitchen.
The preparations would begin weeks in advance when the women’s organization, The Daughters of Isabella, would assign tasks to parish members. Some women would be expected to clean and decorate the hall; others would be asked to handle the necessary shopping; several would be assigned specific dishes to prepare, while others would handle the cleanup. We high school girls would act as waitresses.
At each meal, there were always at least two kinds of meat, three or more vegetables, a large variety of salads, gravies and sauces, dinner rolls and so many kinds of desserts that it was impossible to sample them all.
The meals were always served cafeteria style with the parishioners forming a line that snaked around the outside walls of the hall.
Some of us high school girls were stationed at the end of the serving line to provide diners a choice of coffee, iced tea, lemonade or water. The rest of us would refill glasses or fetch second helpings of various favorites.
When everyone had eaten their fill and the dishes were returned to the kitchen, the men of the parish would fold up the tables, line the chairs around the perimeter of the room and sweep the floors.
The women would be in the kitchen cleaning up, and we girls would be given our freedom to get ready for the second part of the evening.
The parish was made up of about 200 households including men, women and children. Some of the households included an extra woman or two, such as a grandmother or maiden aunt, which meant there were only about 40 or 50 women to handle these functions. But they handled them very well indeed and still do.
Even though the parish now has fewer than 100 members, just last spring when my mother passed away, those women cooked and served a complete meal to the more than 100 family members and dozens of friends who attended her funeral. And I have no doubt they will continue to do the same on each holiday and every other time there is a need so long as the parish exists.