"Show up at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday and bring your own shovel for the cleaning of the pits.”
That’s the instruction posted on the St. Jerome Parish website last week. Intrigued, I showed up last Saturday at 8:30 a.m. at St. Jerome Parish with two cameras, a notepad, but sans the shovel, having no intention to do manual labor on a fact finding mission. One wag did attempt to hand me a shovel which I politely declined, being in no shape to keep pace with even the oldest oldster on the grounds.
The grounds were already abuzz with a huge crowd of volunteers in jeans, t-shirts and billed caps ranging in age from four to way past retirement age. The grounds were swarming with a back hoe, white pick up trucks, flatbeds, a zillion shovels and more wheel barrows than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time.
Volunteers were digging out the long pits, shoveling the old ash into wheel barrows to be taken to the big dump truck beside the pavilions. When the ashes were removed, high pressure water hoses were directed at the pits to remove the last of the ashes. The older pits have dirt floors and trenches. The newer have concrete floors, making them easier to clean and maintain. By the time of my tardy arrival, all but a two or three of the pits were cleaned out and ready for the next phase.
The next phase involved installing heavy duty rebar across each pit and iron pipe lengthwise. Chicken wire sits atop the piping allowing ash from the cooking process to fall through to the floor of the pit.
Working to prepare for the World’s Largest One Day Barbecue Picnic is a family affair that has been going on for generations. This year will be the 130th picnic and volunteer John Carrico said, that except for his college years and time spent living away from Fancy Farm, he’s been involved since he was a small boy. He and his Carrico cousins are among the many families of St. Jerome’s Parish that work on the Picnic.
Father Darrell Venters, St. Jerome’s parish priest, said there are six hundred families in the church in Fancy Farm and that the parish is growing. “Our births and baptisms are outrunning our losses” When asked the biggest problem in the community, Venters said unemployment, citing local plant closings. Some of the men working on the pits formerly worked at the now closed factories.
Father Venters has been at St. Jerome’s for a year. He came from Bowling Green, Kentucky where he served at the Newman Center at Western Kentucky University. Before that, he served in a parish similar to St. Jerome’s- one with a picnic, not just this big, he said.
Volunteers work for nine months to prepare for this coming weekend beginning right after the Picnic when a post-Picnic review is done. There are committees for every phase of the Picnic, which is much more than the political stump speak on Saturday afternoon. The Picnic is a homecoming event which features music and dancing and eating (lots of eating). Father Venters said the new car raffle is a major part of the event. A snazzy blue 2010 Dodge Challenger will be raffled this year – $5 a ticket, don’t have to be present to win.
There are committees for everything. Committees are organized to run the food booths that line the picnic area. The booths where hungry political types line up for lunch before the speeches are staffed by volunteer church members. Each booth committee chair is responsible for preparing supply lists, staffing assignments and food preparation. Other committees work on the 5K and fun runs held on Friday evening. Last year’s runs attracted almost 500 runners and walkers. Volunteers direct parking, prepare and serve food in the Knights of Columbus building and sell t-shirts and other goodies in the gift shop.
Early Friday morning, Father Venters will bless the pits and say mass outdoors in one of the pavilions. The cooking of 8500 pounds of mutton and 10,500 pounds of pork starts soon after and goes on all night. Barbecue in bulk will be available at 8 Saturday morning. The food booths open at 11.
After that, it’s bingo and politics. And it all begins with shovels, wheel barrows, trucks and willing volunteers.