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Chicago Catholic Parish Carnival Tradition Still the Ticket for Fun

By Alisa Hauser | June 7, 2013 6:20am | Updated on June 7, 2013 9:42am
 June marks the beginning of festival and church carnival season.
Parish Carnivals in Chicago
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CHICAGO — If you're of a certain age and you're from Chicago, you might remember when parish carnivals were as much a summertime staple as today's street festivals.

In his famous account of growing up Catholic in Chicago, Baby Boomer humorist John R. Powers recalled the festivals in his "Last Catholic in America," describing them as "a fantastic, financial four-day kill."

Powers described a popular game involved tossing ping pong balls into fish bowls: "Rare was the kid who went though eight years of grammar school without winning a goldfish bowl. Rarer still was a goldfish from my parish who lived longer than a week." During bingo games "some of the Ten Commandments would fall to the mumblings of the losers."

While less popular than they were in their post-war glory years, the Catholic parish carnival continues its Chicago summertime tradition. And, yes, the goldfish game lives on (even if the actual fish don't.)

At St. Stan's carnival, 1255 N. Noble, volunteer organizers are supplementing the fish game and amusement rides with modern touches.

DJ house music programmed by a young parent whose child is newly enrolled in St. Stan's preschool will be featured at the parish's four-day summer carnival, which kicked off Thursday at 1255 N. Noble St.

Next weekend, St. Pascal Church's carnival (June 12-16) at 6143 W. Irving Park Road will offer beer samplings and wine flights, a stilt walker, a manipedi station and petting zoo, according to carnival chair, Chris Perez.

Perez, 40, said St. Pascal's carnival, which spans three parking lots and the front lawn of the school, expects 12,000 to 15,000 people over five days.

"We call it the kickoff to summer on the Northwest Side. The petting zoo and stilt walker is a new addition... We've got to roll with the modern times, offer more things," Perez said.

Now in its 32nd year, Pascal's carnival is steered by an 11-person volunteer committee from the parish which serves 1,900 families, Perez said.

Even with rising fees such as $2,000 in permits that Perez said they must pay the city — a new development that started with Mayor Rahm Emanuel last summer, he says  —  the event is still a viable way to raise money.

"We have made as much as $35,000 on a good carnival year. What's nice about carnivals is that instead of going back to the same people every year for money, we can raise funds from the community," Perez said.

He added, "I hope people come out and enjoy it and we're praying for good weather."

While St. Pascal's has operated its carnival for many years continuously, St. Stan's is entering only its third carnival season after their long-running carnival went dormant about 20 years ago for lack of volunteers, organizers said.

An added benefit for St. Stan's is its location.

Nestled under the highway where the Kennedy Expressway curves at Division Street, co-organizer Nikki Arana said the views at the top of the wheel overlooking the city are "fantastic. "

In addition to the Ferris wheel, there will be 12 other rides, carnival games, a food court featuring hot dogs, Polish and Hispanic foods prepared by volunteers and guest DJs every hour.

For many Catholic parishes and schools, the carnival is the year's largest fundraiser.

Natalie Konieczko, 47, graduated from St. Stan's in 1979 and helped to revive the carnival to increase profits and attract more people to the school, which serves serves 216 students in pre-K to 8th grade.

In recent years, carnivals started disappearing because the people who organized are growing older, membership in churches has declined, communities are more transient and people go "from car to their condo," said Konieczko.

City fees have put a damper on carnival organizers, too.

Once waived with support from an alderman, permits are now required for tents and street closures, Konieczko said, and rates for amusement ride inspections by city inspectors have tripled in the past few years, escalating from $85 to $300 per ride.

"Some carnival companies don't even want to come into the city, fees are so high. The city wants us [churches] to pay for water and refuse now, and when it comes to raising money with carnivals, we are tied. No fees are waived no matter who you are anymore," Konieczko.

The stress, however, is worth it.

Arana said one benefit is parish exposure to "people that pass us on the highway and don't know we're here until they see the rides." Konieczko said modest profits of $21,000 from St. Stan's first two seasons are encouraging.

"Really, what makes it worth doing is for the kids, the fun of it, seeing people come back [to neighborhood]. People that haven't lived here in 15 or 20 years will come back and hang out. It's a nice sense of old and new all over again," Konieczko said.

One large annual carnival on the Southwest Side, St. Symphorosa's at 6135 S. Austin, takes over several blocks every year (the 2013 version runs July 11-14.) While the entertainment is secular — rock cover bands are an annual favorite — St. Sym's bash does have a nod to religion.

The whole thing shuts down for an hour on Saturday night for mass.

Looking for a carnival?

St. Bartholomew School Carnival near Portage Park, just south of the 'Six Corners,' opens Thursday and runs through Sunday.  Rides, bingo and laser tag inside of the school's gymnasium are among the activities planned, according to the parish's website.    

St. Pascal's Carnival will take place June 12-16 at 6143 W. Irving Park Road. Activities and entertainment schedule can be viewed here.

West Town's St. Helen's Carnival is scheduled for Aug. 23-25, on Augusta Boulevard between Western and Oakley Avenues.

St. Hyacinth Basilica Church at 3636 W. Wolfram Ave. in Avondale, August 15-18. 

For other parish carnivals, check out this list.