A loss of faith at the Minnesota State Fair?

| August 25, 2017 | 0 Comments

Less than a decade ago, Catholic diners and Theology on a Stick fed hungry fairgoers—in body and soul. Why they left, and the challenges facing a Catholic return to the Great Minnesota Get—Together

Father Dennis Zehren, then-pastor of Epiphany in Coon Rapids, talks with a fairgoer outside the Epiphany Diner in 2008. by Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Ordained at 26, Father John Paul Erickson was still shy of 30 when he took a stage at the Minnesota State Fair just yards from the main gate to take questions on Catholicism.

He can still imagine what fairgoers in 2008 and 2009 thought when they saw priests in their 20s or 30s speak at Theology on a Stick, an event at the St. Bernard Bulldog Lodge.

“‘Gosh, you know what, here’s a couple of young whippersnapper priests. I didn’t know that they made them that young,’” quipped Father Erickson, now the pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul and director of worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

He and fellow priests fielded random questions about the Catholic faith at the evening gatherings, while other Catholic experts spoke on topics ranging from love and atheism to movies and conversion. Run by the Cathedral Young Adults of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, the event drew steady attendance as people digested the Q&A sessions, talks and music in 20-minute chunks.

“Many people passing through the State Fair, perhaps former Catholics [and] non-Christians, were able to hear the faith presented in a way which was understandable, approachable and attractive,” said Father Erickson, who served as parochial vicar at the Cathedral of St. Paul 2006-2008 and worked with CYA. “It alerted them to the fact that the Church is not just a sanctuary for the retired. In fact, it is a living thing.”

Theology on a Stick ran three evenings in 2008 and five evenings in 2009. CYA volunteers helped with hospitality and offered fans to heat-weary fairgoers.

“Just having the presence of the religious and the clergy there, I think, itself was a great witness,” said Jeremy Baer, a parishioner of All Saints in Minneapolis who served as the event’s chairman in 2009.

Cathedral Young Adults launched the event in 2008 as a State Fair version of the ministry’s Theology on Tap series that was then bouncing around bars in St. Paul. For years, more than 100 young adults have been regularly attending Theology on Tap, now held at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill on Snelling Avenue.

Theology on Tap’s popularity and the growing interest in Theology on a Stick made a third year look promising in 2010.

“We were kind of on the cusp of really getting something going in terms of enthusiasm at the State Fair and even on the fundraising side,” Baer said.

But then it lost its venue. After a 50-year run, the St. Bernard Bulldog Lodge went up for sale following the 2010 closure of St. Bernard School in St. Paul, which ran the lodge. The next year saw the loss of the other Catholic mainstay, the Epiphany Diner. That closure marked the end of an era for a major Catholic presence at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, which has drawn an average of 1.7 million people per year.

Ten years later, the absence has some Catholics wondering: What would it take to get it back?

Essential manpower

Sustaining volunteers was a main obstacle for keeping the St. Bernard Bulldog Lodge open. With a closing school and a small parish, Father Mike Anderson, St. Bernard’s pastor at the time, decided with the parish council to close the Lodge.
St. Bernard’s final principal and longtime Lodge volunteer, Jennifer Cassidy, said it was a difficult closure.

“We certainly tried everything to keep it open,” Cassidy said of the lodge. “The fair also has direct oversight so we were limited on what we could change or try to do differently.”

Jennifer Cassidy and Michelle Ponsolle pose in 2008 at St. Bernard’s Bulldog Lodge, another former fixture at the State Fair. Cassidy served as president and principal of St. Bernard’s School in St. Paul at the time, and Ponsolle was the development and alumni director. Photo by Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

The parish closed its elementary school in 2009 and high school in 2010. Michelle Ponselle, who served as the Lodge’s final coordinator, said the Lodge depended on students and their families to run it as a fundraiser to reduce their tuition. Ponselle served as the school’s development director in its final year.

The Lodge “was part of the culture of the school,” said Ponselle, a St. Bernard School alumna and a parishioner at St. Jerome in Maplewood.

Demand for volunteers also played a role in the demise of the Epiphany Diner in 2011. Run by the largest parish in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the diner — famous for its turkey and meatloaf dinners — shut down after 54 years due to an aging volunteer base and dwindling numbers.

“You either had elderly or the younger families, where it was hard for them to leave the kids to be down there and volunteer,” said Ruth Dillon, a parishioner of Epiphany in Coon Rapids who served as the diner’s final coordinator.

Epiphany leaders also attributed the closure at the time to outdated kitchen equipment, dwindling customers and needed church building improvements.

Theology on a Stick, meanwhile, never identified a place to relocate. “Without an available venue, there wasn’t a whole lot that we could do to try to keep that fire alive,” Baer said. “All those opportunities that we had just kind of died on the vine, unfortunately.”

Religious presence

Other Minnesota faith communities have found numerous ways to engage fairgoers. Protestant ministries Crossroads Chapel and Bible Land Crafts offer religious goods throughout the fair. Building Blocks of Islam provides information about Islam. Both of the fair’s Sundays include Prayer at the Fair, an ecumenical worship service, and a service at the Crossroads Chapel.

At one time, around 20 churches, both Protestant and Catholic, ran dining halls like Epiphany and
St. Bernard. Since 2012, that number has been only two, Hamline United and Salem Lutheran, both of St. Paul. The halls raise funds for the churches and build connections for the faith communities.

Teresa Renneke, a 25-year volunteer with Hamline United’s dining hall, said the church’s close proximity has helped keep a steady stream of volunteers, with around 65 working daily for the annual fundraiser. She said adding Izzy’s Ice Cream to the front of the diner in 1999 has helped traffic.

“We try to have a [special] flavor every year,” Renneke said. “A couple of them have been very church-related flavors. Our first year we had elderberry … and we’ve had mini donut crunch, so that kind of fits a fair theme [too].”

Hamline United has varied its burger menu to boost interest. Ham loaf, however, remains a big attraction. Renneke sees the benefit of a sit-down style restaurant at the fair.

“It’s kind of a break [for fair goers],” she said. “We have real china, silverware.”

A mother and daughter enjoy a meal inside the Epiphany Diner. Photo by Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Both the Epiphany Diner and St. Bernard Bulldog Lodge stood the test of time for five decades each before closing. That included navigating the food-on-a-stick craze, which took a toll on the role of the dining hall, said Craig Dillon, an Epiphany parishioner who volunteered at the diner for many years.

Rhonda, his wife, attributed it to a “‘now’ society.” “We want to be able to eat and keep on going — just eat it on a stick, keep walking, keep looking and keep going,” she said.

Epiphany, Craig said, found a niche in the breakfast hours before someone would want lunch on a stick. “We had less competition for breakfast. Not a lot of people want a pronto pup at 7 a.m.,” he said. “We fed a lot of workers of the fair.”

The diner served food all day with the help of 100 volunteers. It became a popular fair destination and a source of parish community building. The Bulldog Lodge also had a following and enjoyed a prominent location, now housing O’Gara’s at the Fair.

“Lots of heart and soul went into the dining hall for decades with generations of families with stories of working the food line and doing dishes,” said Cassidy, who, as a St. Bernard alumna, also volunteered at the Lodge as a child. “And some, like my brother and his classmate, stay[ed] overnight to keep an eye on it.”

St. Bernard served a variety of food in a sit-down setting but added a take-out option in its later years.

Aside from St. Bernard and Epiphany, St. John the Evangelist in Little Canada had a diner until the early 1980s. St. Joseph in West St. Paul also had a diner in Epiphany’s location before the Coon Rapids parish took over.

“They are really a lot of work,” said Father Robert Fitzpatrick, who served as pastor of St. John a year after the parish closed its diner. “Some of them [the volunteers] were basically worn out for the rest of the year.”

Now pastor of Corpus Christi and St. Rose of Lima in Roseville, Father Fitzpatrick is responsible for the last remaining Catholic presence at the fair: the
9:15 a.m. Sunday Mass, held at the Family Fair Stage at Baldwin Park. Volunteers from Corpus Christi help with the liturgical logistics.

He said attendance ranges from 300 to 400 people each Sunday.

Both Corpus Christi and St. Rose of Lima also host parking for the fair, except on Sunday mornings.

Revival challenges

In recent years, different Catholic organizations have looked for ways to bring the Gospel to the other 10 days of the fair.

The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity has spent a day at the University of St. Thomas booth in the Education Building as an evangelization opportunity. Seminarians passed out “Fans of Pope Francis” —  paper fans with a picture of the pope — to fairgoers. Karen Laird, seminary communications coordinator, said the seminary is taking a break this year.

St. Paul Street Evangelization, a Catholic nonprofit dedicated to sharing the faith in person, has worked with smaller-scale fairs but doesn’t have plans for the State Fair due to cost. Its members ministered at the Hopkins Raspberry Festival this summer.

State Fair veterans caution that setting up shop at the fair takes loads of work.

“It took a very dedicated team,” Baer said of Theology on a Stick. “You need a small group of core people that are willing to live and breathe it for a while to make it happen.”

That includes fundraising — and waiting.

While the State Fair doesn’t have an endless waiting list to get in, there is a wait ahead for any potential vendor — one with no definitive time line. The fair offers spots to the previous year’s vendors. If a vendor decides to not return, then the fair administration explores its pool of applicants who match the opening.

Jim St. Clair, State Fair deputy general manager, said what the vendor offers has high consideration in the process. The previous vendor’s product and those of nearby vendors also factor in to how an applicant gets chosen. Experience and presentation play prime importance in applicant consideration. Food-related vendors have low turnover rates,
St. Clair added, but the fair overall has a 25-33 percent turnover rate. Dining halls buy property from the State Fair and are required to sell it back if vacating.

Buying property, operating costs and paying for volunteers’ State Fair tickets all add up. Baer said it took substantial fundraising for Theology on a Stick, even without buying a venue.

With the reality of vending costs, Rhonda Dillon said a parish would need to carefully weigh the decision to have a booth or venue for fundraising purposes. Craig Dillon said Epiphany drew 1 percent of its cash flow from the Epiphany Diner, and it was still profitable when the church decided to sell it.

He said that having a daily large Catholic presence at the fair really weighed on the decision.

Cathedral Young Adults hasn’t abandoned the idea of resurrecting Theology on a Stick. Its leaders have been in conversation about the event with other Catholic young adult groups.

Melissa Kaintz, Cathedral Young Adults core team chairwoman and a St. Bernard alumna, experienced the event as a college student and saw the value.

“It would be reaching, hopefully, a whole new demographic at the fair [that Theology on Tap can’t],” Kaintz said.

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