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Parish festivals make a comeback in Diocese of Wilmington after pandemic pause: ‘It’s a good community builder’

A youngster enjoys the Merry Go Round during St. Helena Church Carnival, Friday, April 29, 2022. Dialog photo/Don Blake

When St. Helena’s held its carnival the last week of April, it was just the second Catholic parish in the Diocese of Wilmington to hold a traditional carnival since 2019. In 2020, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, nothing was happening, and last year, restrictions made holding an event with large numbers of people impractical early in the summer, although Holy Family managed to pull off its annual SummerFest.

That is no longer the case. Although COVID is still circulating, five other parishes in addition to St. Helena’s have brought back their annual festivals. The pastors and organizers say the events are an opportunity for the parishes to bring the community together for some fun, as well as raise some necessary revenue.

The biggest among them, the St. Anthony Italian Festival, returns June 12-19 with a few changes, but for the most part, it will look like what folks remember from previous years. There was no event in 2020, and last year the parish sold food to go, with buyers stopping by the Wilmington campus to pick up their goodies.

Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Mark Wrightson, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, said the food sale was done last year because a lot of the preparation had been done before the decision not to have the festival was made. They also wanted to let the community know they were still there. In 2022, there will be no doubt that St. Anthony’s is there.

“Everything is going up and being put into place for the festival,” he said recently.

The main difference will be less cash being used around the grounds. Most things at the Italian Festival will be available via a cashless option. Father Wrightson said the cash room is the “unseen monster” of the event. The people who work there would have to stick around until the wee hours to count money.

Gregg Truitt pulls a fresh pie during St. Athony of Padua Italian Festival, June 10, 2018. Dialog photo/Don Blake

The festival has an admission fee of $5, and it benefits St. Anthony of Padua Grade School and the parish.

One aspect of the Italian Festival that was still up in the air as of the second week of May was the procession of saints that normally takes place on the closing Sunday. Father Wrightson said it hasn’t been canceled, but it may undergo some modifications.

At St. John the Beloved Parish in Wilmington, the annual carnival will take place June 6-11. It kicks off with a 5k on June 4. Parishioners and others have been asking about its return for two years, said Father Joe Piekarski, the pastor.

“We were going to have something in the fall last year, but because of the uprising of the COVID cases, we canceled it again,” he said.

“People who associate with St. John the Beloved have been asking about it,” he said. “People have definitely wanted that. They see it as a big social gathering. It’s a good meeting place for people.”

Father Piekarski said attendees can obviously wear a mask if they want. He has been monitoring the recent increase in cases of the latest omicron subvariant, but the parish is ready to go.

It will look mostly the same, he continued, with some minor changes. The carnival benefits the parish athletic association and the parish itself. The athletic association does the planning.

Carnival ride the Cliff Hanger ride during St. Helena Parish Carnival, which runs from April 29-4. Photo/Don Blake

This is Father Piekarski’s eighth year at St. John the Beloved, and he is excited to have it back. He remembers going to a carnival as a boy on the grounds of the Our Lady of Grace Home in Ogletown, and as a priest, he has been to his share.

“It’s a good community builder and a good parish builder,” he said. “I’m used to carnivals.”

While the Italian Festival is going on in Wilmington, another carnival is taking place below the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. St. Joseph Parish in Middletown will celebrate the return of its carnival June 14-18.

“We’re excited to get back to it,” said Dominic Marra, the chairperson.

It will have the usual carnival stuff: rides, games, food and entertainment, Marra said. The parish has had a carnival for a quarter century, he added. It began as a May fair, a one-day event at the old church held around Mother’s Day. It included a live auction and the Future Farmers of America, It then became a three-day event with games and other attractions, and now has grown along with the parish.

Marra said it’s a good way to bring the St. Joseph community and the greater Middletown area together. It’s also an opportunity for the parish to show what it has to offer.

“It’s a great community effort,” he said. We all get to know each other a little bit better.”

The first of the four remaining carnivals will take place beginning Memorial Day and running through June 4 at Holy Rosary in Claymont. One of the longer-running events of its kind, the carnival brings people from Holy Rosary and beyond to the entire campus on Philadelphia Pike.

The parish was ready to go last year, but a surge in covid cases as Memorial Day got closer caused another cancellation. This year, it will include 16 amusement rides, three food courts, a beer garden, live entertainment and a Holy Rosary alumni night.

The fifth carnival making its return is SummerFest at Holy Family Parish in Newark. It will take place from July 13-17 on the parish grounds along Route 4 and will include rides, games and food. Mare Draper, a pastoral associate and community liaison at the parish, said they held it last summer after much prayer and consideration.

“We held our breath hoping that the restrictions would lift in time for us to start the festival,” she said. “It was close, but we made it just in time for an all-time record success.”

She said SummerFest is a big fundraiser for Holy Family, and many parishioners support it as patrons and volunteers. She added that it’s a great homecoming for families and friends. All tickets for SummerFest are available at the parish website. Discounts are available if they are purchased in advance.