"Lent is one of those periods when people actually do what they're supposed to," declares Gary Adamski, principal of St. Michael's Elementary School in Montpelier. Adamski is sitting in the parish hall of St. Augustine's on Barre Street in the Capital City. The occasion: the church's third annual Lenten fish dinner and fundraiser, with food prepared by NECI. Adamski's demeanor is jolly, but when he's asked whether Catholics these days are really giving up meat on Fridays, his tone turns vehement. "It's about sacrifice," he says. "It's just these 40 days that we're asked to do something special."
During the 40 days that lead up to Easter, Catholics are supposed to ready themselves for Jesus' death and resurrection through good works, penance and prayer. Doctrine also calls for a couple of special days of fasting and avoiding meat on Fridays. But the holy definition of "meat" differs from that of most vegetarians - seafood is still on the menu.
The fish dinner at St. Augustine's falls within the bounds of Catholic "abstinence." Because the money raised is donated to the school, diners' $8 contributions - $5 for kids - count as "good works." But with nearly 200 people in the parish hall, including a slew of chipper children bopping around the tables, the mood is anything but somber. Long, folding tables are decorated with colorful plastic "cloths" in teal, blue, orange, green and purple, and almost all the chairs are filled with happy, talkative eaters.
The bright red fruit punch and plates of appetizing home-style cooking don't exactly say penance and self-denial, either. The carrot-ginger-peanut-coconut soup has just the right amount of heat - though on some tables the bowls are left looking lonely and untouched. The main course consists of baked flounder. The fish is bland, but the lemon-butter crumb topping perks it up nicely. Peppery mashed potatoes, creamy coleslaw and a tender zucchini-carrot combo round out the offerings. Yum.
Among the diners enjoying the dinner are St. Augustine's parishioners Judy and Tom Lang, who own a Christmas tree farm in Worcester. Tom Lang spent a lot of time in this hall when he was a kid. He attended St. Mike's back in the days when the elementary school was located near the Statehouse. "We had to come here for hot lunch," he explains. "We probably walked half a mile every day." One of Lang's classmates, Patrick Leahy, would go on to spend a lot of time at the state office buildings.
Clearly enjoying the chance to relive his youth, Lang points out a framed photograph of Monsignor Crosby, who led the parish from 1921 to 1959 and was the driving force behind the now-defunct St. Mike's High School. Crosby was a quiet, shy man who loved to fish, according to Lang. "He'd give the kids the day off from school to hunt or trap," he adds. "They just needed a note from their parents."
Beverlee Pembroke Hill, Montpelier's assistant city manager and lobbyist, also has stories to tell. Another alumna of the St. Mike's school system, she's full of facts about the school's 100-year history. For example, the City of Montpelier and St. Mike's used to sell one particular school building back and forth for the sum of $1, depending on who needed it most. Finally, in 1938, Monsignor Crosby oversaw the construction of the building that is still used today for preschool through fifth grade.
Pembroke Hill notes that tuition at St. Mike's is $3000. According to Principal Adamski, the cost to educate each child is $6900: Fundraising makes up the difference. "The dinner has been raising between $500 and $1000 per week," Pembroke Hill reports - it runs all six weeks of Lent. Raffles, a golf tournament, a movie benefit and a host of other events raise thousands more. Pembroke Hill says all the work is worth it. Perhaps because of the "very structured environment" at the school, she claims, every single one of the kindergartners knows how to read.
They also know a little something about what it means to be a good Catholic, says Adamski - partly because they're required to attend mass every Friday. Last Friday, he relates, parish pastor Father Michael Augustinowitz asked a little boy at the front of the church what he was giving up for Lent. The youngster's reply? "Candy," Adamski says. "He understood the concept of sacrifice and preparation."
If diners at tonight's dinner are giving up nothing else for Lent, at least they're forgoing seconds. By 6:20, the room is clearing out fast. Barring a miracle, as when Jesus fed a crowd from a few loaves and fishes, the food has run out.
Among the kitchen staff packing up for the evening is William Koucky, the NECI chef on duty. Although he doesn't attend St. Augustine's, his children go to an after-school program at St. Mike's. For the past three years, he's volunteered his time to help make these dinners possible. NECI students, who are required to do community service, help out, too. While feeding around 170 people isn't bad with their usual staff of seven, tonight they had to make do with only two.
Despite his obvious fatigue, Koucky - who worked at prestigious Boston restaurants Olives and Cornucopia before he began teaching at NECI - seems pleased that he's able to help. "I'd rather give my time than money," he states. "I do things for my church, too." As for these dinners, he's "amazed at how popular they are. Food-wise," he says, "it's a very simple crowd." The soup changes each week, as do the vegetables, but everything else stays pretty much the same. Despite the repetition, "there are a dozen or so people - older folks - who come every time," Koucky says. "It's charming."
Maybe there's a certain primal appeal to periods of fasting or ascetic eating, whether you're a Catholic, a Buddhist or a localvore. But with NECI in the kitchen, penance is relatively painless.