1 dinner bell rings, another is silent St. Mary's County residents support church tradition

November 10, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

HELEN -- For lovers of Southern Maryland's church dinners, the best and worst possible outcomes from last week's salmonella outbreak occurred yesterday in St. Mary's County.

At St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church's annual dinner in Helen, hundreds of parishioners, neighbors and county officials -- all with hearty appetites -- gobbled plates of old or salted ham, turkey, oysters, kale and green beans. Many said they attended to show their support for the area's tradition, including some who had recovered from being ill with salmonella.

But less than 20 miles away on the outskirts of Lexington Park, the sign outside Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church showed a parish feeling the harsher effects of the salmonella scare: "Fall dinner cancelled. Sorry."

More than half of the 1,400 people who attended the Nov. 2 annual dinner of Our Lady of Wayside Church in Chaptico became sick last week after eating food -- probably stuffed ham -- tainted with salmonella.

Two people who ate at the dinner later died, but the exact cause of their deaths will not be determined until autopsy tests are completed, likely this week.

In the week since the dinner at Our Lady of Wayside, the biggest fear among St. Mary's County parishioners was that the salmonella outbreak would taint all Southern Maryland church dinners. The fall dinners typically are the biggest fund-raisers for the rural churches, often representing up to 5 percent of annual revenues.

Yesterday, the difference between St. Joseph's and Immaculate Heart of Mary couldn't have been more startling.

At the St. Joseph's dinner, hungry people poured into the cafeteria of Mother Catherine Spalding Elementary School as soon as the doors opened at noon. The arrival of a bus with 47 people from a Rockville parish buoyed hopes that the dinner would be a success, as did a steady stream of residents stopping by for takeout packages before the Redskins game kickoff.

"I'm not going to let a one-time thing get in the way of coming back to church dinners," said Tom Grassinger, 39, of Mechanicsville, who, with his 2-year-old daughter, had become sick after attending the Our Lady of Wayside dinner. "You've got to eat somewhere, and what happened there really could happen anywhere -- even in our home or in a restaurant.

"What are you going to do? Stop eating because you're afraid of getting sick?" Grassinger asked.

Showing support

For Alice Veney, there was never a question about attending the St. Joseph's dinner yesterday with her family -- even though her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson became ill last week.

"Now that everyone has recovered, of course we were coming back. We need to support this tradition," said Veney, 66, a member of Our Lady of Wayside parish. Veney worked in the kitchen during the Nov. 2 dinner but escaped the salmonella outbreak because she was so busy that a roll was the only thing she had time to eat.

By the end of yesterday's five-hour dinner, about 1,007 people had eaten at St. Joseph's -- down only slightly from the 1,081 meals served last year.

Last week's salmonella outbreak did cause some changes in food preparation and service yesterday.

County health officials checked the kitchen regularly. Food thermometers were used. Waiters were assigned to serve food or clear dirty dishes -- but not both. And even for the five minutes that turkey and ham were unrefrigerated before being packed into carryout boxes, they were stored in pans of ice.

To show support for the safety of church dinners, county health officer Dr. Ebenezer Israel and two investigators from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta ate hearty portions yesterday.

"Everything at this dinner was delicious," said Dr. Rodrigo Villar, a CDC medical epidemiologist. "I had no concerns at all about eating here. It is very rare for church dinners to cause outbreaks like what happened last week."

No explanation

But at Immaculate Heart of Mary, the scene was far different.

The only evidence that a dinner had been planned for yesterday was the sign out front announcing its cancellation -- with no explanation.

The Rev. Tom Gude, who told The Sun on Thursday about his church's preparations and his hopes that few of the 1,200 expected diners would be scared away by the salmonella outbreak, would not say why the dinner had been canceled.

"We canceled it. Just leave it alone," he said before closing the front door of his home next to the church.

Not county-ordered

Neither workers nor shoppers at a nearby strip mall knew why the dinner was canceled sometime after Thursday, though all speculated it had something to do with concerns about stuffed ham.

Stuffed ham -- the kind suspected in the salmonella outbreak at Our Lady of Wayside and scheduled to be served at Immaculate Heart of Mary -- involves filling ham shoulders with kale, cabbage and spices, then boiling the ham. The old ham served at St. Joseph's yesterday involves heavily salting and spicing the ham.

But Israel, the county health officer, said his department had not ordered the cancellation of Immaculate Heart of Mary's dinner and offered no explanation for what happened.

Other county and church officials who attended the St. Joseph's dinner said they were either unaware that Immaculate Heart of Mary's dinner had been canceled or did not know the reason.

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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