Sunday, April 14, 2024

A Savory Tradition: Fastnachts Go Fast at Holy Trinity and St. Cecilia Parishes

Across the globe, the day before Lent is referred to as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras – a time to enjoy rich, savory feasts and sweet treats before beginning 40 days of abstinence and penitence for Lent. But in the Diocese, the days leading up to Lent are also known for one specific treat in particular: fastnachts. And when they finally are available, they go for sale quick.

Jim Knapp is a volunteer who oversees the fastnacht sales at Holy Trinity Parish in Columbia. “I call the meetings together, order the ingredients, set the dates and prices,” he explained. “I overlook the entire operation.”

Holy Trinity has been selling fastnachts for 100 years, and it’s a tradition that is still going strong.

“It started to help pay off the church,” Knapp said. “Somehow, the whole parish got involved. We still have to raise funds – it’s a lot of upkeep. If there’s any money left over, it goes towards supporting [Our Lady of the Angels] school or projects the church might have.”

And over the years, their fastnacht operation has grown by leaps and bounds. “We started out just plain fastnachts. After so long, somebody decided to try glazed; well, since I’ve been with them, almost 76 percent of the fastnachts sold are glazed now,” he said, adding, “Glazed are just a big seller.”

Not familiar with fastnachts? The word translates to “Fasting Night” or “Almost Night,” and the treat itself comes from Pennsylvania Dutch settlers who began immigrating to the South Central Pennsylvania area from southern Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. And while they’re certainly similar to donuts, they’re not quite the same thing.

“It’s a German recipe. Lancaster County and this area, it’s a German people here, it’s like their home product,” Knapp explained. “The difference between this and a donut – a fastnacht is started with potato water, yeast and flour, whereas a donut is really a cake. Fastnacht rises, so it’s got more of a bread texture.”

For Holy Trinity, fastnachts have become a community project, with volunteers of all faiths joining in to help. “If they’re there and they want to help, they can help,” Knapp said. “Rolling, drying, glazing, and even the night before, they help with the mixture. They put it in the warming closet and it rises during the night. They are involved in the whole process.”
Currently, there are approximately 200 people helping at Holy Trinity, and last year, they sold approximately 4,300 dozen fastnachts – that’s over 50,000 altogether! This year’s fastnachts are already sold out, via pre-sales.

“It’s a very important fundraiser for the parish. It’s significant. They’re only available during Lent,” Knapp said. “You don’t get fastnachts any other time, so people go without eating them for a year, so they crave them when they come. And we do it all for the church. It’s good camaraderie, and everyone gets along real well. It’s just a good time doing it.”

Ed Hicks coordinates the sales for St. Cecilia Parish in Lebanon, which took place the weekend before Ash Wednesday. “I have some helpers, but I coordinate the purchasing, where the volunteers fill in each shift,” he said. “We start Friday night at 9 p.m., and then it’s 24 hours a day until, this year, it was 3 p.m. on Sunday. I make sure we have volunteers fully staffed on each shift.”

The parish receives over 25,000 pounds worth of baking material each year, delivered to the social hall basement, where the process of making the fastnachts begins. They have seven 30×30 commercial fryers, and seven 6×6 sugar tables, as well as two commercial mixers. All of those tools combine to make 13 pounds of dough for one bowl, where it then goes to the proofing room and sits for about one hour to rise. After rising, the dough is cut, fried, sugared and ready to sell – and fastnachts were purchased 24 hours a day.

“Our first was bought at 12:01 a.m.,” Hicks said. “We had a line – that person got in line at 6:30 p.m. He waited in line for five-and-a-half hours to be the first person. We probably had an hour wait for the last person.”

“We sell a lot more sugared than plain,” Hicks said.

At St. Cecilia’s, the fastnacht sales have been going on for nearly 100 years, making it a tradition that generations have looked forward to each year. There are over 250 people volunteering each year at St. Cecilia’s to keep the tradition going – both within the parish and from the neighboring community. Hicks said it’s all possible solely because of the volunteers. “We have some people that even drive down from Allentown to volunteer – they heard about it online,” he said. “This is their second year now.” And even a century later, it still has strong meaning.

“It’s community, it’s tradition and it’s fun. It’s as much a social event as it is a Lenten event,” Hicks said. “It’s a way to celebrate with the community – just to show the community we’re there to support them and what type of people we are as a religious community.”

(Casandra Chesser is a freelance reporter for The Catholic Witness.)

(St. Cecilia photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness. Holy Trinity photos courtesy of parish volunteers.)

By Casandra Chesser, The Catholic Witness

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