If it’s a Friday during Lent, you can smell the fish frying from the parking lot of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, Davenport.

That’s one of the ways to know you’re at the right place — the gathering that’s lauded as the largest fish fry in the Quad-City area.

Another way?

Look for Mary Klauer.

The 84-year-old Klauer, who sings in the church choir, wears a yellow truck hat pinned with three stuffed animal-type fish.

“I wear my fish fry hat all the time,” Klauer said. “You know you’ve come to the right place when you see the funny old lady with the fish hat.”

The former cook at Davenport West High School has volunteered at each fish fry since the tradition began 35 years ago. She’s battered and fried the fish, served it and cleaned up the silverware.

“I’ve done about all there is to do here,” she said.

That’s why volunteers this year gifted her another fish fry accessory: an apron inscribed with the title “Queen of St. Al’s Fish Fry.”

“I feel a little embarrassed about it,” she said. “I think it’s just because I’ve been here longer than anybody else.”

It’s also because Klauer knows the secrets of St. Al’s fish fry, from the seasonings’ key ingredient to why so many people — many outside the church’s congregation — come each year.

She knows it’s not always about size of the event. It’s also about the soul.

Sense of community

Last year, during my first few months at the Quad-City Times, I wrote about the annual phenomenon, which steadily brings droves of people — their record is 1,200 in one night — to the small central city church’s cafeteria on the Fridays between Ash Wednesday and Easter.

Back then, a non-churchgoer told me, “Once you come, you know to come back.”

I think they were right. Maybe that’s why the event has grown so much since its beginning in 1982, when about 20 of the church’s members caught some fish and got together at the church. They ate dinner together and played cards for hours, said Tom Stahler, president of the Holy Name Society, the church’s confraternity.

“Over the years, it’s just gotten bigger and bigger,” he said. “I think it’s because of the taste and quality of the fish. We’ve got it down to a science. It’s kind of like organized chaos.”

The team of 50 volunteers serves all-you-can-eat plates of baked and fried fish, baked potatoes, french fries, coleslaw and onion rings. They go through about six kegs of Coors Light. Soda, coffee and homemade desserts also are available.

What else brings people back?

“It’s about the people,” Stahler said. “It’s a social thing. People get together and share a meal.”

After going through the line — some wait for more than an hour — diners find a seat in the crowded cafeteria, which is named after Klauer’s late husband, Paul. You’ll hear lots of “How have you been?” and “Good to see you’re back” from each corner of the room.

Socializing is Mary Klauer’s favorite part. Three of her five children volunteer at the fish fry as well as several of her grandchildren.

“You see the same people over and over and you feel kinship with them,” she said. “All of these people look familiar. You see them at the grocery store, they’re neighbors or they go to church with you. Some are strangers, too, but that doesn’t matter.”

‘Come for the fish, stay for the faith’

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The fish fry serves as the church’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Money raised goes toward a variety of expenses, from the insurance bill to buying wine and bread for communion.

“We’d probably go out of business without the fish fry,” Klauer said.

On some level, it serves another mission: To get people of all different religions in one space, where you'll find a sign reading  "Come for the fish, stay for the faith." 

One of those people is the Rev. Chris Young, a pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Moline who also often speaks at St. Al's.

“You want some theology?” he asked me before delving into how important — no, sacred — the family meal is.

“This gives us the opportunity to share a meal in common and come together,” Young said. “It’s wonderful season of hospitality. Some may never come to our church any other time but the fish fry.”

For some, this is the only time they’ll step foot into any church all year.

And Klauer, who attends Mass every Sunday, said everyone is welcome.

“We’re not judgmental. Everybody’s human and has failings,” she said. “My religion is important to me and it’s a good religion. It’s about being kind to people and not wanting to fight with your neighbor.”

Sometimes faith-related conversations come up at the fish fry and sometimes Klauer sticks to talking about her grandkids, her favorite John Denver song or her adventures while deer hunting.

On Friday, as the line swelled at St. Al's, we talked about the time, decades ago, she gave up cream in her coffee for Lent. And how she never craved cream in her coffee again.  

“We’re not asked to give up much,” she said. “Sometimes when you do that, it changes your life and it changes your soul."

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).