Milwaukee’s “Friday Fish Fry”

St. Sebastian, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

St. Sebastian, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Around 4:15 p.m. on a Friday afternoon the commotion begins.  All the grade school children have already assembled wearing their bright T-Shirts that announce the evening’s event.  The cooking (or more correctly frying) began hours earlier as these oldsters leave work early for their monthly, volunteer duty at a local Catholic church.

Beaming, smiling faces surround the grade school cafeteria where the lunch tables and chairs are lined up and were designed for those under seven-years-old instead of the crowd that is about to flow in tonight.

Everybody knows their job except me.  The kids are all prepped and ready to go thanks to the volunteering adults who govern the swapping of children throughout the event to keep them fresh.  The cashier sits at the entrance with a real cash register along with two other volunteers who escort the folks to their tiny tables and chairs.  By day, the hostess is probably an executive at a public relations firm but tonight her job is to welcome, escort and make sure the visitors are all satisfied.

I’m told that my job is very important but it’s difficult to feel significant looking at a cart.  Each item on the cart is explained to me and all involves pouring.  The tease-dessert selections on the bottom shelve is as savvy as the clothing store with its discounts upon entrance.  (I’m told that most buy from the dessert station in the back but some will purchase from me as well.  This proves true.)

Some already know, some needed time to remember, others didn’t care while others were scared to acknowledge that I was a priest.  I didn’t care because tonight my job was this cart.  (If you fail at carting what else is there?)

The excitement of the volunteers is slowly matched by the approaching patrons on this cold Friday night.  They know they have many fish fry choices in Milwaukee but St. Sebastians stands out after 34 years.  Every detail is attended to by these newbie eyes.  Signs clearly marked, favorable beer of the month as well as others is offered and table numbers to remember who’s who.  My job is half the room although I chose the wrong half at the start.  (Can volunteers claim turfdom?)

As the crowd grows, my responsibilities increase.  How much water can one table consume?  How much skim milk can this old man drink?  My task this evening is not to answer these piercing questions but merely to keep pouring.  I overhear conversations that I wish to participate in but cannot.  I see people I recognize from Sundays’ pews but cannot stop because the pouring must continue.  (Ever have a tiny grade school kid tell a priest that table 18 is still waiting for their milk?  I’m glad I have a day job.)

Smoking breaks were few. (I’m looking to unionize with the cart guy from the other half of the room.)
6:00-6:30 p.m. was the busiest with all these people willing to trug through February’s weather for some highly-fried and disproportionately-carbohydrated menu (but a great salad bar) that completes Milwaukee’s Friday night ritual.

My back begins to hurt from the bending and pouring but 7:30 p.m. is surely coming, so I keep telling myself.  Meanwhile, the beaming smiles and friendly faces from these people I give communion to keeps working until my end-time which is when I meet a face that I see in church each week.  (There’s even more to this?)  This is the “clean-up” guy who joins others to spend two more hours cleaning up after I leave.  (I thought preparing a three minute sermon was tough…)

The still-beaming hostess thanks me for making people smile that evening.  I guess I made them smile.  She tells me that this carbohydrate-laden meal is available for me as well.  I take her up on her offer, return home and smile at the work that I normally do not do but truly enjoyed.

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About Rev. Joe Jagodensky, SDS.

A Roman Catholic priest since 1980 and a member of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians). www.Salvatorians.com. He is associate pastor of partnering parishes, Christ King and St. Bernard parishes in Wauwatosa, WI.
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