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Watch now: Friday fishing spots in Decatur deal with COVID-induced changes during Lent
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COVID | THE LOCAL IMPACT

Watch now: Friday fishing spots in Decatur deal with COVID-induced changes during Lent

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DECATUR — Whether it's fried, baked or breaded, fish is a standard meal for many during Lent. However, with lingering COVID-19 restrictions, a large gathering for a fish fry isn’t an option.

That leaves a void to be filled.

Dave Jordan, owner of The Wagon on North Woodford Street in Decatur, anticipated being busy the first Friday during the Lent season.

“After that, all the churches step in,” he said. “It slows down a bit because people are going to sponsor their church.”

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After learning the Holy Family and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic churches have altered or canceled their fried fish meals to fit the ongoing pandemic restrictions, Jordan and other local restaurants are expecting more customers on Fridays.

For 40 days before Easter, Catholics and many other Christians abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in observance of Lent. Early Christians also used the symbol of the fish to discreetly identify each other amid persecution. Fish meals are now more of a public celebration of faith.

Eric Wherley has organized the fish fry at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church for a few years. However, this year will be a challenge. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the fish fry has been limited to Fridays in March. The first Lourdes fish fry will be March 5.

The number of staff has also been minimized and will serve carry-out only.

“But we do whatever we can to bring in the funds,” Wherley said.

The fish fry is one of the church’s fundraisers for the Our Lady of Lourdes school. Throughout the past year, the school has lost other fundraising opportunities. The fish fry last year was cut short by the last couple of weeks. The last day Lourdes volunteers served food it was offered as a drive-thru service.

This year’s meal will be carry-out only. Since this was one of the services offered during the fish fry over the years, Wherley isn’t worried about the outcome.

“We’ve always done carry-out, so we know how to do it. But we’re going to see how it goes,” he said. “We’ve never done a carry-out-only fish fry.”

Although the community enjoys the food, the fellowship also brings the crowds into the school’s gym.

The menu has remained the same. Choices include fried catfish, walleye, shrimp or baked cod. The sides, baked potatoes, French fries and coleslaw, are part of the meal.

“We even have hot dogs for the kids that don’t have to abstain (from meat),” Wherley said. “Other than that, we are just going to stick to the basics like we have in the past.”

Organizers have not yet decided on the sale of desserts for fundraisers.

Customers can place their fish orders by phone or in person. The gymnasium is large enough for social distancing while waiting on the order.

“But we’re not fast food,” Wherley said. “We’re just some parents volunteering to try to raise some money for the Catholic school.”

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Lourdes has partnered with Holy Family Catholic Church in the past. Lourdes, the church located north of Decatur, served fish meals during the first four weeks of Lent. Holy Family, in the southern area of the city, served an all-you-can-eat meal the last two weeks of the season.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Holy Family will not host its fish fry. Along with others in the community, Joanne Kater, parish secretary for Holy Family, is disappointed.

“With hundreds of people, there’s no way we can get them in there,” she said.

In the past, the Holy Family fish fry would bring nearly 900 diners to the church during each night of the event.

“We can’t do that,” Kater said. “And none of us are happy with that.”

Since the churches are putting their fish fry events on hold or postponing them, other businesses are taking up the cause and serving up fish.

The Disabled American Veterans Hall on North Lake Shore Drive serves fried walleye and shrimp along with ribeye every Friday night. According to Carla Reynolds, DAV Hall bar manager, more customers buy fish meals during Lent.

“We’re pretty busy every Friday night,” she said. “But Lent, we’ll pick up.”

Throughout the year, the DAV Hall may sell 120 pounds of fish.

“But during Lent, we might go through 180 pounds,” Reynolds said.

Decatur’s Knights of Columbus Hall, on East North Street, has served fish for Lent for decades. Vince Gogerty manages the KC Hall and the Friday night fish fry. Like others, the staff had to change some of the traditions, such as removing the communal salad bar. The condiments, utensils and some sides will be individually packaged as well.

“So people aren’t breathing on it or putting their hands on it,” Gogerty said. “We have dine-in, but it’s limited and we’ve spaced out.”

The first Friday of Lent was a success, according to Gogerty.

“We had a lot of to-go (orders) make up for what we normally have sitting,” he said. “This quadrupled the to-go orders.”

The loosened pandemic restrictions may have helped business as well. Jordan has prepared for a boom in fish meals.

“I hope so,” he said. “I’m planning on it.”

Although fried walleye is a popular menu item, The Wagon serves other seafood for the Lent season, including catfish, salmon, tilapia, cod and clams.

"I’ve got about five or six things there for people who don’t want meat,” Jordan said.


Parade at Our Lady of Lourdes to celebrate the end of the school year

Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR

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