This year’s St. Patrick’s Rock Church homecoming picnic Aug. 18 in Catawissa had a banner year — thanks in part to balmy weather.
By 11 a.m. that day, patrons filled the old stone church to overflowing for the Mass that officially opens the picnic.
As patrons left the church, attendees found crowds had already started gathering in the quadrangle between the church, dining hall and rectory. All afternoon the crowds kept coming.
Billy Murphy and Bob Conley, who put this event together the third Sunday of every August, always worry about the turnout. A particularly hot summer day can attract sparse crowds and send those who do show up home early. But 2013 turned out to be a banner year.
Revenue for the afternoon was $55,000 making it the largest grossing event since the Preservation Society brought back the 19th century picnics in 1970.
Of the total, some $31,000 will be spent on the church and grounds.
More than 100 of the workers who put on this year’s picnic, heard the extent of their success last Saturday, Sept. 7, when they returned to the dining hall to relax, visit and eat.
Charlotte Murphy, her children and grandchildren, doled out roast beef, pasta, boiled ham, and seas of desserts to the picnic crews.
Part of the financial success of the picnic was attributed to the cost of the all-you-can-eat dinner.
“We raised the price of the dinners by $1 and still sold out,” said John Painter, Preservation Society treasurer. “We had a very, very good year, making $5,000 more than in any previous year.”
A mishap could have slowed the amount of chicken coming out of the kitchen every few minutes except for the skills and tenacity of one of the cooks, who arrived early enough to turn on the seven fryers at 7 a.m. to begin cooking at 8 a.m., according to Ken Prichard, who is in charge of the kitchen.
Seven fryers were installed new in 1998 following a kitchen fire that shut down the kitchen and sent picnic goers to the hot dog line.
“Those fryers hadn’t been touched since they were installed,” Prichard said. “But John Smelz Jr. worked on each one until he got it working. He really saved us.”
After frying 3,000 pounds of chicken, organizers stopped selling dinner tickets at 2,250 to make sure everyone got through the dining room.
In addition to the dinners, Painter’s report identified funds that were raised on beer, bingo, bottle blast, children’s games, chuck-a-luck, the country store, hot dogs, pull tabs, raffle, soda and souvenirs. An additional $3,300 was received in donations.
Mary Beth Schmidt, who wrote a check to bring the profits to a round number, was responsible for the even amount of $31,000 in profits.
“She’s done this every year for the past three years,” Murphy said. “She does it in honor of her husband (the late) Bob Schmidt.”
In 2013, St. Patrick’s also received a $43,000 bequest from a patron, who said the funds could be spent any way the Society thought best.
As a result of last year’s picnic and the bequest, some $70,000 was spent on the church and grounds this year.
“That’s the most we’ve ever spent in one year,” Murphy said.
When the picnics were started in 1973 the picnic raised $6,484 and made a profit of $4,119 to maintain the church.
In the ensuing years, including 2013, the picnic has taken in a total of $1,100,711 and made a total profit of $622,053 that has been spent to renovate, repair and maintain the church and cemetery.
“When we started, we never had any idea it could grow to this,” Murphy said.