FONTANA — It’s not Sunday, and it’s not Christmas, but the parking lot at St. Benedict Catholic Church is packed.
Cars are parked along the edge of the grass and squeezed in every inch of space on the corner of Dewey Street and Valley View Drive.
Inside, the church is comfortably packed full of people as well.
People sit in church pews deciding on one thing: baked or fried.
Friday nights during Lent, St. Benedict hosts its famous fish fry.
Parish Council Vice Chairman Kevin Clifford said the church’s fish fry is so popular because it’s not held year-round.
“There are a limited number of them during the year, so people really enjoy it more,” he said.
There are seven Fridays in Lent, a 46-day penitential Christian holiday, which starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. St. Benedict has hosting the fish fry down to a science.
“I think that’s a part of why there’s no competition,” Clifford said. “We’ve been doing this for a while, we know how it works. Our volunteers come in and act like it’s their kitchen. They know what to do.”
None of the other area Catholic Churches, including St. Francis de Sales in Lake Geneva, St. Andrew the Apostle in Delavan or St. Patrick in Elkhorn, host fish fry dinners over Lent.
Clifford credits the volunteers for making the fish fry a success every week.
“We have an awful lot of help,” he said.
Clifford said the area Boy Scout troop, Open Arms Free Clinic, the Fontana Fire and Rescue Department, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the faith formation committee and the human concerns committee all benefit from volunteering at the events.
“The money that comes in goes to the group that’s volunteering that night,” he said.
A short history
Clifford said he thinks the weekly church-hosted fish fry started in 1999.
“We think it was then,” he said. “It really started with the Boy Scouts.”
Clifford said much of the records about the fish fry aren’t kept when new parish council members take over.
Mary Mansfield, a parishioner, has been volunteering at the fish fry for 10 or 12 years. She can’t remember when she started either.
“I spent 26 years serving food at Big Foot and Walworth schools,” she said while taking a break from her supervisory role at the fish fry. “I just like being involved with these types of things.”
Mansfield said she gets to the church at about 2 p.m. on fish fry days.
“There are so many things to make sure happen,” she said. “I help get everything ready.”
And while she needs to take breaks to get off her feet, she doesn’t see herself ever giving up her volunteering.
“I want to volunteer as long as I can,” Mansfield said. “I’m hoping to continue it for a while.”
Her favorite item on the menu? The baked fish.
“I love the fish,” she said. “There’s a secret recipe, and no we can’t tell you. There are recipes for both the baked and the fried fish.”
Carrie Vorpagel, the parish’s bookkeeper, coordinates all the volunteers.
“I really don’t have to do much,” she said. “All of the volunteers just come out and help.”
The fish fry averages about 750 people per night, and revenue from all the fish fry nights are divided equally among the volunteer groups.
“I also wanted to mention that we use only Icelandic Cod,” Vorpagel said. “This is an important detail in the world of cod.”