Saint George Parish prepares more than 200 dozen doughy delicacies for upcoming bazaar
By Melissa Komar
The smell of Swiacki’s sauerkraut was so thick you could cut it with a knife at Saint George Parish hall last Tuesday night.
Operation pierogi was in full effect, with the opening weekend of the parish’s annual bazaar less than a month away.
Keeping up with a tradition taking place for more than 50 years and counting, parishioners were manning various stations in a assembly line-like process that churns out more than 200 dozen sauerkraut and potato and cheese pierogies combined each year.
“We’re here each morning from 8 a.m. until we finish at night. Last week, we were here until 10:30 p.m.,” said Betty Markowski, who has been the school secretary for 33 years and helps manage the undertaking. “We used about 120 pounds of potatoes, all hand-peeled, all cut up.”
“Your fingernails stay brown for days,” said Helen MacEwan, who attended school at Saint George and has helped make pierogies for more than 20 years. “When you’re cooking them, the oil from it, no matter how hard you wash your clothes, doesn’t come out, so you just have to throw them out.”
Nancy Konopka, who also attended Saint George, began working at the school in high school.
“When you work here, it’s ‘Get out of the rectory, go into the hall and start making pierogies,’ ” she said.
Three days out of the month before the bazaar in June, parishioners arrive at the school hall at 8 a.m. and get to work.
Making the pierogis starts with peeling the potatoes, dicing them, rinsing them, putting them in large pots to boil, and hand-mashing them, according to the women.
The potatoes are left to cool for a few hours before parishioners hand-roll each ball, before being sealed in dough.
Making the dough is another process altogether, designated to the Szczepanski family for decades.
“This is actually my mother’s recipe. She showed it to me,” said David Szczepanski, diligently rolling out dough, his wife, Karen, cutting it next to him. “She’s 80 and was here last week. I went to school here, my mom went to school here, and my son is graduating from here this year. So, he’s the third generation to help here. I make the dough and roll it out to help wherever I can.”
After the dough is made, it’s time to fill it.
“Each ball is placed in the dough and each pierogi has to be hand-pinched,” MacEwan said. “Then they come into the kitchen on trays and are put into boiling water, cooked, flash-freezed, then drained, dried, wrapped and bagged.”
Sauerkraut pierogies are made the same way, only the sauerkraut has to be cooked for three hours and strained to remove all the liquid “because if you get any in the dough, it falls apart,” according to MacEwan.
Pierogies are completely cooked “when they float to the top and the coloring changes,” according to MacEwan.
Flash-freezing means putting the pierogies in an ice bath and each one is individually patted down gently prior to being bagged.
Former pastor Monsignor Joseph Anderlonis previously manned the pierogi drying post.
“He would bless every single one of them,” said Konopka, laughing.
“He was our dryer, patting them down and packing them,” Markowski added. “He’d spend most of the afternoon rolling those potato balls for the 33 years he was here.”
When he was reassigned to Saint Francis de Sales parish in West Philadelphia in June 2016, David Szczepanski Jr., 13, who has lent a hand to the pierogi operation since he was 5, stepped in to fill his shoes.
“I always liked helping people in the community and I’ve been doing it since I was little when my grandmother worked here,” David said. “Hard work and dedication [make good pierogies]. People come out and put a lot of time in. I’m sure they’ll turn out good. They always have and always will.”
David started running trays of pierogies back to the kitchen, wearing a chef jacket, and would bring refreshments to parishioners making the pierogies.
One of those parishioners is Henrietta Hutt, 75, who has been a parishioner at Saint George her entire life.
“My mother used to bring me with her when she worked the bazaar,” Hutt said. “I’ve been making [pierogies] at least 50 years. You have to make sure you pinch them so they don’t open in the water when they’re boiling.”
Hutt makes pierogies at home with her family at least once a year.
Sis Sadowski, 85, is also a lifelong parishioner, and started making pierogies when she was 16.
“I live across the street, so I’ve been to every bazaar,” Sadowski said. “ ‘How long have we been doing this, Henrietta?’ Practically forever. We want to keep our churches and parishes going for as long as we can.”
The parishioners are tight-lipped when it comes to which specific ingredients go into each pierogi, revealing no more than it being “just a basic recipe,” and that “the pierogies are like snowflakes, no two are alike,” according to MacEwan.
“Anyone could have a bazaar with games and frozen food,” MacEwan said. “We want to give them something to come home to. Real, hand-made food by people who love the parish. It’s a lot of work. But, that’s why we do it.”
Serving only the best for the people who call Saint George home or come back years later is the cardinal rule.
“It’s one of the biggest draws. It’s a tradition,” Markowski said. “Bazaars are dying down at parishes and there’s only a few of us still doing them, so we want to make it the best for the people. It’s a big reunion every year. And, they come back for this food. Pierogies and blynai are our home-made signatures.”
The Saint George annual Summer Bazaar will be held on Thursdays, June 7 and 14, Fridays, June 8 and 15, and Saturdays, June 9 and 16, at Saint George Parish, 2700 E. Venango St.