Party time: Parish festivals return after 2020’s summer of discontent

A young boy smiles as he holds a mallet while preparing to play the “Frog Hop” game at Immaculate Conception Parish’s 47th annual Perch Festival in Ira Township on July 16. After most parishes canceled or severely scaled back festivals last summer, attendees are eager to resume the summer traditions this year. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

While spring festivals got too late a start this year, parishes planning late summer and fall events cherish return of a time-honored tradition

DETROIT — Parish festivals have been a staple of Catholic life in the Detroit area for decades. 

There’s the food, the dancing, the rides, the food, gathering with family and friends, the food, raising money for the parish.

Did we mention there’s food? 

After the coronavirus pandemic placed most parish festivals in the Archdiocese of Detroit on hold in 2020, and muted those it didn’t cancel, the time-honored tradition is roaring back this summer at many parishes, even as others opt to wait another year. 

Brian McClory, organizer of Sweetest Heart of Mary Church’s Pierogi Festival in Detroit, said after a subdued festival last year, this year’s event — Aug. 13-15 — will feel like years past. 

“The ‘Taste of the Pierogi Festival’ went very well last year, but the drawback was its size,” McClory told Detroit Catholic. “We served far fewer meals than we normally do. The most loyal patrons were there to get takeout. We also had our resale shop opened and had our grand raffle open.

Kids play carnival games at Immaculate Conception’s 47th annual Perch Festival in Ira Township on July 16. 

“But when we announced we’d be having the full festival this year, the reaction has been tremendous,” McClory added. “We have a dedicated Facebook page and had nearly 16,000 hits in the first day the flyer went up. People are anxious to get back out and have some fun.”

McClory said this year, the festival will feature nearly all the Polish fan favorites. 

“Most of our food offerings will be the same, and the big attraction will be a celebration of food and culture,” McClory said. “We’ll have the pierogi dinner, the Polish combination plate dinner, nalesniki — that’s Polish fruit-filled crêpes. We’ll also have more traditional American-style hot dogs and hamburgers and a tent with bands and a dance floor.”

While parishes that traditionally host their festivals later in the summer had the benefit of waiting to plan this year’s event, some spring festivals either had to be moved or tamped down this year because of the uncertainty related to the virus.

St. Isidore Parish in Macomb normally host its Strawberry Festival on the last weekend of June, but this year the parish settled for a Polish dinner on June 27 with a drive-thru option and no dine-in. Government restrictions were lifted too late to change plans, said festival chairman Mike Fontana.

A young girl pets a goat who seems more interested in her mother’s ice cream cone at Immaculate Conception’s Perch Festival. 

“After walking through the entire festival, we felt only the main raffle and dinner were things we could pull off with capacity restrictions” at the time the decision was made, Fontana said.

The Michigan government’s restrictions on gatherings formally ended June 1, which didn’t give the parish enough time to properly plan a festival, Fontana said.

“The governor made the change 30-45 days ago, and that’s not enough time for us to pivot and execute the entire festival on such a short notice with getting all the bands and tents ready,” Fontana said. 

McClory said Sweetest Heart of Mary started planning for the Pierogi Festival in May, providing enough time for the parish to organize what is far and away the largest annual fundraiser for the parish.

“It feels good, but a little stressful knowing we’re going to condense the amount of work we have to do in a shorter amount of time,” McClory said, adding in a normal year, work on planning the Pierogi Festival begins in September and October the year before. “But I was comfortable with the team we have in place now, the volunteer staff and the vendors who do all of this.”

Other parishes have completely forgone traditional festivals this year, opting instead of smaller outings with the parish family — a necessary change of pace after a year of lockdowns and social isolation.

A feature of Immaculate Conception’s Perch Festival is the annual perch fishing competition, which is open to kids, teens and adults.  

St. Linus Parish in Dearborn Heights, which normally hosts its Fall Festival in September, is instead hosting a series of smaller events throughout the summer, including a Walk-a-Thon and picnic on June 27, and a beer and wine tasting event on July 24, along with activities for children. 

The parish still will host an event Sept. 11-12 — a smaller set of activities for kids at the parish — but it won’t be a typical Fall Festival. 

Still, it’s a sign the parish is slowly getting back to normal.

“Once the state started opening up, we looked for guidance as to what we could and couldn’t do,” said Renee Crumrine, business manager at St. Linus. “We wanted to get a head start on things, so we were limited in what we could do.”

“I think the Walk-a-Thon Family Picnic was a hit because it’s been so long since people have been able to get together and spend time to just relax and socialize,” Crumrine added. “Because of COVID, we have missed out on having that human interaction, and we just want to be with each other.”

Regardless of the changes, organizers of this year’s gatherings say it’s about time for the festivals to return as a true staple of parish life in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“This is our largest fundraiser of the year,” McClory said of the Pierogi Festival at Sweetest Heart of Mary. “While we did generate some revenue from (last year’s) activities, it was a substantial financial hit not to have the festival. We are always struggling to keep our books in order. 

“But more than that, the festival is big part of who we are,” McClory added. “We (usually have) crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 people who come to our campus. This is us giving back to the community, fostering community with our hospitality and showing what Sweetest Heart of Mary is all about.”

Editor’s note: Because of the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic early in the year, Detroit Catholic opted not to publish a listing of parish festivals this year. We hope to resume our annual parish festival guide in 2022.