PITTSFIELD -- Yes, the crowd at the annual Polish Picnic at St. Joseph Church is always convivial. And yes, there were plenty of raffles and games of chance in which people could participate. And yes, there were games and a jumping room for the children.
But if one goes to a Polish picnic, one probably goes for the Polish food.
Such was, largely, the case for Sunday's event. In the Polish food tent, there was kielbasa, kapusta, cheese pierogis, cabbage pierogis and golumbki. (There was also an American food tent that sold hot dogs, hamburgers, French fried and sausages.)
For most of the afternoon people were lined up waiting to buy one of more of the Polish delicacies. The reason is simple, according to volunteer Richard Lysonki: Everything is made from scratch and cooked on the premises.
Pierogis are dumplings that are baked or fried, usually in butter with onions. They can be filled with cabbage, cheese, potatoes, ground meat or even fruit. At St. Joseph's on Sunday, the cheese peirogis were selling like crazy.
"It's a lost art," said Lysonki, who estimated that volunteers made about 2,200 cheese pierogis, 1,200 cabbage pierogis, as well as 1,800 golombkis and 50 gallons of kapusta. All of it was expected to be sold by the end of the day, he said.
In fact, the cheese pierogis are so popular that there was a limit on how many an individual customer could buy. Many people, he said, bring them home for their families.
""We have a hard time keeping up with the demand," he admitted.
This is the 57th annual Polish Picnic in Pittsfield, according to chairman John Arasimowicz, who has overseen 20 of them. This is the fourth picnic to be held at St. Joseph. Previously, the picnics had been hosted by Holy Family. But when that church closed, "we made a commitment to honor the traditions of that church," said the Rev. Michael Shershanovich, pastor of St. Joseph. "And we've horned that commitment, as you see today. We are proud to do so."
This is the church's largest fundraiser, said Arasimowicz, raising anywhere from $17,000 to $25,000 to help defer parish expenses. An estimated 3,000 people were expected to visit the picnic by the end of the day, he said.
To that end, Arasimowicz said, he had more than 100 volunteers, from ages 10 to 95 years, helping out.
"All volunteers," he said. "And some of them, I've had for years.
"This is not limited to the Polish community, or even the Catholic community," he said. "We have visitors from throughout the county and beyond."
One of those visitors, John Gonzales from Hartford, was at the picnic with his wife Ann and their three children.
Gonzales has relatives in the area, he said, and he and his wife wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
"I have to admit," said Gonzales with a laugh, "I don't eat Polish food. I bought a hamburg and my kids had hot dogs. But it's a lot of fun, and I think it's a great idea to have it on North Street. There's a lot of parking around here and it's easy to find."
"Oh, you don't want to talk to me, I'm Italian," said Lola Warren of Pittsfield.
But her visitor persisted, and Warren said she comes for the fun of it all.
"I come to play the Wheel [of Fortune] and I come and do the raffles," she said, adding that she also likes to get a piece of fried dough and sit in the sun and watch the people walking by.
Raffle tickets were $1 each or $6 for an "arm's worth," which was the number of tickets that would run the length of an individual's arm, usually, seven or eight. A volunteer was asked what would happen if an exceptionally tall man wanted to buy an "arm's worth" of tickets.
The volunteer shrugged.
"He'd get a lot of tickets, I guess," the volunteer said.
It was, of course, a time for fun and food and Polish polka music. "The Beer Barrel Polka", ironically a Czech song, was one of the most popular songs on Sunday.
It was also a time of reflection for some. An elderly man walked into St. Joseph Church in mid-afternoon, dipped his fingers into the holy water and blessed himself. He stood inside the church for about 10 minutes, leaning against a pew. When he exited, he politely declined to tell a reporter his name.
"No, I just wanted to step inside for a minute and say a prayer for my mother and father who are gone," he said softly. "It's Sunday, after all."
To reach Derek Gentile:
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