Jennifer Brooks
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Any other year, the gymnasium at Our Lady of Peace would be crowded with happy, hungry people this Friday.

The first fish fry of Lent always drew hundreds of people to this small Catholic parish and school in the Nokomis neighborhood of south Minneapolis. For $12 a plate, they crunched through battered fish fillets and cheesy potatoes and scrunched together at long tables until you couldn't tell where one family ended and the next one began.

It was greasy and wonderful and it was one more thing Minnesotans gave up for Lent last year, when the state slipped into its first state of emergency one Friday in March, hours before the first fillets were set to drop into the deep fryers.

It's the second year of the pandemic, and COVID-19 has killed half a million Americans. Many churches have been forced to cancel their annual fish dinners — a social highlight in the austere weeks before Easter, and a major parish fundraiser — once again.

But a few, like Our Lady of Peace, had enough space and willing volunteers for the Friday fish fry to carry on — as carryout.

"This is a baby step," said David Marrese, director of advancement at Our Lady of Peace. "Fingers crossed, saying our prayers, we'll all be back in a packed gym next Lent."

Maybe you were lucky enough to score a ticket to Friday's drive-through. They sold out so fast, the parish decided to organize a second drive-through dinner in March.

It won't be like it was. Nothing has been for nearly a year now, for a nation wrapped in masks and grief and a thick cloud of hand sanitizer fumes.

"We're a far cry from normal," Marrese said, repeating the lesson parents and students at Our Lady of Peace parish school have learned over the past year. "What matters is that we're here and learning."

So Our Lady of Peace is pulling its two deep fryers out of storage. Volunteers from the church Men's Club will spend hours ferrying carryout orders from the kitchen to short lines of cars in the parking lot. Each ticket comes with a 15-minute window for pickup, to avoid any risk of long lines and cold fish.

It was the only Minneapolis church to appear on the shortlist of 2021 fish fry dinners put together by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

But for those hungry for fishes and loaves — and quick enough to place your orders before tickets sell out — there's plenty of fried Catholic comfort food to be found.

Beer-battered cod and French fries at St. Therese in Deephaven. Walleye at St. John Neumann in Eagan.

Lebanese Lenten takeout — fish, fried cabbage and garlic flatbread — every Friday until Good Friday at Holy Family Marionite Church in Mendota Heights.

Alaskan pollock and tater tots, for the price of a freewill donation, at St. Michael in Farmington, followed by the Stations of the Cross.

At Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul, Lent means takeout enchiladas every Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

"We are sad that we can't welcome all of our patrons into the warmth of our social hall, but we can't complain because we sold out this past Friday," the Rev. Andrew Brinkman, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, reported. "Our finances have been tight this year and we thank you Lord Jesus for taking care of our needs."

Losing the fish fry last year was one of the first blows of the pandemic.

"It was one of those very tough pills to swallow," Marrese said. "Before you also realized, 'Oh, you're also going to miss a baseball season, and a Christmas.' "

But a lot of Minnesotans did it. They wore the masks, they canceled vacations, they blew out birthday candles on Zoom. They left the church gymnasium empty this Lent.

A Lenten sacrifice to save something more precious. The next 500,000 American lives. The next 6,434 Minnesotans.

Like they tell the children at Our Lady of Peace: What matters is that you're here.

You can find a list of parishes offering drive-through and carryout fish and meatless dinners at 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks