It may have been a rainy, cold autumn day but inside the St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Alberton, the room was warm and full of cheer. Oct. 28 was Stella’s 19th Annual Harvest Dinner and people from all over Mineral County, Frenchtown and even Missoula, came down to enjoy a hot turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
Stella Wylie started the dinner as a fundraiser to help pay for the newly built church and it has turned into an annual event.
“This was Stella’s idea of getting people together and having a nice dinner and getting some donations. As the years progressed, it was well attended and people really looked forward to it,” said long-time church member Eva Blackman. “Even after she passed (in 2008), we wanted to continue the tradition.”
Among the table of food was an annual favorite, Stella’s salad, made with broccoli and cauliflower. “She said I could make it if I did it exactly like she did,” said Blackman. After Stella tested Blackman’s version, she was awarded the task and has been making it for years. Annually more than 100 people attend the dinner, and this year was no different, with 155 people walking through the doors.
“We enjoy seeing people we often only see once a year,” she said. “We got a lot of compliments on the food, and it was a very nice afternoon.”
Around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, church members start to arrive to set up nearly 90 tables. The food is prepared by volunteers at their homes and then brought down to the church. Member Donna Haacke was busy preparing food in the kitchen and said they had around 50 pounds of mashed potatoes, dressing, gravy and corn casserole. This is in addition to eight turkeys, 15 Costco pumpkin pies, coffee, punch and nearly 15 salads.
Ted Soldowski, 72, has been making one of those turkeys for the past 19 years. His mother was an iatrical part of the church and Ted has continued to support it. He puts his turkey in the oven and cooks it overnight and also cooks up a batch of gravy, “I woke up to my turkey at 4:30 this morning,” he said.
Another favorite dish is Mickey Patch’s Penny Salad made with 16 cups of carrots. At 96 years old, she has some help cutting up the carrots, but still brings the salad down for people to enjoy.
It takes pretty much the entire congregation to help put on the event, about 30 volunteers in all. From cooking the meal to setting up tables, serving and cleaning up afterwards. Even 10-year-old Sara Smith helped serve dessert and coffee. She enjoyed the afternoon, especially since she hopes to be a waitress someday. Her older brother, Sam, 15, also helped serve and bus tables. Their parents, Joseph and Cynthia, were also on hand, helping serve and set out food for the line of people coming in the door.
The dinner started at 4:30 p.m. and within the hour, nearly 127 people had arrived. Two rooms were set up with tables and conversation filled the air as people caught up with each other.
“There’s nothing here I don’t like,” said 90-year-old Ernesto Ornelas as he filled his plate with turkey and stuffing. He is the father of ex-Mineral County Sheriff Ernie. Ernesto attended the dinner with his wife, Yolanda, daughter Teresa and son-in-law, David Linneberger.
Donations raised from the event are used for special projects; for example, last year it helped pay for gravel for the church parking lot.
“This is a community dinner and the church has always had great support from the people in Alberton. Even when we were building this church (19 years ago), we had a lot of support,” said Blackman. “We have supper and have a little conversation, it’s a very pleasant time.”