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Pandemic restrictions are easing, but not in time for most parish festivals in Diocese of Wilmington

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Carnival goers ride the dragon roller coaster during St. Helena Parish Carnival in 2019. Dialog photo/Don Blake

The coronavirus laid waste to the parish carnival in 2020, and thus far more than a year into the pandemic, the picture hasn’t changed too much. With one exception, parishes that are mainstays on the festival calendar for the most part are making adjustments once again with a threat to public health and safety still an issue.

St. Helena Parish in Bellefonte is traditionally the first carnival on the calendar, at the end of April, but the pastor, Msgr. Stanley Russell, said if it happens in 2021, it will be in the fall.

“It’s very much up in the air,” he said recently. “Under the present rules, we’d have to be accounting for people coming into the grounds and how many leave. It would really be very difficult under the present rules.”

Skelly’s, the New Jersey vendor that provides rides, games and food booths to many parishes and other organizations, has provided St. Helena’s with a week in September where there is an opening. Msgr. Russell said no decision has been made, but planning a carnival takes months.

St. Helena Parishioner Dave Patch makes funnel cakes during St. Helena Parish Carnival in 2019. Dialog photo/Don Blake

Likewise, at St. John the Beloved Parish in Wilmington, the carnival that normally takes place in June has been postponed. Father Joe Piekarski, the pastor, said the parish is hoping to have something in the fall, but nothing is certain. The carnival is sponsored by the athletic association, with the proceeds benefiting the athletic program and the parish. Even if they have something in the fall, he would expect the amount of money raised to be down.

“I don’t think it would be the impact that we normally have,” Father Piekarski said.

Holy Rosary Parish in Claymont has held a carnival the week of Memorial Day every year except for 2020 for more than 50 years. But 2021 will mark the second straight spring with no activity on the grounds that week.

Bill Moschelle, the parish manager, said pastor Father John Gayton and the staff have decided that holding a carnival in May is not feasible. The list of requirements given to Holy Rosary by the state makes holding an event a bit difficult. For example, for contract tracing purposes, the parish would have had to collect names and phone numbers of everyone entering the grounds. That didn’t mean there would have been an admission fee, Moschelle said, but access would have had to be controlled.

There were “too many variables at play and alterations we had to make to the property,” Moschelle said. The parish is going to try to hold a carnival in September, he added.

St. Hedwig parishioner Angela Nye cooks Kielbasa on the grill during the Polish Festival at the Wilmington Western Railroad, Thursday, July 18, 2019. Dialog photo/Don Blake

St. John the Beloved also has never been enclosed, although St. Helena’s and St. Anthony’s Italian Festival do have entrances and an admission fee.

Revenue crunch

Carnivals are generally among the biggest fundraisers for parishes, and not having them last year added to their financial crunch. Holy Rosary and others were able to close that gap through the Payroll Protection Program, and at some churches, employees’ hours have been reduced.

Msgr. Russell said offertory contributions at St. Helena have remained remarkably steady throughout the pandemic, even with the capacity in church reduced and some parishioners staying home for health reasons.

“So far, the parishioners have been more generous than we expected,” he said.

That has also been the case at St. Joseph Parish in Middletown, where Msgr. David Kelley is the pastor. As of May 3, no final decision on whether the carnival would be held this year had been announced.

“People have been generous,” he said. But, he added, “We have cut back on most of our activities.”

St. Joseph’s carnival, which normally takes place in July, is its largest event. It also brings the entire Middletown-Odessa-Townsend community together, Catholic and not. Msgr. Russell said he misses the social aspect of the carnival. He has overseen carnivals at St. Helena’s and two previous pastorates – Our Lady of Fatima and Holy Rosary – for 50 years.

“A lot of people miss the opportunity to form community and renew it and see a lot of friends,” he said, although he noted that the number of people attending Mass on Sundays is gradually increasing.