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Getting fishy on Fridays at St. Anthony Catholic Church

April 14, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — It’s not yet 5 p.m., and already people are lined up outside the door at St. Anthony Catholic Church, ready and waiting for the Friday fish fry that takes place each week during Lent.

In the kitchen, the volunteer staff has a less than precise method for determining just how many people to expect.

“Oh, you absolutely guess,” said Moya Doneghy, who’s been shepherding this process for 25 years.

They had 407 the first week this year, which is “almost unheard of,” she said. Another 454 showed up the second week.

“It’s not a restaurant anywhere in town that could come close to feeding that many people across the whole evening,” she said.

“This is what I say to people if they complain that they’ve waited. I’m saying, ’You know, you can wait 45 minutes just to get seated at Red Lobster. You’re talking about 45 minutes before you get your food — and, you know, we’re people that do this six weeks out of the year.”

A team of volunteers began the St. Anthony fish dinners back in the late ’70s.

“There are some old-timers still around,” but even they “can’t quite remember the exact year,” she said.

At first it was a fundraiser for the parish school, which is no longer in operation. Now it’s a fundraiser for the parish. But really, said Doneghy, it’s a community event.

“It is such an institution here on the West Side, and it is such a way of letting people know that St. Anthony’s is still here.”

Over the years, she said, repeat visitors have become accustomed to seeing neighbors and friends they rarely see. And those who come by themselves find easy conversations they wouldn’t get at a restaurant.

“They don’t just come to eat, they come to socialize,” she said. “In fact, the biggest problem is getting people to get up and leave and create some space for a table.”

The tradition began in the Christian tradition — primarily through the Catholic Church — hundreds of years ago, as a way to sacrifice during Lent.

“The real thing is that you don’t eat meat on Fridays, and so fish was allowable. So it became everybody eat fish on Fridays. But it doesn’t have to be fish. It just has to be not meat,” she said.

Doneghy refuses to give herself a title — “It’s really a group effort,” she insisted — but she allows that after a quarter century, “I make sure the kitchen happens.”

It is a massive undertaking. There is, she said, something to be done every single day, “whether it’s shopping, whether it’s meeting the truck, whether it’s doing laundry, whether it’s making all the mixes.”

She makes the breading for the fish, but after 25 years, she no longer scrubs the potatoes. “Somebody else does that, which is fabulous.”

The weekly dinners raise needed funds for the church. And sure, if someone comes for fish and decides they might like a different kind of nourishment, they would find a welcoming parish, said Doneghy. But the primary purpose, she said, is to serve the community in a way that strengthens its bonds, and creates a sense of belonging.

“This brings the community together,” she said, “in a way that I think not many things can.”

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Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.