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By Michael J. Billoni
Including today, four Fridays remain in Lent – and that makes Lynn Ortiz very happy.
The extremely dedicated principal of St. Stephen’s, a pre-K to 8th grade private Diocese of Buffalo school, is hoping the recent trend of Islanders purchasing fish fry dinners during the St. Stephen Church’s 50th annual Friday night fish fry continues, as it appears the coronavirus pandemic is behind us.
Lent is a period of 40 days during which Christians remember the events leading up to and including the death of Jesus Christ. For Lent, the Catholic Church gives its followers three things to work on during this season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. During Lent, some Christians fast from meat on Ash Wednesday and each of the seven Fridays.
Ortiz, the school principal for the past three years, has been working there for 19, and as a parishioner with her husband and family for 29. She recalls when the cafeteria was filled when the doors opened at 4:30 p.m. with a line of customers in the hallway all evening throughout Lent and prior to the pandemic. The same went for the takeout, which is available from 4-7 p.m.
The Friday night fish fry is extremely important to Ortiz, her hard-working staff, and the 18 students in this year’s eighth grade, because it is traditionally one of the largest fundraisers undertaken by the HAS (the school parent’s fundraising group). Tips left with your bill or at the bar go toward the eighth graders’ annual spring field trip.
This well-oiled machine’s restaurant operation boasts more than 90 long-time volunteers (adults and students) preparing deep-fried, beer-battered or even baked fish; deep-fried shrimp; deep-fried scallops; a “Captain’s Combo”; creamy mac and cheese or cheese pizza each week during Lent. It was shut down after three weeks in March 2020 when COVID-19 hit. That forced the team to change with the rules of the pandemic in 2021 and 2022 when it offered takeout only. A drive-thru option was introduced and continues this year.
The cafeteria finally opened for sit-down dinner on March 3 and, over the past two weeks, more than 1,000 dinners were served – which meant more funds were generated for the school.
Private Catholic grammar or high schools do not share in the New York state school taxes all Islanders pay each year. Rather, their budget is approved by the Rev. Raymond G. Corbin, with revenues coming from the church, student tuition, fundraising and grants.
“These Friday fish frys are a very important fundraiser for the school,” Corbin said Friday after enjoying a dinner while seated with Ortiz and others. “More than that, this has become a community event over the years where, week after week, friends gather to share stories while enjoying a wonderful dinner.”
Ortiz explained, “It is absolutely amazing how many people on Grand Island look forward to our Lenten fish frys. It not only brings families together, but it also brings the community together. It is really like a big annual reunion at St. Stephen School. Year after year, you see the same faces volunteering, and now we are seeing alumni coming back to volunteer.”
“We also welcome new families to join in this huge undertaking, and it has become a wonderful opportunity for our eighth grade students to become involved with a service project,” she added. “All of our teachers spend a lot of time teaching service to all of our students, so our eighth grade students have received all this training about service in the classroom, and they have seen and experienced the fish fry growing up; and now they get to be on the floor working to bus tables and greet guests.”
Jaxen Pyc is one of those eighth graders who had guests talking about his wonderful customer skills.
“I love the interaction with the guests, and this has allowed me to meet so many very nice people,” explained Jaxen, who plans to attend St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in the fall and work part-time in a restaurant during his high school years.
“Everyone here works very hard to make sure we present a great dinner for those dining in and those taking it home, so they will tell their friends and come back the next week,” he added. “The fish fry dinners are good, but my personal favorite are the scallops. All the food is amazing and all the tips go towards our eighth grade trip this spring.”
Al Ricotta, a warden with the Knights of Columbus Good Samaritan Council 15749, works tirelessly as a kitchen volunteer making the perfect deep-fried shrimp or scallops. He said, “The kids are extremely hard workers – and it is good to see them getting involved, because the funds raised help the school and their spring trip. We see their parents, but we are also seeing parents volunteering whose kids have long graduated from St. Stephen’s.”
“A lot of effort goes into preparing each dinner, because we all want to see them come back each week in Lent,” he added.
How It All Began
During Lent in 1973, the Friday fish fry fundraiser was started by parents Barbara Anderson – whose daughter is Pattie Anderson Frentzel, the Grand Island town clerk – and her closest friend, Dolly Casey, whose daughter is Jude Casey Kuehne, executive assistant to Grand Island Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Graham, and the district clerk responsible for records retention.
“Our moms began this as a fundraiser for the eighth grade class trip and that tradition continues today,” Kuehne explained. “There were many other parents who worked the fish fry throughout the ’70s, as well. It's going on to the second and third generations now.”
Frentzel and Karen Lunsford Conboy took over running the fish fry in 1993. They brought it back to how it used to run in the ’70s, as they were actually "retrained" by Frentzel’s mom. That's the year Kuehne was recruited to help out.
“The three of us were St. Stephen School alumni, Class of 1978,” Kuehne said.
She enjoys working the takeout in the kitchen, and that's where she has been for 30 consecutive years. “There have been many amazing awesome women in charge of the fish fry since Pattie and Karen. Rosanne Panzica, Laura Murphy, Heidi Martin, Sandy Lare-Trettel and myself,” Kuehne said.
Like many, Kuehne was so anxious to get outside in 2021 that she called Lauren Krebs and Sandy Lare-Trettel, so excited to work at the fish fry again and get some "normalcy" back in life.
“They told me they didn't have anyone to run the fish fry, and we most likely won't be doing it this year with so many restrictions and unknowns during ‘COVID life,’ ” Kuehne said. “I was so upset to hear this, and said I would step up and do it in a takeout-only capacity, but would like to first run it by my husband, as it's a huge commitment.”
“He was onboard with the idea and even helped with cutting the lemons, and parking lot duty for the curbside pickup,” she added with a laugh. “My next call was to ensure the ‘regulars’ in our kitchen staff were willing to come back and work as well, like the Krebs, Figlers, Berlingers, Kowzan, Langs, Benz, Frosolone, Quinn, Ricotta, Pyc.”
For seven weeks, Kuehne would oversee the fish fry – after working all week in a very busy school district office.
Both of her grown children, Jessica and Peter Jr., worked in the kitchen for years to get Confirmation hours and, now in their 30s, they continue to volunteer.
“We have an amazing kitchen crew, and it would only be successful if they were willing to work during a pandemic,” Kuehne said. “They were on board and said ‘Yes,’ so it was a go that we would be open during Lent 2021.”
“Though there were so many COVID restrictions, and they were constantly changing from week to week. We made it happen and we were very successful,” Kuehne noted with pride. “It was a work in progress each week, but we all stayed together to make it happen.
“It was all hands on deck! The custodial and kitchen staff were amazing helping us on Friday afternoons after the kids were dismissed from school. We had the backing of Father Ray, Lynn Ortiz and Karen Sweet. Sandy Lare-Trettel is a rock star and has the patience of a saint. Her guidance and support was amazing in 2021, as I didn't know anything about ordering from various vendors and set up, etc. We made this happen with as few volunteers as we could, being COVID and all.”
In January 2022 Kuehne was right back at it, but now, she and Sandy have added two amazing women to their team: Kate "Applegate" Burke and Kelly "Hayes" Holland, making them a team of four. They continued with takeout only again last year, as the rules were constantly changing for "dining in" anywhere in Erie County.
“We averaged about 410 dinners weekly in a three-hour time frame,” Kuehne said. “This year, the dining option was added, along with curbside takeout and walk-in takeout.
“All is going great, with close to 90 volunteers each week, as we are back like we were in 2019.”
Her close friend, Frentzel, added, “Volunteering at the fish fry is such a great sense of giving back to our parish and the community. It's always awesome to get the alumni from the 1970s volunteering to help us, as well. It gives you a great feeling.”
Ortiz, watching with pride as her eighth graders quickly cleaned a table for others to be seated, added, “We are so thankful for the parish and the school families who volunteer. It is much appreciated. Thank you.”