St. Athanasius Church was founded in the early 1960s to serve the blue collar families of Okolona, those who worked at nearby General Electric, Ford Motor Company and the United States Postal Service. Today its culturally robust parishioners hail from all walks of life and around the world.
On the morning of Aug. 21, the church parking lot was as packed as it’s ever been — rivaled possibly by midnight Mass. Parishioners filled the church for the 11 a.m. Mass and then poured into the parish hall for its second annual World Taste of St. A Family Fest, a foodie’s dream.
Father Minh Vu, St. Athanasius’ pastor from Vietnam, believes food helps forge connections.
“We want people to experience different heritages,” he said. “Experiencing different heritages helps us open our mind and heart.”
People take great pride in doing something they’re proud of, Father Vu said. And when that happens, they feel like they belong.
“Food is the best way,” he said.
And his parishioners seemed to agree.
More than 10 different cultures were represented at the festival. Parishioners dined on potato soup from Ireland, ginataang kalabasa from the Philippines, egg rolls from Vietnam, koki corn from Cameroon and much more.
At the Cameroon table, parishioner Ester Theodore scooped koki corn onto styrofoam plates and offered a happy smile while listing its ingredients.
“Fresh corn with spinach, corn meal, palm oil, salt, pepper,” she said. “It’s hometown food. I like to feed people.”
She rattled off the ingredients again for a man who looked confused.
“You’re from Africa?” she asked him. He was, replying he came from Congo. “I’m from Cameroon. You speak French?” Yes, yes he did. Their conversation continued along in French.
Across the hall, Matt Thomas, a St. Athanasius School parent, served southern Louisiana cajun gumbo over potato salad.
“I figured most people hadn’t had traditional southern Louisiana gumbo,” he said. He even made his own sausage, which included jalapeños and other add-ins, for the occasion.
Although Thomas grew up in Meade County, Ky., the chef has cooked all over, including on an oil rig in Houma, La.
“I got in there the first day and made gumbo,” he said. “And I made rice with it. But they told me they eat gumbo over potato salad down there, and I’d better get rid of the rice before they got rid of me.”
Donna Effinger, the church’s part-time bookkeeper and event planner for this year’s festival, said people loved it so much last year, they asked when it would happen again before planning even began.
“It’s a really good opportunity for parishioners to get to know one another,” she said. “We have a lot of different cultures represented in our parishioners.”
Father Vu said the festivities served not only as a way to introduce people to new foods and cultures, but it was also a day of parishioner appreciation.
“Everybody here deserves a lot of appreciation,” Father Vu said.
Charlie Eppinghoff, a parishioner who volunteers in various roles at the church, said the 2021 festival was the church’s first big in-person gathering since the pandemic shuttered all activities.
“When we did this last year it was our first time together since the last fish fry before COVID” in 2020, he said.
“It really is a wonderful thing,” he said of the festival. “The food was excellent.”
Eppinghoff handled the chili table at this year’s festival. He, alongside the church’s two deacons and the pianist, had an unofficial chili cookoff.
He praised Father Vu for creating the event.
“Father Minh is a fireball,” Eppinghoff said, laughing. “He’s really enthusiastic about being here. He wants to have fun with things but he also gives them the reverence they deserve.”