The Franciscans of the St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati have quite the reputation of “bringing it” to the table, when it comes to food. You might even say that they use food as a way to minister. It’s no small wonder that the Patron Saint of Cooks, St. Pasqual Baylon , was a Franciscan. Back in the late 1960s when St. Anthony’s Friary on Colerain Avenue was still a site of instruction for priests, Brother Andre Poisson (French for fish), taught yearlong cooking classes to Franciscan postulates out of the cookbook of Br. Herman Zaccarelli, a Holy Cross brother who became an authority on quantity cooking for religious houses. Every large religious house had a copy of his cookbook, which included recipes like “Meat Loaf for 500 Sisters.”
Br. Tim Sucher, Pastoral Associate at St. Francis Seraph Church in Over-the-Rhine, which runs the Over-the-Rhine soup kitchen, has his ‘office’ at local Tucker’s, a long time diner on Vine Street. Br. Gene Mayer, former Roger Bacon High School athletic director and my Freshman religion teacher, never shows up at a family baptism or celebration at my sister and brother-in-law’s house without a platter of his decadent chocolate chip cookies.
Lately my friend Matt, who will leave this week to start his study to become a Franciscan, has taken me on a tour of underknown Mom and Pop joints in Northern Kentucky. We joke about creating a podcast called, “Foodie and the Franciscan,” exploring these gems of Northern Kentucky.
In 1984 my home parish, Corpus Christi produced a cookbook, called “Recipes from Francis’ Friends”, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of our ‘little church on the hill.’ At the time, there were still many priests living in the hotel-like rectory next to the Church. The church had on staff a full time cook, and I remember as a gradeschooler walking into the huge rectory dining room once and being amazed at how many priests it could seat. On the other side of the church was an equally sized hotel-like convent with same setup.
Interlaced with many local German recipes like sauerbraten, potato dumplings, kuchen, and even local faves like cottage ham and green beens, were these exotic Cajun and Creole recipes from friends of our pastor, Fr. Basil Westendick, to expand our otherwise Midwestern tastes and minds. That was because in 1967, ten years after his ordination as a Francisan, Fr. Basil was appointed pastor of St. Patrick Church in Port Sulfur, Louisiana, south of New Orleans, where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the freshest seafood in the country can be had here.
Included were Fr. Basil’s favorite recipes from the women of Port Sulfur, like baked redfish, oyster casserole, artichokes Italiano (probably more Siciliano, given the Sicilian immigrants to Southern Louisiana) lima beans and shrimp, shrimp Creole, and bread pudding with rum sauce. Fr. Basil came to our little church in 1978, where he spent the next 7 years running a beautifully progressive country Catholic church that talked about the Theology of Liberation (think of Poland donning Communism in 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall), and other tough topics. He made the mass innovative, inspiring, and made it feel like everyone had a seat at the table. My father worked closely with him on our parish council. It was an exciting time to be raised Catholic – there was a feeling that the steam of Vatican II was driving a positive change in the church.
Fr. Basil spent three more years in his beloved Louisiana, after leaving our parish, as pastor at St. Mary of the Angels in New Orleans, a largely African-American congregation serving the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, which would be hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Fr. Basil returned ‘home’ to Cincinnati, where he passed in 1991 at Franciscan Terrace. His funeral at ‘the little church on the hill’ was like a hero’s sendoff.
The current diocesan pastor of Corpus Christi, Fr. Kyle Schnippel, who is also pastor of St. John Neumann parish, is a foodie and has developed a reputation as quite the baker. He spent three years as a resident at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral downtown, eating the Italian-inspired food of cathedral chef, Itala Giovanna Delli Carpini-Trimpe, who wrote the cookbook, Holy Chow, which included favorite recipes of Cincinnati priests. Fr. Schnippel, who my mother calls mistakenly, “Fr. Schnitzel,” will be travelling to England later in the year to compete on a cooking show. He uses food as part of the discussion on his Just Another Priest Podcasts, which are a great meditative listen.
So don’t underestimate the cooking prowess of anyone in a brown cassock and rope belt with three knots. They may just convert you with their food.