INTERLAKEN — A steady stream of cars pulled into St. Fidelis Friary’s gravel drive July 17, parking in a mowed field behind the friary’s dormitory. Several hundred people — many of them lured by the smell of cooking chicken — braved the day’s heat and humidity to partake in St. Francis Solanus Parish’s chicken barbecue.
“I could smell the chicken as soon as I turned onto (County Road) 153,” one customer said before picking up his take-out meal.
The annual barbecue is the parish’s only fundraiser and has been an Interlaken tradition for 45 years. It began in 1960 because parishioners at that time were looking for a fundraiser that could double as a summer social activity, said Father William Winters, OFM Cap., pastor.
“It’s been an unbroken tradition since then,” Father Winters said.
Consistency has been a key factor in the barbecue’s longevity. Since its inception, the price for a meal has gradually increased, but not much else has changed, Father Winters said. People who come to the barbecue know what to expect.
“That’s kind of what’s been able to keep it going for 45 years,” said parishioner Rich Rasmussen, coordinator of the barbecue.
Last year the barbecue’s raffle was revamped, but that’s the only significant change the event has undergone in the past few years, Rasmussen said.
In previous years, raffle tickets were sold for less than a dollar, and the top prize was about $300, said parishioner Karl Messmer. When Messmer became coordinator of the raffle last year, he decided to change its format in an attempt to make it more profitable.
Messmer solicited several donated prizes for the raffle, and the parish bought several more. Messmer also increased the price of raffle tickets to $10, an increase he said is justified by the quality and usefulness of the prizes. This year, the grand prize was $2,000 to be used for a trip to a destination of the winner’s choosing. Second prize was a $300 gift certificate to Lowe’s home-improvement store; third prize was a pair of tickets to a Neil Diamond concert at the Pepsi Arena in Albany; and fourth prize was two free dinners at Sheldrake Point Vineyard and Cafe in Ovid, a case of wine and two tickets to a play at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca.
Most people won’t mind paying a little more for a raffle ticket if the prizes are tempting enough, Messmer said. The key is to make it something that almost anyone can use or enjoy. Many people take a vacation and could use the $2,000, and most people would find a Lowe’s gift certificate useful, he said.
“If you appeal to a whole range of people, more people will be involved,” Messmer said. “Last year we made about four times as much money from the raffle as we’ve ever made.”
Last year parishioners sold more than 5,000 raffle tickets, and almost that many were sold this year, Messmer said.
“Once you get a tradition going people know about it and look forward to it,” he added.
The same can be said about the event as a whole. When planning an event like this, it’s important to look at what makes it different from others, Rasmussen said. People know and expect that the parish’s chicken barbecue will also include the raffle, a cake wheel and music — either live or provided by a disc jockey. While there may be chicken barbecues every weekend during the summer, most of them probably won’t include those extra features, he said.
Another key to the barbecue’s success is the dedicated parish volunteers who give up a summer Sunday to staff it, Rasmussen added.
“You can’t do it without the dedication of the people in the pews,” he noted.
Volunteers ignited the grills before 7 a.m. and by day’s end cooked 700 chickens. More volunteers took turns serving the food, selling tickets and manning the beverage station and the cake wheel. Many parishioners see the barbecue as a family event, said Pat Messmer, who was serving cole slaw, baked beans and salad in the friary’s garage as her husband oversaw the raffle. Even as people get older, they still find ways to be involved in the event, she said.
“It’s really our only fundraiser … so everyone really pitches in fully for it,” said Jane Depew as she and her husband, Walter, dished out food next to Pat Messmer. The Depews and the Messmers have volunteered with the barbecue each year for at least three decades, they said.
“St. Francis Solanus is really a family parish, and it’s a good social fundraiser,” Father Winters said.
Looking around, he gestured at the crowd eating under the tent, the people gathered to watch the cake wheel spin, the children playing on the friary lawn and the boats drifting by on Cayuga Lake.
“This is Catholic America,” Father Winters said. “This is rural United States.”