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St. Cecilia's fish fry has a distinctively Mexican flavor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 3, 2010 - The line for food snaked around the inside of the gym at St. Cecilia School and finally came to an end outside the crowded room on a mild late-February Friday evening.

A trio playing traditional Mexican music moved from table to table to serenade the diners who had made it through the line and returned to sit with their plates full of enchiladas, chips with pico de gallo, and the event's signature dish, the one that brought in the masses -- chiles rellenos, or poblano chiles stuffed with cheese, dipped in an egg batter and fried.

Those still waiting for food hovered over the tables and looked longingly at the spreads. They watched a dance troupe wearing ornate outfits, and some spoke with the Rev. William Vatterott, the pastor of St. Cecilia Catholic Church, 5418 Louisiana, who as unofficial host of this Friday night bash alternated between making the rounds and making announcements using a cordless microphone.

Guests who had finished their meal -- or who had given up on the line -- found student volunteers to take them on tours of the century-old church next door to the gym. A few people even carried their food (wrapped up, of course) along with them on the tour.

This is the scene from roughly 4:30-8 p.m. every Friday during Lent at the south St. Louis church's Mexican Lenten fish fry. It is a celebration, like many across the city, of the Catholic tradition of meatless Fridays during this reflective time of year. (Our Lady of Guadalupe in north St. Louis County also offers Mexican dishes at its Lenten fish fry.)

But this event isn't your typical fish fry, as the preference for chile rellenos over fish indicates. It is, rather, a nod not only to St. Cecilia's predominantly Hispanic school and parish, but to the growing Hispanic community in St. Louis, many of whom are Catholics.

About a third of all Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, according to a recent study from the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life. The archdiocese of St. Louis has designated St. Cecilia as one of two so-called "personal parishes" for Hispanics, meaning that it attracts Latinos from across the region and conducts services in Spanish.

Parroquia Santa Cecilia, as the parish is known to many of its Hispanic members, typically holds two Masses each week in English and two in Spanish. Mexican-Americans have joined the parish in droves, and the average age of a St. Cecilia parishioner is 35, Vatterott said. Of roughly 140 baptisms last year, nearly all were for Hispanic members. And over the last two years the school has increased from roughly 125 to 190 students, with Hispanic students driving that growth.

Yet the weekly fish fries attract a diverse crowd. Dozens of church members and volunteers, easily identified by their bright T-shirts, work the room during the meet-and-eat event. But the majority of people filling the gym on this Friday were not Hispanic, and many didn't belong to the church.

The bilingual Vatterott, who comes every week to the fish fry, said that while the event is "totally chaotic," it's worth it to see guests come into the city and get a taste of what's happening at the parish.

"They see the kids working, and they see the traditions and different parts of Latino culture they can celebrate," Vatterott said. "It's only through experiential knowledge that walls are broken down."

Added Edgar Ramirez, pastoral associate for the Hispanic ministry: "We're a mostly Latino community, and the church is a place for Latinos to feel welcome. The Mexican fish fry is our way of telling the non-Latino community that St. Cecilia is a welcoming place. We use this as an example to show the presence of Latinos. Especially in an environment like Missouri where it can be hard to be an immigrant, this is an event that's shows it's OK to be who you are."

It seems hard now to believe that the Mexican fish fry, which is both a publicity dream and a revenue generator, isn't a long-running institution at the parish. But prior to 2008, there was no such event -- the church had long taken a break from hosting any type of fish fry.

The idea to start a new fish fry tradition and incorporate food familiar to many Hispanic parishioners surfaced more than two years ago during a dinner at the home of Marta Torres, a St. Cecilia School parent.

Ramirez, who was at that dinner, recalls asking Torres what was served at fish fries in Mexico. Her answer was definitive: While the fish fry isn't necessarily a popular tradition there, "chiles rellenos is the most popular dish in Mexico for Lent. It's something we could identify with if we served it here."

Torres mentioned her affinity for the meatless dish and shared her family's recipe, which is now used to make batch after batch of chiles rellenos during the fish fry. Ramirez said church volunteers went from preparing 150 chiles on any given Friday two years ago to preparing more than 800 on the last Friday of last year. Among the other popular items served at the event are enchiladas, quesadillas and a few fish fry standbys -- cod and salmon.

Ramirez said the event started slowly two years ago, but the crowds began to swell last year, when in a single evening the fish fry attracted more than 1,000 people.

Some of the non-paying attendees include adults who belong to the parish and who volunteer to cook in the kitchen and sell T-shirts to guests. Students from the school are among the dancers. And on this Friday, the church tour guides were 7th graders preparing for their confirmations.

Those guides included Alex Sanchez, Paola Osorio, Dakota McCaine and Joel Wilper. They took turns using a laser pointer to note different elements of the church's interior. Their enthusiasm for the job could hardly be contained -- the guides often politely interrupted each other as they explained historic references and church traditions.

McCaine said he enjoys showing people the church and playing a role in persuading them to book private events there. Vatterott said eight couples who have gone on the tour have later booked the venue for a wedding.

Osorio said she enjoys sharing with visitors what she has learned from Father Vatterott and her teachers about Catholicism and the historic St. Cecilia church. She also said she looks forward to her Friday servings of chiles rellenos.

Wilper said it was his first time at the fish fry and said he was surprised how many people were waiting in line. "It's bigger than Six Flags," McCaine quickly announced.

Vatterott knows that the fish fry has quickly become a popular addition to the calendar.

"When I asked first graders recently what season just started, I wanted the answer to be Lent," he said. "Instead, what I got was, 'It's fish fry season.'"

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