On Friday afternoons and evenings during the season of Lent, many Catholic schools and organizations in Nebraska hold fish fries that help raise money, but more importantly, create a sense of community.
And that’s something that’s been missing ever since the pandemic.
“Losing our fish fry hurt our community on a personal, social, emotional, spiritual level, as well as the financial level,” said Maureen Hoy, principal at Mary Our Queen Catholic School in Omaha.
But the fish fries are back this year, and churches and schools are packing them in during Lent, which for Catholics, is the period for penance, suggested by Christ’s 40 days in the desert. Fish fries, which are open to anyone, are popular for those who follow the Lenten rule of not consuming meat on Fridays.
Although raising money through fish fries for the parishes is critical, the importance of bringing people together can’t be stated enough, said Steve Wallingford, who helps at Lincoln’s St. John the Apostle Catholic Church, which offers a drive-through fish fry every Friday of Lent, except Good Friday.
“The purpose of our fish fry is not to make money,” Wallingford said. “We (the Knights of Columbus) decided to bring the parties closer together to create a family atmosphere. We include everybody in our fish fries.”
At St. John’s, like many parishes, the Knights of Columbus organize the fish fries. Wallingford said he decided to join the Knights after he saw the impact that the organization had and has been helping put on St. John’s fish fry for 15 years.
“I just saw how much service work they do for the community and for the Church and for other communities,” Wallingford said. “It was really an eye-opener for me so I joined and have been pretty active ever since.”
The history and tradition of fish fries in Nebraska is one thing that makes them special, according to Downey Fitzgerald, president of the Holy Name Men’s Club, which puts on the popular Holy Name fish fry in north Omaha.
“I grew up going to Holy Name’s fish fry since I was a toddler,” he said. “It’s the parish my father grew up in. In 2004 I moved back to Omaha from Washington, D.C., and I would attend them as a patron. Around 2005, I decided I’d start volunteering instead of just going for fun.”
Holy Name, located at 2901 Fontenelle Boulevard, was one of the first churches to host a fish fry in the city.
“It is the first of its kind in Omaha,” Fitzgerald said. “In 1980 a group of Men’s Club members went to Carroll, Iowa’s parish to learn about their fish fry. They took what they learned and developed and shared it with many other parishes in town.”
Every fish fry is unique. The standard fare is fish, of course, which is most often fried, although some locations offer baked versions. The sides vary at locations and can include french fries, mac n’ cheese, and coleslaw. Some fish fries offer alcohol.
At Holy Name, Fitzgerald said, the atmosphere is like a tailgate.
“Before standing in line in the cafeteria, you get to bring your own booze and stand in line outside and throughout the hallways,” he said.
And that practice has set Holy Name’s fish fry apart.
“This is where we get known for the phrase ‘I Survived the Line,’” Fitzgerald said.
A large part of the crowds who attend fish fries includes an important group: school alumni.
Hoy, the principal at Mary Our Queen Catholic School who has worked there for 11 years, said she always appreciates seeing alumni.
“What I see happening now through Lent, especially after COVID, is our alum come back,” Hoy said. “I see the alumni coming back with their kids and parents. So that connection to their own story is pretty cool.”
The alumni help create a special atmosphere at Mary Our Queen, Hoy said.
“The sense of camaraderie and community is huge,” she said. “It’s gigantic.”