If there is a special place in heaven for the volunteer who stands over the deep-fat kettle all day, it should go to an East Baltimore woman named Stella Kasprzak.
The 83-year-old lifelong communicant of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Fells Point spent her Ash Wednesday frying "1,980-something" homemade codfish cakes for an afternoon of lunch and bingo.
"I'm happy today. We got a nice crowd out there," she said in a hot church kitchen as she surveyed the several hundred parishioners and friends she had just fed.
Each year Miss Stella, as she is universally known, stages an event called the Miraculous Medal Sodality Codfish Bingo. It pretty much looks like a well-populated luncheon, one that ends with several cards of the game that has become synonymous with church halls. Judging from the way people ate, then carried home 50 dozen takeout orders, the 60-cent "coddies" went over pretty well, too.
"We have our religious side of the day, then we have a little fun," said Miss Stella, a widow who lives on South Lakewood Avenue. "I don't know what I would do if I didn't have my church kitchen work. I guess I would sit at home and look at the ceiling."
That line gets a laugh from three other vigorous kitchen volunteers: Agnes Danielak, the oldest of the group, who is 90; and Wanda Kleinsmith and Genevieve Zientak, who both are their 70s. They are all members of the Miraculous Medal Sodality, a Roman Catholic society that meets primarily for devotional purposes but knows how to have a good time too.
Ash Wednesday, which traditionally begins the observance of Lent, the Christian time of prayer and preparation before Easter Sunday, proved a worthy day to get out the East Baltimore neighbors.
Some 30 minutes before the start of 11 a.m. Mass, Fells Point residents started out for the day's observance. Many walked to the old church at 700 S. Ann St. At least one man was pushed along in a wheelchair. Some people hobbled with canes. The church's main aisle of pews filled up. Latecomers filled the sides.
A few minutes before the Mass began, an electric-light crown of stars blinked above the head of a large statue of the Virgin Mary. A few people quickly darted to light votive candles.
After reading the Gospel and preaching a sermon, the Rev. Matthew Kotkowski, a Franciscan friar, notched small ash crosses on the foreheads of those who formed long lines for the rite. As his parishioners approached, he spoke the ancient prayer: "Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return."
Only a few minutes earlier, in the Gospel of the day, he had read the words of St. Matthew: "When you fast, you are not to look glum as the hypocrites do."
After the Mass concluded, nearly all the congregation seemed to heed the words of the evangelist.
There was not a glum face when they lined up for the meatless $4 platter: two nice codfish cakes, pasta with tomato sauce, a side serving of canned peas and a plastic cup of red Jell-O. It was served in St. Stanislaus Hall, a large building in the rear of the church property that is near and dear to the Fells Point community.
"When the hall burned down we did everything we could to build it back. We even held raffles in the Inner Harbor," said Miss Stella of the building's disastrous July 5, 1978, fire.
The hall was indeed rebuilt, and today it needs a new roof. The proceeds of the codfish-bingo lunch will go toward that. The hall also is used for volleyball, parish dances and other functions, and is on occasion rented out.
"This is the high point for some of our little ladies. They love to get out for bingo," said Dot Dobry of Middle River, who was married at the church 50 years ago, sings in the choir and likes to help run the weekly game of chance.
Indeed, there weren't any complaints from the long tables occupied mostly by grandmotherly women, many of whom showed a new hairdo for the day.
L When things began to quiet, Miss Stella sat down at a table.
"I'll tell you, working together in the kitchen is great," she said. "It gives us a chance to listen to each other's problems. We work hard, but we're a happy group. We never say the word 'old' to each other. And if we're talking about somebody else, we talk in Polish."
Then an order came in for takeout codfish cakes. Faster than you can say "Ash Wednesday," she was up and at the stove.