Normally around this time of year, the church kermes or bazaar season would just be wrapping up in El Paso. Every year, many Catholic churches hold huge, weekend-long fundraisers.
They are a tradition in the borderland – large, carnival-like gatherings complete with live music, family games like loteria, and some of the best Mexican food you can find. Think gorditas and elotes.
Churches usually do most of their fundraising for the year at these bazaars. But the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reshaped kermes season, leaving families without a favorite El Paso tradition and churches feeling a financial pinch.
Borderzine’s Sarah Coria has this report:
Maria Urrutia will never forget last year’s bazaar at St. Pius X church in El Paso.
“The good Lord blessed me with a brand new 2019 XT4 SUV Cadillac,” Urrutia says.
She bought tickets for the annual bazaar raffle after spotting the luxury car.
“Which was beautiful red,” she says. “I told the church secretary if I win great but if I don’t, well this is my way of helping out the church because they really need our help, but I told her I’m gonna win.”
That weekend Maria went home and forgot all about the raffle.
”Monday morning, I go to Mass at 7 a.m. and as we were approaching the office. The secretary is coming out of the office and she says ‘you won the cadillac last night.’”
This year’s bazaar looks a little different than last. Instead of driving to the St. Pius bazaar in her red cadillac, Urrutia will be supporting the church from home, participating in gift card raffles that will be drawn on Dec. 13. Because of the need for social distancing during the pandemic St Pius was left with no choice but to cancel the bazaar, which would have taken place the Weekend of Sept. 21.
“The music, the food the church community you get to see sometimes people that you haven’t seen for years stop by and mingle with them. And of course the food is always great. For some reason it tastes so much better than when you cook at home. I guess it is the ambiance of the bazaar,” Urritia says.
The bazaar cancellation is not only a personal loss, but a big financial loss for the church that was depending on its fundraising to assist the church in repairs and maintenance.
“We as Catholics know the bazaar is a big part of their fundraising to maintain the building. the church, the utilities to do repairs and to provide many programs for the community,” Urritia says.
Churches like St Pius depend on the money raised from bazaars, where they sell everything from raffle tickets and ceramics to enchiladas and gorditas, a popular mexican dish of fried corn meal patties stuffed with shredded or ground beef.. They’re tasty treats that all El Pasoans take very seriously.
“Bazaar gorditas are the best because they are freshly made,” says Mercedes Flores. She is chair of the finance committee for St. John Paul Catholic Church and is one of the organizers of the annual bazaar.
“Not everybody cooks or knows how to cook gorditas, so when you get them at the bazaar. It’s special,” she says.
Alternative fundraising efforts fall short
But this year, as COVID-19 cases spread throughout El Paso, Flores knew it wouldn’t be safe for large crowds to gather together outside the church – dancing, playing games, packing closely in line awaiting those special bazaar gorditas. So, the bazaar was canceled. Flores says the church community was disappointed.
“I feel they are saddened because they realize how important it is for our parish financially. Also, while helping we build community, so we miss all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Her church is doing its best to compensate for their financial loss with socially distant fundraisers. They’ve held a Facebook auction where gift baskets were sold and have a brisket sale planned for Nov. 8. Of course, they also just had to have a drive-through gorditas sale, which was held July 19. While ultimately delicious, the planning process for the gorditas sale proved to be a challenge.
“The struggles that we faced were getting people to volunteer and also getting people to meet to plan the gorditas sale,” Flores says. “A lot of people didn’t know how to use Zoom, so it was very time consuming.”
But they accepted the challenge. Volunteers wore face masks and gloves and sat six feet apart from each other on tables spaced 20 feet apart. Gordita plates were carefully wrapped in plastic and distributed through car windows by volunteers in masks and gloves.
“We don’t know exactly how many people attended the gorditas sale, but we did sell 350 tickets and the the cars that that passed by which were around 200-250 cars.” Flores says. “We raised $8,000.”
It didn’t compare to what the church usually raises.
“Normally, we raise four to five times that amount,” Flores says.
St. Pius, where Maria Urrutia won her beautiful red Cadillac, is also struggling financially. Only raising about $3,400 this September. That’s compared to about $10,500 just over a year ago, according to church bulletins.
Urrutia says along with maintenance and repairs needed for the church, the bazaar helps to fund St.Pius’ food bank and financial assistance for people in need for essential things such as help with rent, utility and medical bills.
“Citizenship lessons, they give Bible Study lessons, they have youth activities, they have a lot of retreats that people are offered to go free all that cost’s money,” Urrutia says.
But without the usual proceeds from the kermes/bazaar season,.the church has to rely on donations to hopefully fund these programs.
Urritia says that along with the church, the El Paso community is hurt by the loss of kermes/bazaar season.
“I think it’s just being there as a community, being together, listening to the music, see each other and share stories and reminisce,” she says.
For now, she’s holding out hope for next kermes season where she and the community can reunite once again to enjoy all they missed out on this year.
“The food, try the gorditas, the enchiladas. the flautas. the music. They have such good music in the evening.”