By Joe Lee
MADISON – Parishioners at St. James Parish of Leland were greeted in a recent church bulletin with this sobering news regarding their annual parish fair:
“The council felt that it was in the best interest of the community to postpone the upcoming fair. Without it, we will have substantial loss of income. Discussion was held regarding ways to offset this loss. Any contributions will be greatly appreciated. Please mark your contributions ‘Parish Fair.’”
A tiny Mississippi Delta town with a population of less than 4,000, Leland is in an economically-depressed area to begin with, and this month’s cancellation of St. James’ biggest annual fundraiser — which debuted in 1933 — was not an easy decision to make. While health and safety concerns came first, the loss of the event puts the parish in a significant financial hole.
“We (usually) serve about 800 spaghetti plates with meatballs, all homemade by the ladies of the church from a very old recipe,” said Debbie Ruggeri, St. James Parish secretary. “They’re served in the parish hall, where we also have a silent auction. The outside booths — a ribeye booth, a ham booth, a bingo booth, and teddy bear and fishing booths for children — usually handle about 1,000 people. Everything is donated.”
Raffle tickets are also sold, and those who purchase the highest-priced $100 tickets are competing for a $10,000 grand prize. Not only are the loyal parishioners of St. James missing the badly-needed fellowship opportunities amid the pandemic, the gaps in the parish budget will be felt for some time.
St. James is not alone. At St. Joseph of Gluckstadt, Germanfest has been a September staple since the 1980s and draws crowds of 10,000. Attendees drive in from neighboring states as well as all corners of Mississippi.
“The family-oriented festival is best known for its delicious German food, including bratwurst, shish kabobs, and homemade sauerkraut,” said Pam Minninger, St. Joseph lay ecclesial minister. “Visitors also look forward to participating in the beer stein-holding contest and authentic German Folk music and dancing.
“A significant amount of the proceeds is donated to local charities. Hopefully we will be able to absorb the shortfall and still be able to support some of these charities this year.”
With no way of knowing what the pandemic restrictions on large groups will be from month to month, St. James has postponed their parish fair until early 2021 and are having initial discussions about possibly having a modified event. Likewise, talks are underway at St. Joseph about cooking up a small-scale Germanfest.
“We are anticipating, at some point after the first of the year, possibly having some type of take-out bratwurst meal that folks can come by and pick up,” Minninger said. “That way they can get their ‘German food fix.’”
Cajun Fest at nearby St. Francis of Assisi in Madison is that parish’s largest fundraiser and features mouthwatering Cajun delicacies and lots of family-friendly fun. With an extensive facilities overhaul and building campaign underway, the cancellation of this year’s event (already delayed from May until October) will leave a deep shortfall in parish fundraising. St. Francis will go virtual, however, in an effort to make back at least some of the losses.
“We will host live the drawing of our annual raffle associated with Cajun Fest at 2 p.m. on October 4,” said Father Albeenreddy Vatti, St. Francis of Assisi pastor. “We chose this date because it is Feast Day for St. Francis, our patron saint. Annually, we celebrate this day with an event, A Taste of St. Francis. It is a time we can gather and celebrate the many cultures that make up our parish with great food and music.”
One of the more disheartening cancellations is the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration at Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksdale. Because of pandemic concerns, the small parish hasn’t yet reopened for services and, without the anniversary event, must find other ways to raise money to fund facility upgrades and insurance payments on the church building.
“It has been customary that a fun gathering with a cookout or soul food dinner is planned during the week of the anniversary,” said Father Raju Macharla, Immaculate Conception pastor. “In January the members met to plan a jubilant celebration, and plans were made for a Mass with a reception planned for Sept. 5 to coincide with Bishop Joseph Kopacz’s trip to Mound Bayou that evening.
“One of the highlights would have been to visit with former teachers, students, sisters, priests, and parishioners. We had already started reminding them to save the date and have received regrets and disappointments since the pandemic has occurred.”
Catholic Charities also lost their annual Journey of Hope fundraising luncheon to COVID-19, but the organization — thanks in part to the flexibility of keynote speaker Elizabeth Smart — is back on the calendar for early 2021.
“We’re still at the Jackson Convention Complex and set for February 25,” said Michael Thomas, Catholic Charities development director. “We would have seated ten to a table and will now seat six, but we will have more available tables. Everyone will wear masks to enter and exit unless the mask order has been lifted by then.
“At the meet-and-greet the evening before, we’ll have a book signing with Elizabeth, a paid event at 6 p.m. at a location that has yet to be determined. Her story covers so much of what we do at Catholic Charities in our counseling: kidnapping, rape, domestic violence, and abuse. She is wonderful to work with and has such a strong faith in God.”
Thomas said that a Peer to Peer social media campaign will launch Sept. 15 to begin recouping the loss of funding from this month’s Journey of Hope cancellation. Football coach Lou Holtz drew nearly 1,000 attendees in 2016, and hopes are high that Smart, who was abducted from her Utah family home in 2002 at the age of fourteen before being rescued nine months later, will pack the convention complex in February.
Ultimately, while some events can’t be recreated — Immaculate Conception will never have another seventy-fifth anniversary — many parishes and organizations are thinking creatively and trying to find silver linings in preparing for the future.
“We normally have our Bishop’s Ball each year, and this year we had a virtual event,” Thomas said. “It was a great success and touched more people than the usual ones. We had the live auction online a week before, and everything sold — we were shocked. Wanda Thomas is our new executive director and hosted the hour-long event on Facebook. We were faced with either no Bishop’s Ball or thinking of another way.”
By Joe Lee