It’s 5 p.m. on a Friday night at Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Webster Groves. The lines at the annual fish fry are swelling. But what most people that night don’t realize — save for a few volunteers and the pastor — is that there’s a “mystery reviewer” in their midst.
Stephen Ibendahl of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in St. Louis is the mastermind behind Friday Night Fish, a blog he launched in 2008 to rate volunteer-led fish fries across the St. Louis area. Prior to that, Ibendahl kept a journal with notes from the fish fries he and his wife, Elise, attended with their three young children in tow.
“With young kids that was our entertainment back then,” he said. “It was our big trip out. I always liked rating fish fries in a journal, and my wife encouraged me to start a blog.”
The website, fridaynightfish.com, makes it clear that there are no bad fish fries. The Ibendahls tend to stick to volunteer-operated events, with roughly 95 percent of those visits being at Catholic churches, and a sprinkling of VFW and American Legion halls. Each one has something unique to offer, and Stephen Ibendahl stressed that his reviews are just for fun.
“Fish fries are great for each parish and each community and are part of the neighborhood fabric that makes St. Louis such a great place to live,” the blog states. “If you truly want to experience a sense of place and community, check out one of these fish fries (or any fish fry), you won’t be disappointed!”
Fish fries are evaluated within four areas: food, value, atmosphere and way-finding/greening (Is the location of the fish fry easy to find? Is there recycling?), which receive a rating of one to four fishes.
Since its beginning, Friday Night Fish has received more than 675,000 page views. Stephen Ibendahl has reviewed more than 60 fish fries, many of them more than once over the years.
Now that life is busier and their three children are older — Regan, 15, is a sophomore at Nerinx Hall; Chapin, 17, is a senior at Vianney High School; and Keaton, 20, is a student at the University of Oregon — the Ibendahls have shortened the distance they will travel.
One of the best parts of attending a fish fry is the social aspect, Stephen Ibendahl said. “I would probably say there were very few times where there wasn’t a welcoming atmosphere,” he said. “Everyone is welcoming. And it’s nice, too, in terms of sitting down at a table and talking to a complete stranger. It takes the pressure off — welcoming in a way that’s not for a religious purpose, but I see the fellowship and evangelism in a very welcoming way — having a good time with some food.”
Mary Queen of Peace’s pastor, Father Craig Holway, agreed that a social event such as a fish fry is a great opportunity to further welcome people into the life of a parish community. He said he spends the majority of the evening walking around and talking to people, introducing himself and other parishioners to visitors he meets.
Hearing feedback on the welcoming nature of a parish is equally important, he said.
“It’s a sign of the human family, it’s a connection,” Father Holway said. “And if somebody feels welcomed when they come to anything at a Catholic church … if we can do it at a fish fry, then we can do it at the Eucharist. If we can create a welcoming atmosphere at the fish fry, then we can also create a welcoming atmosphere in our church and in our school.”
Mary Queen of Peace volunteers, known as the Fishin’ Crew, with their matching purple T-shirts, buzzed around the cafeteria delivering fresh batches of fish and sides to the serving lines, making sure desserts were lined up on the tables and ensuring there were enough plates and utensils set out.
Volunteer Chris Pelikan said that while the parish only hosts two fish fries each Lent, the opportunity for fellowship is just as important as the fish itself.
“As much as people desire to come and be with Jesus and worship, I think the community is really what sells people on life within a parish,” he said. “And this is a fantastic example of our ability to get people together and do it in a fun way.”
>> Fish fry map
The St. Louis Review has an interactive map of fish fries across the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Visit stlreview.com/3F5d2GK.
Mary Queen of Peace fish fry
Mary Queen of Peace Parish, 676 W. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves, will host one more fish fry on Friday, March 31. Food will be served from 5-7:30 p.m., and a drive-through option is open from 5-7 p.m. Stick around for live music in the gym and ongoing beverages until 8:30 p.m. For more information, see www.mqpwg.org/fishfry.