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Impact of tiny church’s fish fry immeasurable

If you make a fish fry dinner, people will come for miles around. They will even cross several state lines to get to your church basement if the fish sandwich is fresh and spilling out of both sides of the bun, the macaroni and cheese is homemade with just enough crisp on top, and the coleslaw is crunchy and tangy.

It turns out that people will return if, when they leave, they aren’t just pleased with the food they’ve eaten but they’ve also found new friends among the hundreds of strangers that were sitting on the wooden folding chairs along the long, cafeteria-type tables. Especially if the fish fry money goes to a meaningful cause.

That is just what has been happening for the past 19 years at the Upper Ten Mile Presbyterian Church in the middle of this tiny Washington County village in Prosperity, Pennsylvania. This event, held every Friday during Lent, has raised a whopping $500,000 over the years for missions to serve the underserved.

Eric Cowden, one of the organizers of the Upper Ten Mile church fish fry, said, “We’ll make about 10,000 meals this year that will serve both the lunch and dinner crowds.”

Not bad for a tiny country church located in a town that has maybe 30 houses from end to end and a congregation that attracts about 80 to 90 faithful every Sunday for church services.

Wednesday marked the beginning of the Lenten season when faithful Christians observe 40 days of fasting, reflection, prayer and giving as they seek to grow closer to their faith in preparation for the observance of the Easter resurrection.

Cowden said people are motivated to return not just week after week but also every year because of the camaraderie that blooms among strangers when they take their seat in a wooden folding chair, talking initially with strangers, but then leave with the realization that they just experienced that sense of community they’ve been missing for far too long.

Cowden said they started out in 2005 and only sold a couple of dinners, then joked they had a handicap because of their denomination. “The Catholics have always had the hold on fish fries. We always joke about that, that we’re trying our best, but it’s really grown. It’s taken a life all of its own,” he said.

If someone told you they knew of a tiny country church located in a town with maybe 30 houses in it that had recruited volunteers who showed up every week, hand-dipped 1,500 fish fillets in egg wash, flour and breading, and fried them, as well as made homemade macaroni and cheese and coleslaw — and did that for eight successive weeks — you’d likely think they were spinning a tall tale.

Cowden just smiled; they sell out every week.

Cowden said they pick the fish up frozen on Tuesdays and begin the preparations on Thursday. By Friday, all hands are on deck. By Friday evening, an entire crew comes in to break things down so they can start all over again on Tuesday.

How popular are fish fries in Appalachia and the Great Lakes region? Well, put it this way: There is an app or two for that. There are also detailed Google searchable maps for Lenten fish fries as well. In short, it’s pretty serious stuff out here in the middle of somewhere.

“People literally turn their entire social calendar over for the several weeks of Lent to which fish fry they are going to go to,” Cowden said. “For us, it is more than a fantastic meal. It is a way for people to have a meaningful impact in our mission work; Americans love to be part of something bigger than themselves, and they also love creating and joining communities. This does all of that.”

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