Food poisoning could jeopardize church tradition Southern Marylanders fear damage to fund-raising dinners

November 07, 1997|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

HELEN -- The painted-plywood sign poked into the ground outside Mother Catherine Spalding Elementary School yesterday read more like a warning than an invitation: "Church Dinner Here -- Sunday."

Days after hundreds of people became violently ill and two died after eating tainted food at the fall dinner at Our Lady of the Wayside Church, three nearby churches were preparing to hold dinners this weekend.

Old-timers including V. H. "Dutch" Mast take pride in the yearly slew of turkey-and-ham church dinners that are as much a part of Southern Maryland's autumn as football and the kale harvest. The annual fund-raisers are a mainstay of church budgets.

For 40 years, Mast's role in that tradition has been preparing ham for St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, which will hold a dinner Sunday at Mother Catherine Spalding, which is down the road.

In May, Mast slaughtered 45 corn-fed hogs, soaked them in brine for two months, then rubbed the meat with red pepper and dried it in paper bags until yesterday. The result -- called old ham -- is "just like our forefathers did it," he said.

In the kitchen of the elementary school, Mast and half a dozen other church volunteers boiled and sliced their hams, chopped celery and otherwise prepared for their big dinner.

All of them were hoping that the state's worst recent food-poisoning incident wouldn't ruin their Sunday feasts. More important, they were hoping it wouldn't mar their beloved tradition permanently.

"But I'm afraid it's going to hurt," Mast said as he sliced into a caramel-brown ham and shared a piece with a reporter.

Another worker, Karen Guy, said, "It'll have a devastating effect. I don't think we'll have that many people this year."

Health officials investigating the food poisoning of many of the 1,400 who attended Our Lady of the Wayside's dinner in nearby Chaptico say the culprit might have been food that was under-cooked in the homes of church volunteers, then brought to the church to be served.

Practices vary from church to church. St. Joseph's has long prepared its dinners in the school cafeteria, with its stainless steel tables and trays, and powerful ovens and boilers.

"See, we stopped letting people cook in their homes years ago," said Bob Hmieleski, the school's principal. "All our turkeys, everything is cooked here. It's a little more antiseptic, more controlled."

Mast and his crew wore gloves as they handled the food for Sunday's dinner. Even so, they washed their hands frequently in an effort to prevent the spread of bacteria. "You need to wash your hands all the time," Mast said. "We preach that here."

It seemed likely, however, that the food poisoning at the &L Chaptico dinner would keep people away from Mast's old ham.

St. Joseph's had been expecting as many as 1,200 diners, but several bus-loads scheduled to attend from churches elsewhere the state canceled yesterday. Each lost diner means $15 less for the church coffers.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Lexington Park was also bracing for possible no-shows at its dinner Sunday, which it had hoped would draw more than 1,000.

"It's an old-country way of trying to make money to support the church," said the Rev. Tom Gude, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Gude said pastors in Southern Maryland develop a network. When the fall dinners are held, they bring bus-loads of parishioners to each other's churches.

In the shiny, tidy kitchen Mother Catherine Spalding school, workers said they realized it would take more than hand-washing to rid this region with its horse-drawn carts and pick-it-yourself kale of the stain of the food-poisoning incident.

"I'm afraid people are going to hear 'St. Mary's County' and associate St. Mary's County with salmonella," Hmieleski said.

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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