Curious Louisville

Every Friday during Lent — the period in the Christian calendar between Ash Wednesday and Easter — churches all across the city serve up fried fish, and sides like macaroni and cheese, coleslaw and green beans. Hundreds upon hundreds of people show up to eat.

Nachand Trabue is always one of them. She’s what you might call a fish fry superfan.

“I couldn’t wait for Ash Wednesday,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to be able to eat fish every Friday.”

She repeats for emphasis: “Every Friday.”

Trabue is a Louisville native who was raised in the Catholic church. But you don’t have to be Catholic to know that fish fries in Louisville are a pretty big deal.

The annual fish fry list WFPL News publishes is consistently one of our most popular posts of the year.

There are Facebook groups dedicated solely to rating the different fish fries around town.

According to Shawn Stevens, who has been a volunteer Holy Family on Poplar Level Road for 25 years, fish fry attendance at bigger parishes can reach up to 600 people.

“They are very noisy, usually held in the gymnasium,” Stevens said. “There are kids running everywhere, but there is a multitude of ages. If you take the youngest attendee and the oldest attendee, there is probably a 95-year age difference between them.”

And this made us at Curious Louisville wonder, why exactly are there so many Catholic fish fries in the city? And what (aside from the delicious food) makes them so popular?

A group of Louisville Public Media employees have a lunch group that visits downtown fish fries. This is stuck to an office computer as a reminder.

Charles Spivey

Greg Hillis is a professor of Theology at Bellarmine University, a Catholic college in Louisville. He explained the religious tradition behind eating fish.

“It used to be the case, right up until the 1960s, that on every Friday, you weren’t allowed to have meat in the Catholic Church at all,” Hillis said. “Because Friday is the traditional time that we recognize that’s the day on which Jesus died.”

So Catholics wouldn’t eat any warm-blooded animal that could be sacrificed, as the New Testament of the Bible says Jesus was sacrificed.

Then, in 1962, came the Second Vatican Council –sometimes called Vatican II. This was a meeting on a global-scale in which the pope at the time, Pope Paul VI, addressed relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world.

This resulted in some big changes for the Church — including as one that ties into fish fries.

“Paul VI decided to loosen the fasting rules so that only during Lent was it that you weren’t to eat meat on Fridays,” Hillis said.

After the pope’s ruling, economists reported plummeting fish prices (though McDonald’s chains that served Filet O’ Fish sandwiches in heavily-Catholic neighborhoods prospered, at least during Lent).

So, that explains the global religious tradition behind eating fish on Lenten Fridays, but how did so many Catholics end up here?

Like so many parts of our city’s history, the answer lies in the Ohio River.

“The Falls of the Ohio, which are right here in Louisville — when immigrants were coming down the Ohio, it was a natural stopping place,” Hillis said. “So German and French Catholics, essentially, stopped and settled in Louisville and further South.”

And they formed church communities here.

“It’s actually the third oldest diocese in the United States,” Hillis said.

National Register of Historic Places

St. Boniface’s Church on Liberty Street is the oldest German Catholic church in the city; it was established in 1836.

Hillis says community building is a big part of why events like fish fries are so important.

Hillis himself converted to Catholicism over a decade ago, while living in Canada.

“The place where I lived didn’t have a huge Catholic community, so there were no fish fries,” he said. “But when I moved to Louisville ten years ago, and it was my first Lent, I realized how pervasively Catholic Louisville is. I looked in the newspaper and saw the sheer number of fish fries.”

Hillis used that as an opportunity to connect with his new neighbors.

“It’s a good place to gather and get to know each other on a regular basis,” he said.

For some people, like Steven Michael Carr, engaging in those spaces is a way to connect to his family’s Catholic history. Carr is an ordained Baptist deacon, but he and his family were raised Catholic.

“I have been going to fish fries since I was born,” Carr said.

“I think that being part of that helps me connect with my family, not even necessarily on a religious level, but my family’s own internal cultural level. I get to fit in with them and it gives me a framework to spend time with them.”

Carr says the only fish fry he really attends is at the Good Shepherd Catholic parish in Portland. Good Shepherd is made up of the merged congregations of several churches that closed long ago — some of which Carr’s family had attended.

“So, in a deeper sense, it also kind of connects me to my family’s history, by proxy,” Carr said.

And at the end of the day (more specifically, the end of a Friday) that seems to be the appeal of these events. Being part of something — a family, a neighborhood, or a religious group — bigger than yourself.

Though fresh-fried fish is definitely a bonus.

Listen to the audio version of this story here:

(Can’t listen? Here’s a transcript!)

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