by David Cecelski
Tonight I was happy to stumble onto a Lenten fish fry at St. Thomas More Catholic Church and School in Chapel Hill. I had just visited a friend at UNC Cancer Hospital and was on my way home. Almost immediately after I turned north onto 15-501, I saw the sign for the fish fry. I did a quick U-turn and headed for the parochial school’s cafeteria in search of both a good meal and a little good cheer.
It’s one of the nice things about Friday nights this time of year: you can often find a fish fry at your local Catholic church. The Knights of Columbus, a men’s fraternal group, usually organizes them as a church fundraiser–and, of course, a fish fry also makes it a little easier to abstain from eating meat on Fridays, as Catholics are called to do during the 40 days of Lent.
The popularity of Lenten fish fries has been growing with the astonishing rise in the number of Catholics here over the last 15 or 20 years. They’ve long been a seasonal ritual in the heavily Catholic Upper Midwest and Great Lakes states. As large numbers of Catholics move here from the northern states, the tradition of holding Lenten fish fries has come with them.
At most Lenten fish fries, a thickly battered fried white fish and a few simple side dishes are standard fare, but some churches really go all out. At St. Mary Magdalene’s in Apex, for one, the Father H. Charles Mulholland Council of the Knights of Columbus serves not just fried haddock, but also shrimp, New England clam chowder, and sometimes scallops.
(Father Charlie Mulholland, by the way, was a saint of man, and had a lion’s heart to boot. He was the long-time priest at St. Michael’s in Cary, but I’ll never forget how he courageously supported striking black workers in his small-town parish in little Washington in the 1970s.)
While most are less ambitious, a few of the state’s Catholic churches hold a fish fry every Friday during Lent. When I did a quick internet search, I found weekly Lenten fish fries at Our Lady of the Highways in Thomasville, St. Ann’s in Fayetteville, St. Dorothy’s in Lincolnton, St. John the Baptist in Tryon, St. Joseph’s in Kannapolis, St. Luke’s in Mint Hill, St. Matthew’s in Charlotte, St. Michael the Archangel in Cary, St. Raphael the Archangel in Raleigh, and St. Therese’s in Mooresville.
While not a church, VFW Post 7288 in Calabash, in Brunswick County, also serves a popular fried haddock and homemade clam chowder dinner every Friday during Lent.
When I visited St. Thomas More, I also prayed the Stations of the Cross for the first time in decades. I guess I was still thinking about my friend at the hospital. In addition to taking in a fish fry, many devout Catholics pray the Stations of the Cross on Fridays during Lent.
Also known as the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows, the Stations of the Cross is an ancient rite, dating back at least to the 12th century. The Stations mark Jesus’ path from the time of his condemnation to death to the time when his followers laid his body in the tomb.
At St. Thomas More, the prayers and hymns left us, at the end of the Stations of the Cross, at Jesus’ darkest hour. There was no ending really: the music just stopped, the church grew silent, the lights dimmed, then went out, and we were left to walk out into the night in the dark. To me it’s always been one of the most powerful moments in the Catholic liturgy.