Mary Tapogna/Catholic Sentinel
Tony and Jean Rizzo celebrated their 48th anniversary at the crab dinner in 1996.

Mary Tapogna/Catholic Sentinel

Tony and Jean Rizzo celebrated their 48th anniversary at the crab dinner in 1996.

It turns out that church dinners can be about more than they seem.

That’s the case at Ascension Parish in Southeast Portland, which has been serving up crab legs in late January since at least 1970. In addition to crustacean limbs and coleslaw, the menu includes a side of fellowship, a big helping of support for the wider church and sweet evangelization for dessert.

Camaraderie

Ascension was one of the first parishes in the region to hold Mass in Spanish. Now, about 60 percent of parishioners are Hispanic. They and Anglo parishioners find the crab feed a good moment for side-by-side fellowship — a Holy Grail moment for parishes with different ethnic groups.

“When you are working in the kitchen together, you build a relationship,” says Father David Jaspers, pastor of Ascension. “When you are serving tables, you are building a relationship.”

Terry and Gayle Pizzutto and Ron and Sharon Mariani ran the dinner for 11 years starting in 1982. “It was really fun. You had a lot of camaraderie,” says Terry, who confesses that he does not even like crab. He would sneak a hamburger into the church hall.  

Dinners even create mutual support between different parishes, says Terry. Ascension and St. Stephen parishioners would make a point of attending each other’s events.

The dinner represents devotion of parishioners. Over the years, organizers and workers have given many hours. Nancy Ryan Smith, who has worked the dinner for 15 years and is leading it for the third year, starts tasks in September and keeps at it through late on dinner night.

She says many parishioners and neighbors have shown great dedication in attending, despite the increased cost of crab legs.

‘In the wider sense’

The crab dinner began as support for the parish’s own school. After it closed in the 1970s, proceeds helped nearby St. Stephen School, where many Ascension families sent their children. Later, when the Archdiocese of Portland asked all parishes to pay subsidies for their children who attend Catholic schools, the dinner began to cover that expense. Parents of students were required to work at the dinner and then were asked to be organizers.

The money does not pay tuition; it goes to the schools for general operations. Father Jaspers wants parishioners to realize that the dinner is not meant to fund certain families, but is an act by the parish as a whole to support Catholic education.

Behind all the fun is support for a good cause, says Sharon Grigar, pastoral associate at Ascension. “As Catholics, we are all called to support Catholic education,” Grigar says. “We want our children to grow in the faith.”

About 25 children from Ascension attend Catholic schools, including All Saints, St. Therese and St. Ignatius. Ascension is one of many parishes without a school that asks itself: How do we promote the archdiocese’s mission of Catholic education?

The priest proposes a possible motto for the dinner: “Each crab gets us closer to sharing the Gospel with our kids.”

 “We believe in Catholic education as part of the mission of Jesus, reaching Catholics and non-Catholics,” Father Jaspers says.

“We are one archdiocese of many parishes,” he explains. “Christ is being promoted in the archdiocese. We are not monads. We are not just serving our people, but we are serving God’s people in the wider sense of the word.”

‘How is Jesus present?’

Father Jaspers wants his parishioners to see evangelizing potential in dinners and other public gatherings. The priest knows that if a parish says “Come to an evangelization event!” non-Catholics would run the other way. But crab gets them in the door. The question is what to do next.

“Too many people do these events just to raise money,” the priest says. “That is missing the point. It is a pre-evangelization event.”

By “pre-evangelization,” he means setting the table for people to be curious about the Good News.  

“People who are not Catholic come to the dinner,” says Father Jaspers. “How are we making Jesus present there? How will their experience make them want to come to Mass next week?”

Ideas include grace before dinner and a Mass schedule printed on placemats. The welcoming presence of parish staff, including the pastor, could make a big difference.

Smith, the current organizer, says the warmth of parishioners and the fun and the hard work of students who wait tables is a good testimony to visitors.

“It’s an opportunity for people to come in who might not otherwise set foot in a church,” Grigar says. “It’s baby steps and non-threatening.”

Father Jaspers is not worried that modest religious moments at the dinner will scare people off. “These people just came to a church,” he says. “We can’t get so worried about offending people that we forget to be who we are.”