SCRANTON — What is a parish to do when a global pandemic greatly upsets its long-standing fundraisers, especially those involving food?
Faithful members of parishes throughout the Diocese of Scranton have proven themselves quite innovative and resilient in the face of COVID-19, because after all, the sales must go on.
“When the pandemic hit, everyone’s first reaction was to survive,” Paulette Merchel, co-facilitator of the Women’s Guild at the culturally rich Parish of Saints Peter & Paul nestled in Scranton’s West Side, related. “That meant stocking food, securing masks, washing every vegetable purchased and washing hands incessantly.”
“We found a rhythm to our new lifestyle,” Merchel said of the intimate, close-knit parish rooted in Polish-Catholic traditions and one that, despite its lack of size, continues to be a dynamic beacon of faith and activity for the surrounding community.
Merchel recalled a meeting on July 8 that she and fellow Women’s Guild facilitator Paulette Burton organized to address the situation created by the coronavirus. “With heavy hearts we crossed off all of the events that would not meet safety requirements.”
That meant the suspension of popular pierogi and hoagie sales and a basket raffle, which translated into the curtailment of parish fellowship that was historically enjoyed without much thought.
“After some prayer we had to accept two caveats,” Merchel said. “We’re not going to be able to raise a typical amount of money, but we will do our best and be grateful for the results, and we have to accept change and creatively redesign a calendar without some of the traditions and expectations.”
The determination and generosity of parishioners and friends have resulted in tremendous success for Saints Peter & Paul’s “pandemic activities,” according to Merchel.
Based on the model of minimal gathering, the parish doubled the output for its “Blessing Bag” project, providing sample-size self-care products for the homeless and an increased number of coats collected for those in need.
The Advent sales of pierogi and soup gave way to an authentic Christmas Cookie Sale, featuring homemade baked goods carefully prepared in the personal kitchens of parishioners. A take-out meatless soup sale, offering clam chowder and one specialty soup following the weekend Masses during Lent, is currently replacing the traditional Lenten pierogi sales.
“Brian Rogers, our soup chef, manages it with a handful of helpers in the kitchen,” Merchel remarked.
She continued by referring to the Women’s Guild as the organizational engine that drives the many events indicative of the thriving soul of an aging parish.
“With the help of all parishioners, we handle the administrative facet of the parish’s activities,” emphasizing the ministerial pillars of community and service, she said. “We have a tremendous labor force, both men and women alike. I just serve as one of the organizers.”
At Saint Maria Goretti Parish in Laflin, the time-honored homemade pasta & sausage dinner has been coveted and enjoyed by parishioners and supporters for more than 40 years; however, it never experienced anything like it did in 2020.
Last year at this time, the March version of the popular Italian-style dinner, which the parish serves twice annually in the spring and fall, was all set for dine-in and take-out service. Then the coronavirus outbreak took hold.
Saint Maria Goretti had to adapt rapidly, shifting gears to provide a take-out-only option for a dinner fundraiser that traditionally sells 1,000 tickets.
Mary Ann Schmitt, who has served on the parish staff for the past 15 years recalled, “Our walk-in business was certainly hurt by it, but people were very understanding and the take-out dinner went very well.”
The parish, consequently, was much more prepared for the all-take-out dinner held again in the fall, which still resulted in more than 800 to-go meals being sold.
Schmitt credited a cooperative effort on everyone’s part to create a smooth transition from the well-known dine-in event.
“Our volunteers who have been putting the dinner on for years were wonderful,” she remarked. “They came up with their own system and answered the challenge.”
This year’s pasta/sausage fundraiser on March 21 will also offer the ever-popular basket raffle that is being added to “pick up the slack” since the parish’s annual craft show and purse bingo are currently suspended due to the pandemic.
Parishioners and volunteers at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Tannersville successfully navigated the COVID-19 waters to prepare 3,000 pierogi for a pre-Lenten take-out sale with all the safety guidelines in place.
“It was interesting to see our folks come in with all their coverings to guard against the virus and stay separated as they prepared the food,” Father Rich Czachor, pastor of Our Lady of Victory, remarked.
Shortly thereafter, the Pocono parish staged a successful take-out morning meal sale, featuring a breakfast sandwich and side of home fries to go. Father Czachor estimated about 80 patrons showed up for the drive-thru/pick-up event.
Our Lady of Victory is doing its part in providing meals for senior citizens, as the health crisis has closed many restaurants or has kept older people from dining out as much.
“We put on a weekly luncheon for seniors every Thursday,” the pastor said of the program that features a different menu each week. “Folks pre-order and pick up their lunch. Donations are accepted but not required.”
The parish’s traditional “Italian Dinner” in April is once again being planned, but with this year’s version requiring pre-ordering and take-out only. According to Father Czachor, should the Our Lady of Victory summer bazaar be canceled for the second year in a row due to the pandemic, “the food sales will go on” following all of the proper precautions.
“The process for all of these events has changed,” he said, “but the important thing is that we are still getting people together. Parishioners have also donated greatly for these causes, so I think the pandemic has really brought about goodness, generosity and more of a willingness to help.”