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Fish fry, with a side of social distancing

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Stations of the Cross were canceled.  The first Eucharist retreat was canceled. The auction gala was canceled. Youth volleyball clinics were canceled. School was closing at least through April 10 — all to try to stem the spread of the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19.

But volunteers at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna already had bought a few hundred pounds of fresh Alaskan cod, shrimp, oysters and other supplies for Friday’s OLGC Parish Community Lenten Fish Fry, a popular and much-anticipated event. The show had to go on.

And it did — in brown paper bags. The sweet Lenten incense of frying fish filled the air around the parish hall March 13 — but dinners were packed up in cartons and sent out the door.

As churches across the country debated just how far to go to prevent community transmission of the new coronavirus (some had halted all public worship services, others had not), Our Lady of Good Counsel kept calm and carried on — or rather, carried out — heeding health recommendations, but still feeding its sheep.

(On March 16, the parish announced that it is canceling the fish fry series for the remainder of Lent, due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.) 

For the past three years, about 300 people have packed into the church hall for the fish fry, which has been held every Friday during Lent except Good Friday, said Irene Zaso, director of communications for the parish. But carry-out dinners were already an option, and an online menu and ordering system were up and running on the merchant services site Square, linked to the parish website. 

About 75 parishioners of all ages, groups and ministries across the parish community showed up to volunteer, working as fryers, packers and dishwashers in cheery yellow T-shirts, hats and latex gloves. 

A total of 789 seafood entrees were sold in 309 transactions. About half of the orders were placed online; the other half were in person from 4 to 7 p.m., extended hours due to the new circumstances, Zaso said. Not all were parishioners: “One family was riding their bikes nearby and smelled fish frying; they came in and wondered if they could get some food,” she said. “They were very excited.”

With good reason. There was crispy hand-dipped, deep-fried cod, baked cod, fried shrimp, fried oysters, coleslaw and mac and cheese; rice was contributed by the Filipino community and beans were made by the Hispanic community. Cheese pizza was available, and parishioners donated homemade desserts. 

Prominent signage reminded parishioners that dinner was carryout only and directed them to various stations around the hall to place orders, pick up their packages or get drinks. Tables were set up so people could sit and get a drink while waiting. Plenty of space was available for the recommended social distancing. 

“We’re not encouraging them to linger,” Zaso said. The scene was very different from those at previous fish fries; online photos from dinners in 2018, for example, showed the parish hall packed with people of all ages seeking fish and fellowship. 

Parishioner Pat Berney showed up for the fish fry this Friday as he has for the past few years; he was safely camped out in the middle of the room with his newspaper spread out on a table as he waited for his fish, which reliable sources say is the best in the area. 

The Friday fish fry reminds him of summers spent visiting relatives as a kid in Kansas, where church suppers were a big deal. But this event isn’t just for socializing.

Yes, it promotes fellowship within the community, and the Friday fish fry during Lent is a beloved part of Catholic culture. The event mobilizes volunteers across the parish and helps raise funds for church programs. But it’s about much more than that, said Berney, a longtime Boy Scout commissioner. He points across the room, where young teens worked side by side with parish adults — learning lessons about teamwork, responsibility and community values.  

“There’s more than one thing happening here,” he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020