The indications at St. Helena Parish in Bellefonte are non-mistakable. Booths are set up, a big tent covers part of the parking lot, and signs dot the lawn in front of the church and homes in the vicinity. St. Helena will hold its carnival beginning on April 29, and several other parishes will have their annual festivals in the months that follow.
“We’re blessed to have a number of folks who are willing to give all the time and effort to make it possible,” said Msgr. Stanley Russell, pastor of St. Helena since 1994.
Msgr. Russell knows his carnivals. If there were a pope of church carnivals, he might be the pontiff. He has overseen the weeklong events every year since 1972, when he became the pastor at Holy Rosary Parish in Claymont. In 1982, the year he transferred to Our Lady of Fatima in New Castle, he had the carnival at Holy Rosary, moved to Fatima, then had another the week after he got there.
For many parishes, the carnival is the biggest fundraiser of the year, one that does not involve only parishioners. It is also a way to bring the community together, which is very important to Msgr. Russell.
“From my point of view, that’s the most important thing, even beyond the financial aspect. That just brings about a bonding, a sense of unity in the family. That’s all a blessing, as long as you have the leadership,” he said.
At St. Helena, the leader for about 20 years has been Sue Garrett, Msgr. Russell said. A few miles north on Philadelphia Pike, Bill Moschelle handles the same role at Holy Rosary, where he is also the parish manager. Their carnival always begins on Labor Day.
Moschelle said the challenges to holding a carnival have increased at Holy Rosary, which used to rely largely on the parents of its school students for much of the staffing. A lot of people still volunteer, he said, and the parish finds value in holding the event.
“I think there’s two reasons, mainly,” he said. “That feeling of tradition, camaraderie within the community and parishioners. That’s a big deal to people here. And, to be quite honest, fundraisers … that closes big budget deficits for us. All these outside income sources are critical to keeping us going.”
The parish started in the late 1960s because the Sisters of St. Joseph, who staffed the school and lived at the convent, needed a new car. They have not lived on the campus for decades, but the carnival remains.
“It started as a special event for a special project, and now it’s critical to keeping us going,” Moschelle said.
A big change this year at Holy Rosary will be the presence almost exclusively of food trucks instead of having volunteers prepare much of the food. The Hispanic community relied on the school kitchen, which needs upgrades and is not available, and the Knights of Columbus do not have access to the equipment they used to run their outdoor café.
That might put a dent in the bottom line, Moschelle said, but the carnival – along with the weekly bingo games – is a significant source of revenue for the parish. Last year, they were hit with bad weather, but it was still profitable. Two years ago, he noted, the weather cooperated, and it was a record year at Holy Rosary.
At some parishes, however, the return did not justify the amount of work that went into the carnival. St. Catherine of Siena Parish near Prices Corner is transitioning to a four-day event instead of the weeklong carnival.
“Our workforce is aging. St. Catherine’s is an older, suburban parish,” said the pastor, Father John Hynes.
The parish has a sizeable Hispanic population, he said, but “a small number of people are getting worked beyond the point that was good. We decided we had to lower our expectations,” Father Hynes.
The parish will be holding its new event in October, in a different form. Father Hynes said he doesn’t know if they will have rides, but he hopes it begins a new tradition at St. Catherine’s.
“We don’t depend on the carnival for financial support like we used to when we had the school. We continued it after that more because it was a good social event for the parish, and for the money, which was welcome. It just doesn’t repay the work,” he said.
Father Hynes is also no stranger to parish carnivals, having overseen them when he was stationed at Holy Rosary and Holy Angels in Newark. He said they can be valuable fundraisers and for families that perhaps couldn’t afford to go away on vacation.
“For them to be able to come to the carnival a night or a few weeks is good,” he said.
Corpus Christi Parish in Elsmere will not be holding a carnival this year after having had one for many years. Parish representatives declined to discuss the decision.
One parish that has made a change for the better is Our Lady of Fatima in New Castle. For years, the carnival was the same week as the Italian Festival at St. Anthony of Padua Parish, but it is now held in July. The pastor, Msgr. George Brubaker, said there have been fewer rainouts. When he arrived at Fatima seven years ago, he assessed the carnival, and he found the general consensus was to keep it going.
“We’re very grateful that the people who wanted to keep it are committed to keep it going. But we don’t get as many funds as we used to. We still like to have it,” he said, describing the decision to continue as “a year-to-year thing.”
Msgr. Brubaker said the parish doesn’t have the number of volunteers it once did, so ride and game vendor Skelly’s provides workers, although that hurts the bottom line. Fatima has the same demographics as other suburban parishes, trending older. Younger families with children in Catholic schools tend to be further south in New Castle County. They do have many Hispanic children, “so that’s where we have had some growth.”
A few parishes – St. Anthony and St. Helena – have added fencing around the carnival grounds and charge admission to get in. Msgr. Russell said they hesitated to put a fence, but they have had success since doing so. A lot of families have thanked the parish for making them feel safer, and, in turn, they are spending more time at the carnival.
“I think people feel much safer, and the little children can enjoy it a longer time,” Msgr. Russell said.
The carnival is on solid footing and will remain a fixture in Bellefonte “as long as we have the leadership and the folks willing to help. They take pride that they’ve done something good,” he added.
There are a bunch of activities inside the parish hall, and the tent provides cover and a location for food and entertainment, but Msgr. Russell said the people at St. Helena will turn to their Catholic faith in advance of the week.
“We’ll be praying for good weather again this year,” he said.