Small-town church welcomes 1,256 for annual chicken dinner

By Maura Wery

FLUSH — A human fence surrounded St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Flush Wednesday evening, and it wasn’t for a special mass. It was the line for a fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans and a slice of homemade pie.

The parish’s main fundraiser has been going strong on the last Wednesday in July for more than 80 years, or most of the history of the 100-year-old church the event supports.

People from Flush and the surrounding communities — St. George, Wamego and Manhattan — started lining up around 4 p.m. By 5 p.m. the line went all the way past the church and remained that length almost the entire evening.

Neighbors greeted each other as they waited. Children laughed and played. Comments such as, “At least it isn’t as hot as last year!” and “I’ve never seen this many people here before at this hour,” made their way through the crowd. For some, this is their first time at the picnic. For others, it’s their 30th. For them, the wait is part of the tradition. But inside the community center, parishioners worked to keep the line moving smoothly as they served 1,256 dinners.

Sam Wilson, 19, has been a member of the St. Joseph church his entire life. His family has been working the picnic for years. Wilson, a St. George native, said that this is the first year he hasn’t worked the picnic, but he knows what it’s all about.

“Each family in the parish provides a certain amount of food,” Wilson said. The women working in the kitchen said most items, such as the pies, mashed potatoes and green beans, were made in advance, but they started cooking the chicken the day of the picnic. There was an abundance of everything. Hundreds of pies, in almost every flavor, filled several racks. Industrial sized pots of mashed potatoes and gravy. Green beans in huge slow-cookers. As people fill their plates, they tell the woman at the end of the line how many are in their party. She signals the number of people to some other women seating tables. They signal back and diners are directed to the available spots.  At the table, bowls filled with sides — coleslaw, beets, pickles, sliced tomatoes, rolls and cottage cheese — are passed family-style. Volunteers fill glasses with water and iced tea and pick up empty plates with an efficiency any restaurant would admire. It’s a well oiled machine, and after 70 years, it ought to be.

Church secretary Carol Eichman said they don’t know yet how much money the event raised. In addition to the $8 dinners, church officials will total funds from sales of crafts and baked goods as well as from other activities. But she said St. Joseph’s raised enough money to take care of some cracks in the sanctuary.

“All the money goes into our general fund for repairs to the church,” Eichman said.

Before and after the meal, attendees could participate in several games in the church yard. Wilson said that these games, such as a ring toss, basketball shoot, bingo, fish pond and a ball-throwing game, haven’t changed for as long has he remembers, and neither has the dinner.

For the members of the community who come to Flush once a year the sentiment is the same: if something works, don’t change it.

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