Parish community unites for a 99-year-old Thanksgiving tradition of serving, celebrating
November 21, 2023
One of Joan Schindler’s earliest memories of the St. Boniface Thanksgiving Bazaar in Elgin involves a snowy ride into town from her family’s farm.
“My mother was in the ‘sausage-frying department’” for the community-wide event, Schindler recalled, and the mother went to work immediately, using stoves that had been brought into the schoolhouse at St. Boniface.
Her father tended to his job of helping with parking.
Schindler was 7 or 8 at the time and couldn’t wait to get to the church basement for a fishing game, where kids used a fishing pole to land little toys or bags of candy.
The waiting was killing her, though. “I was supposed to be a good little girl and wait until Mother was finished,” she said.
The years went by, and eventually Schindler had her own roles in helping with the bazaar.
During grade school, kids helped bring dirty dishes to the school basement to be washed. In high school, the girls waited on tables.
When Schindler married and had children of her own, she joined other St. Boniface parishioners to stuff sausages at a Petersburg meat locker, using meat from pigs donated by local farmers.
Now as a grandmother, Schindler doesn’t have to work as hard, as her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren do their part for the annual Thanksgiving Bazaar, now in its 99th year.
The fundraising dinner has changed slightly over the years. But it always was, and continues to be, a labor-intensive affair that requires the help of everyone in the parish.
“It takes the whole community,” Schindler said. “It’s amazing.”
This year’s event is being run by 250 to 300 volunteers, said Emily Borer, a member of the bazaar’s organizing committee.
About 900 people put in orders for food this year, in a town with a population of about 700.
The yearly celebration brings former Elgin residents back for a homecoming of sorts.
Seeing former parishioners and school alumni is always a joy, said Michele Reicks, a longtime parish staff member. More important, though, she said, is serving the people who go to the bazaar – sometimes from miles away – because they don’t have family home on Thanksgiving “and otherwise they would’ve sat alone.
“They just really appreciate having somewhere to go,” Reicks said.
Parishioners also deliver meals to the homebound.
“In this age of electronics and people not spending as much time face to face, on maybe a common goal, it’s wonderful to see our parish come together to provide this opportunity to rub shoulders and do something meaningful,” she said.
Over the years, the bazaar went from a sit-down meal “where you actually pass the dishes around the table,” to a buffet meal, Reicks said.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic changed the bazaar significantly.
“The year of COVID, we had to make a choice,” said Emily Borer, one of the organizers of this year’s bazaar, “either do nothing or switch to all carryouts.
“So we switched to all carryouts that year, and it was a success. We did it again the next year. Then we (a committee) voted on it the next year, and the committee decided to try to do both” dine-in meals and carryouts.
Most people choose the takeout food, already dished out and packaged in styrofoam containers in an assembly-line process. After so many years of serving food, the process is “like a well-oiled machine,” Borer said.
About 200 people will be dining in. People who choose that option typically have driven from an hour or more away and don’t want their food to get cold on the way home.
“So we have a lot of out-of-towners who are taking that option,” Borer said.
Reservations were made days in advance.
The festivities begin with 10 a.m. Mass at St. Boniface Church. The bazaar lasts from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. People call ahead and are assigned times, “so we don’t have everyone coming at once,” Borer said.
Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade dressing, corn and a special-recipe sausage are all on the menu. For serving a large crowd that means 43 turkeys, 500 pounds of sausage, about a thousand donated desserts and 900 servings of potatoes.
Now a different meat locker prepares the sausage, but it relies on the same decades-old recipe. Turkey has since replaced chicken as an entree.
Borer – a “transplant” originally from Tilden who “married into the parish” in 1990 – said she didn’t like the Thanksgiving Bazaar at first. But now “I’d never go back.
“I’m sure a lot of transplants who marry and come into our community are like that,” she said. But for their spouses who grew up in the parish, the bazaar had been an annual tradition and a way to serve.
“It’s just a family thing,” Borer said.
Reicks, another transplant, agreed.
“To most people in our parish, this seems like our thing on Thanksgiving Day,” she said, but for people new to St. Boniface and Elgin, “it takes them a while at first, but so many of them come to love it. They do their own family gatherings on the weekend.”
Most of the shifts on Thanksgiving are two hours or less. “So if you work an early morning shift, 6 to 8 a.m., you’ve got the whole day,” Borer said.
She said she enjoys how much people appreciate the bazaar and the camaraderie among volunteers.
Reicks said she appreciates the parish matriarchs – like Schindler – “the ladies who probably helped and waited tables when they were in school, then they were the leaders later in life.
“They stuck around here, had their families, and now their families are the ones who are working and helping and enjoying carrying on the tradition.”
“Everybody seems to step up and do what is necessary to continue,” Reicks said, “and we’re really looking forward to our hundredth next year.”
Plans for that day begin in early January.
READ MORE FROM THE CATHOLIC VOICE