Church club's fish fry offers Lent on the go

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

On Fridays during Lent, just a little before 4 p.m., a line of cars starts to wrap around Inkster Road in Redford Township. It's not a line for a popular fast food chain, but the fish fry drive-thru at a local Catholic church.

The men's club at St. Robert Bellarmine and other parishes in Metro Detroit have taken more of an unconventional approach to reel in more customers for Friday fish fries during Lent.

St. Bellarmine has sponsored Friday fish fries for six years, but Jim Vote, organizer and member of the church's men's club, said this year's high demand led to the curbside service.

"With a gym that seats 400 and a to-go line for people unable to sit down, we still were not able to accommodate everyone," Vote said. "Then we thought, 'how cool would it be if we could do a drive-thru.' "

While most parishes offer carry-out options, some aren't thrilled with the loss of fellowship, sacrificed for instant gratification.

"I'm not crazy about the idea of a drive-thru fish fry. I feel that it takes the religious aspect out of everything," said Charles Pearson, member of Church of the Transfiguration for 11 years. "Sitting down gives you the opportunity to meet people and reflect on the true meaning of Lent."

Beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Saturday, Lent is a 40-day fast during which some Christians make personal sacrifices or volunteer their time. The 40 days represent the time Jesus spent in preparation for crucifixion. Fish fries are widely popular because of the tradition, still observed by some, of abstaining from meat on Fridays.

St. Ambrose Parish in Grosse Pointe Park and Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield are among the Metro churches with more traditional fish fries.

"Some people might not like the idea of the drive-thru, but traditionally you are still eating fish and honoring the fast," said Clifford Liptak II, St. Bellarmine men's club volunteer. "Many parishioners are unable to come in, this makes it more convenient for them."

"I saw the sign off Inkster and decided to try it on a whim," said Marland Gibson, who was the last drive-thru customer on a recent Friday evening. "This is better than stopping at a fast-food place and if the fish is good. I will be here next week."

Other area parishes partner with St. Bellarmine to buy the fish, but it takes the entire week to prepare for the Friday event.

"We start cooking and getting things ready on Sunday," Vote said. "Surprisingly, it's very organized in the kitchen. You have 30-40 guys back there and it's like a ballet. Things are running pretty smoothly."

By 5:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, two lines of cars wrapped around the street. By 6:40 p.m., one of the chefs yells out to notify volunteers that the macaroni and cheese is out and suggests the fish is dwindling, too.

"About a half hour before we open, there is (a) line out of the door. Even when it was really cold earlier in February, people still showed up," Don Cieglo, who volunteers with the men's club.

Fish fries can be a lucrative fundraiser, with some parishes bringing in up to $36,000 during Lent. Most of the money raised at St. Bellarmine is donated to the school and to offset the cost of summer camps for children.

Like the regulars at the local diner, there are regulars at the parish fish fry, including Tim Westfall, a St. Bellarmine member.

"It's a welcoming community to be a part of," Westfall said. "I usually come alone, but I always end up meeting a friend. The fish is good and it's fast service; you don't always get that at other fish fries."

Said Al Ledesma, volunteer and member of the men's club: "While taking the orders in the drive-thru, we usually create a dialogue about Lent. I might ask, 'do you know why we eat fish' or 'what does Lent mean to you?' It's not a get your fish and drive off type of place."

St. Ambrose Parish in Grosse Pointe Park decided on a more traditional approach, while implementing a fish fry that could rival the likes of any upscale restaurant.

The parish offers a sit-down dinner and for an additional fee, guests can sip on a glass of wine.

"It's a buffet dinner in our banquet hall," said Terri Harthen, office manager and member of St. Ambrose for more than 10 years. "Nothing too formal. We don't have a drive- thru, but we do offer carry-outs for people that are unable to sit down."

John Grden, president of the men's club at the Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield, said its fish fry is more about the fellowship than fish.

"It's partly a fundraiser, but we emphasize serving the community," he said. "We don't try and rush anyone out; we want people to stay and enjoy one another."

If people decide to sit down or carry-out, all three parishes offer baked fish as a healthier alternative to fried fish, plus side dishes. But most people still enjoy the traditional choice.

"Hands down, fried fish is still the most popular," Vote said. "You have a few people that want the baked fish, but at the end of the day, it's still a Friday fish fry."

(313) 222-1855

Fish fries

■St. Robert Bellarmine, 27101 W. Chicago, Redford Charter Township, MI 48239; 4-7 p.m.

■Saint Ambrose Parish, 15020 Hampton Street, Grosse Pointe Park, MI 48230; 5-9 p.m.

■Church of the Transfiguration, 25225 Code Road, Southfield, MI 48033; 5-7:30 p.m.