St. Louis church taps into Mexican heritage for Lent

Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Christian Gooden ~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Laura Avila, left, piles flautas on a serving platter Feb. 27 as Alejandra Maria Trujillo and Ramiro Rojas prepare a pan for chiles rellenos at St. Cecelia in St. Louis. They were among the kitchen crew preparing a Lenten meal at the Roman Catholic parish.

ST. LOUIS — The cafeteria kitchen at St. Cecilia is packed shoulder to shoulder with more than two dozen volunteers working assembly-line style to prepare food for a crowd of 600 or more.

It's Lent, which means Friday fish-fry season, a tradition that goes back decades for this and dozens of other parishes and institutions across the metropolitan area.

As with those other fish fries, a special aroma is in the air. Here, however, it's not the smell of seafood in the deep fryer — it's the scent of poblano chiles roasting over an open flame.

"Sure, we have cod, jack salmon and shrimp, like just about everyone else," said Heather Sieve, an administrative assistant in the parish office and one of the coordinators of the fish fry. The rest of the entrees, however, reflect the Mexican heritage of the majority of St. Cecilia's parishioners.

The roasted chiles end up as chiles rellenos, whole chiles stuffed with cheese, or are chopped up and added to potatoes in fillings for tacos. Other entrees include vegetable flautas, handmade tortillas rolled around a potato and tomato filling and fried, and fried quesadillas made from the fresh tortillas.

"The recipes come from our families," said Marta Torres, a parishioner who helps coordinate the prepping and cooking. "It's what we've always eaten on Fridays during Lent, so everybody knows how to make them."

The chiles rellenos are a point of pride for the cooking crew. Starting each Thursday evening, they char vast numbers of poblanos six to eight at a time on each of 16 gas burners on the cafeteria's industrial stoves. Next, a line of workers skin and seed the chiles and cut a lengthwise slit in each. They stuff the peppers with Mexican and mozzarella cheese, then dredge them in flour. On Friday evening, the poblanos are dipped in an egg bath and fried.

St. Cecilia has been a parish since 1906; its current church was built in 1928. It has held both English and Spanish Masses since 1993, and in 2005 was named a "personal" parish, which means it has no specific geographic boundaries. Its primary role is serving the Hispanic community in south St. Louis, although it continues to have Hispanic and non-Hispanic members and holds English and Spanish masses.

St. Cecilia revived its fish fry last year after a seven-year hiatus.

"The Mexican fish fry started as an idea to bring our parish community closer together," said the Rev. William Vatterott, the pastor, who's been with the parish for about a year and a half. Work on the fish fry is a boisterous, joyous, multilingual affair, with a cross-section of ethnicities in the kitchen. Requests and conversations are carried out in English and in Spanish and frequently translated on the fly.

The parish held a Mexican fish fry three times last year.

"People would come and then come back with their friends," Vatterott said. "By the third one, we were packed."

This year, the fish fries are being held from 4:30 to 8 p.m. every Friday in Lent except for Good Friday, April 10.

In addition to community-building and fundraising, Vatterott has ulterior motives.

"It's great just for getting people in the door," Vatterott said. "Whenever I can, I tell people how successful we've been in getting our school's kids into high school this year — we were 19 for 19. I also tell everyone how beautiful the church is."

The fish fry is served in the somewhat-ramshackle school gym, where on other days St. Cecilia's teams practice basketball on mismatched vinyl-tile floors with shuffleboard courts at the end. A net is suspended from the ceiling, probably designed to protect the ceiling tiles but occasionally diverting the course of high-arching shots.

The adjacent church, however, has recently been renovated, including replacement of much of the extensive marblework on the altar. The stained glass is striking, and Vatterott said that the church's interior has more mosaics than any other local church except the New Cathedral. As awareness of the church has increased, Vatterott said, so has its popularity for weddings.

Back in the gym, diners end their meals by choosing from the offerings on a long table laden with desserts. Earlier on Friday, a 12-inch-diameter homemade flan had arrived in the kitchen, but no sign of it remained an hour or so into dinner. What's left was mainly angel food cake, cookies and a few pieces of pie, along with lots of gooey butter cake.

"We ask the parents to bring the desserts, so whatever shows up shows up," said Sieve, who spends most of the evening at the cash register. Dozens of students from the school work the room, delivering the meals to the tables and clearing them promptly when diners finish, politely asking them they enjoyed their meals.

"Some people tell us we should add mostaccioli," quips Vatterott, naming a fish-fry favorite not found on the St. Cecelia's menu. "But I think what we do offer has made us such a unique destination."

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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