Niagara Gazette — YOUNGSTOWN — A longtime parishioner at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Main and Chestnut streets, standing just outside the food tent at the annual Strawberry Festival, could hardly keep the secret any longer.
She whispered to a friend: “Something really wonderful has happened this weekend. And I think the Holy Spirit is very much involved too.”
Mary Wieland, the parishioner, was alluding to a decision by interim pastor Rev. Robert Duerr and the small congregation to treat everyone to this year’s event.
Not long after Father Duerr arrived at his new assignment here in April, he was privy to the planning for the June event. “I’ve never been a big fan of fundraising,” he admitted, “And when I heard so much talk about the money involved, the thought occurred that maybe we should make the festival a gift-giving event.”
Not every church member — including those in the vestry managing the temporal affairs — was immediately supportive of the “free” idea. They calmly weighed the prospects, prayed for guidance, and decided to take a leap of faith. “It was considered a tangible use of what God’s grace is all about,” Duerr added.
In a sharp departure from the past, no one was charged for anything last weekend, from the hot dogs, burgers, baked beans and potato salad to the the traditional menu favorite: a generous serving of strawberry shortcake topped with real whipped cream. The festival, a major fundraiser for the church — struggling to survive — was started more than 25 years ago.
Actually it is traced to the era when Fort Niagara, now a state park, was an active military base. “A woman who lived nearby sold strawberry and ice cream sundaes to the soldiers as well as to local residents,” said Karran Swayze, a church member. After the fort was decommissioned, St. John’s eventually took up the idea of a strawberry festival.
In another charitable gesture over the two-day event, the church donated $1,970, all the proceeds from the popular basket raffle, to Niagara Hospice.
In addition to Wieland and Swayze, Mary Ellen Aureli also helped coordinate the event with a number of hard-working volunteers in the foot tent and elsewhere.
The good news spread. Along the short business district on Main Street, people later in the week were still saying, “Did you hear what they did at the St. John’s festival last weekend ... ?”