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A Church Picnic Long Ago

Ann Marshall

Fifty years ago when St. Anthony Shrine near Emmitsburg held a chicken dinner, the chickens were raised by the parishioners. Today, a contractor with a kitchen-on-wheels drives in to provide and fry the birds on the premises.

Fifty years ago, Miss Maggie Rosensteel, who "ran the kitchen" for longer than anyone can remember, would go door to door in the mostly rural parish asking for donations. People were expecting her. They had already put in extra tomato, bean, or cabbage plants with the church festival in mind, or planted an extra row of corn. There were promises of five chickens here, perhaps fifteen.

"My Dad, Bernard Shields, raised a lot of those chickens," recalls Mary Catherine Shields who has been helping with the annual fund-raiser since she was a little girl. "My, but he was particular about them." The Roy Wivell family also could be counted on to raise as many as a hundred birds.

The dinner was a tradition almost as old as the church itself, which was built in 1897. It began as a private picnic for parishioners who gathered in the church grove for a day of festivity, each family bringing its own dinner packed in a basket. By the twenties, it had become and remains today a major fund-raiser for the parish.

Was the food good? Absolutely! But the preparation changed the years. "Well, the world is different," says Ruth Wivell who has chaired the dinner for over twenty years, "But it's still an enormous parish project. A lot of people pitched in. Debbie Wivell and Millie Valentine where in charge of the dining room. Joe Scott ran the outside games and Dan Durski called bingo. Sr. Carol planned the entertainment for the children. I guess you could say we just all get together and did it."

Nevertheless, the days are long gone when men would take a half day off from farm work on the Thursday before the event to catch and kill the chickens. This was often done at Lewis Seiss's store oft Old Emmitsburg Road just south of St. Anthony's. The women plunged the birds into butchering kettles of hot water to remove the feathers and then singed them over fire in big drums to remove the pin feathers. They were cleaned and packed in tubs of ice.

By today' measure, everything done for the picnic fifty, sixty and more years ago was done the hard way from scratch. For example, ice for packing chicken on Thursday or cooling tea on Saturday was brought from an ice house in Emmitsburg and chipped from hundred pound blocks.

Back then, the picnic was held in the grove next to the church, now largely a parking area. Pius Shorb, as sextons before him had done, set up the long tables and chairs and sometimes tents. Lights were strung in the trees because the picnic often went on until 11 p.m.

Cooking in the Red Schoolhouse at the foot of Grotto Road began early Saturday morning. Seniors in the Parish would reminisce about Nellie Wetzel, Mary Shields, Joe Shorb, Marie Williams, Alma Seltzer, and Goldie Landis among many who started frying chicken before 6 a.m. They cooked in iron skillets over propane gas heat.

Lottic Kreitz took charge of husking and cutting corn. Lelia Omdorff was there to make pepper slaw, Nora Wetzel prepared fruit salad and Cecil Kreitz, long-time baker at Mount St. Mary's College, sent wonderful rolls and sheet cakes. Ice tea stood ready in huge stone crocks. Alice Shorb, who worked at F&M Bank in Emmitsburg, kept track of the money.

Mrs. Mary Sanders remembers sitting down with a group of women to peel two bushels of potatoes which would then be cooked, cooled, chopped and seasoned into potato salad. Mashed potatoes were also popular. The real thing, no flakes, no preservatives, mashed by hand by the men of the congregation and served with gravy.

Maggie Rosensteel was a stern supervisor in the busy schoolhouse. No silk could be left on the corn, no strings on the beans. Mrs. Sanders remembers her making lemonade for the hot workers but also cautioning the hungry to eat only the backs of the chickens.

Yes, fifty years ago it was a very big Saturday in August when it all came together Parish families along with friends and relatives gathered to enjoy a country fried chicken dinner, shop the cake and candy booths, and play games of chance and skill in St. Anthony's grove. Local bands provided music. Bob Kaas recalls that as a kid he had an especially choice job. He helped Viola Hemler and her family run the ice cream stand.

Fond memories include comments such as, "I looked forward to it each summer," "The grab bag was special," "We kids saved up our money for the picnic," "I remember that my Dad gave me a quarter to spend. Although the annual picnic is now served in the parish hall where a modem kitchen with double sinks and huge refrigerator is approved by the Health Department, many things remain the same -- bingo, penny pitch, homemade baked goods, music, raffles, and memories in the making.

Fifty years ago, the children of the parish who ran errands tirelessly, served meals, and assisted with games on Saturday got a bonus Sunday morning. After early Mass they would dash out of church to scour the grove for dropped nickels and dimes. Of course they added these gleanings to the picnic profit. Like fun they did! It was service to the parish on Saturday but Sunday's rule was "Finders, keepers!"

Read Other Articles by Ann Marshall

Have your own memories of the St Anthony's or of life in Emmitsburg?  If so, send them to us at: history@emmitsburg.net