Longtime parishioners, newcomers alike drawn in by Lenten tradition; parishes say effort is worth it

SOUTHFIELD — By 6 p.m. on a Friday during Lent, the parish hall at the Church of the Transfiguration is full of diners, chatting with friends, family and strangers while enjoying a healthy helping of fish, mac and cheese, fries and camaraderie.

The Men’s Club of this Southfield parish has been running fish dinners for at least 30 years, according to chief cook and club president David Grden, first as St. Michael’s and then as the combined parish of the Church of the Transfiguration. “We keep the menu simple for the sake of our volunteers. The more options, the more it takes to make — and to serve everything,” said Grden with a heaping pan of battered cod for guests. He gets 10 to 12 faithful volunteers weekly.

“We come almost every Friday,” says Marie Beauchamp, a lifetime resident of Southfield and one of 10 children. Some of her brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren attend parish fish fries to fill out the circular table and catch up on all the family news. “This place is nostalgic for those of us who went to St. Michael’s when it was an elementary school. The first and second grade classrooms became the parish hall.”

At the Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield, the parish Men's Club has been running fish fries during Lent for almost 30 years.
Prices are just $10 for a full meal for adults, and $5 for children. 

Beauchamp and her husband Rick Beauchamp love to support their church, enjoy the food and catch up with people they see only briefly at Sunday Mass. Fr. Jeff Scheeler, OFM, the pastor for the past 14 months, serves up the mac and cheese at the buffet line and invites the Beauchamps and others to stay for the Stations of the Cross at 7:15.

“I can’t say we draw in new parishioners, but we bring people together, whether it be neighbors, non-Catholics and Catholics. We get a good turnout — 140 to 150 people a week,” Fr. Scheeler said. Over the course of six weeks, the church will raise $4,000 to $5,000, enough to fund projects all year round, including an Easter egg hunt and breakfast with Santa.

Fish fries are popular events all over the region. While the staple is often baked or battered cod, some offer pierogis, tilapia, shrimp, salmon, hush puppies, fish nuggets, pizza and fried dill pickles. Most are listed in Detroit Catholic's fish fry directory, with prices, menus and addresses.

Some parishes, such as St. Charles Lwanga in Detroit, only offer carry-out, some have private dining rooms for big families, some engage the Knights of Columbus to cook and serve the Friday meals and some have bake sales to augment dinner with take-home pierogis and desserts.

Fr. Jeremy Harrington, OFM, eats and talks with diners at the Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield. The Franciscan friars at Transfiguration can be found working the kitchen and the dining hall, using the opportunity to invite and engage Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

Sweetest Heart of Mary Church near Eastern Market in Detroit draws some of the best reviews on Yelp.com and fish fry devotees. 

“My wife and I started with a project to check out a whole bunch of Catholic fish fry offerings. We landed at Sweetest Heart of Mary and didn’t go any further. It’s a great crowd,” said Detroiter and University of Detroit Mercy history professor David Koukal.

“The church serves fish on three floors. They check you in with a tablet. Food is never just one thing. You’ll find fried pickles, baked cod, shrimp, pierogis, sometimes salmon. We talk with old-time parishioners who moved out to the suburbs and come back every Friday,” Koukal said. “Technically they don’t sell beer, but you can donate. They have cute kids selling dessert. One kid last week sang a song for us.”

Carol Marshall Lundberg insists Catholics offer the best fish fries. 

“We went to a place that wasn’t Catholic; the set-up was so messed up it took us two hours to be served,” she said. Her favorites include Church of the Transfiguration because $10 buys dessert, beverage and food, or Sweetest Heart of Mary because of the booming crowd.

At the Church of the Transfiguration, 10-12 volunteers step up weekly to prepare, cook and serve the food to hundreds of guests each Friday during Lent.

Prices are as diverse as the people attending. St. Faustina Parish in Warren offers an $8 pierogi dinner. St. Ambrose Parish in Grosse Pointe Park offers a full Lenten meal for $17.99. Only a few places are open on Good Friday, but Sweetest Heart of Mary will do so.

“Don’t wait until the last minute to go to a fish fry. We heard how good the carry-outs were at St. Charles Lwanga, but it was sold out by the time we got there,” Koukal warned.

What might be the best treat? St. Francis D’Assisi/St. Hedwig in Detroit will sell angel wings on Good Friday eve. As Fr. Scheeler says, “It is all good. Lent is a time of spiritual reflection and renewal.” 

Alas, the calories do count.

Fr. Jeffrey Scheeler, OFM, pastor of Transfiguration, waves from behind the counter at the parish hall.