Chicken Barbecue Part III – From Ham to Chicken and Boutique

(Part I and Part II of this story)

A Bold Move

After a good, long, successful run with ham dinners, the sisters’ decision to move to chicken was a bold one. This is where we have to throw a ham or chicken bone to the Larry Divoky family. You see, the sisters were trying to raise money for a new chapel, and Larry really wanted to help. With five children in Catholic schools, Larry knew he had to get a little creative. So, he offered to host a little backyard barbecue fundraiser with family and friends, planning to donate the proceeds to this good cause. Only Sr. Bernita Holtgrieve had a bigger idea. And before he knew it, Larry was up to his eyeballs in chicken and hardly visible behind the walls of smoke, if not for his bright white apron and gloves. Not unlike some guys by the names of Noah, Abraham and Moses, Larry never hesitated when asked to serve. He brought in large racks and other equipment of his own and borrowed more. He built pits and pit roofs, crates and tables, signage and whatever else was needed, whenever it was needed. And then he created his famous secret sauce. (Well, maybe not so secret. Several insiders seem to think they’ve got the recipe down, or at least can get pretty close.)

Larry led a dedicated team of men for 25 years. According to his daughter, Sr. Mary Laurie Divoky, the men would start de-fatting the chicken at 6 a.m. Then, they’d put 30 chickens on a rack, and the magic would begin. The chicken would cook for three, smoke-filled hours, with trained volunteers turning and basting at precisely the right moments. “Dad would try to stay ahead of the crowd, but there were some really big crowds,”recalls Sr. Laurie, who along with the rest of the family also served as a volunteer for the event. “It was a real challenge to get five fires going exactly right,” Sr. Laurie explains. “It was hard work. Really hard work.”

BBQ and Boutique

Another highly regarded volunteer, Tom Sterkel, served as pit master from 1974 to 2010, missing only the day his wife passed away. True, he wasn’t particularly happy about the decision to switch to a caterer (Barbecue Traveler, based in Toledo). The chicken dinner, no doubt, wouldn’t be the same. But, according to Maureen McCauley, her father’s thoughts of boycotting the banquet vanished the minute Sr. Antonee called. A simple, “You will manage the dinner again this year, won’t you Tom?” and off Tom went to get his walkie-talkie.

“We don’t have that rule about not hiring family,” Sister Margaret says. Many of the men recruited siblings, spouses, fellow parishioners, children and grandchildren to work alongside them. The men would work in shifts of 50, Sister explained. “We didn’t have to worry about pits, covers, cooking racks, sprayers, gloves, tubs, or transport. We had so many volunteers and everyone did their job. That was the blessing of it.” Every sister played a role, too. “Sometimes roles would change but everyone always participates,” she says. “There are plenty of sit down jobs.” No excuses.

The chicken barbecue moved from the boiler room to outside the boiler room to the bus garage to the parking lot (before it was paved), to a nice grassy spot above the lake. It stayed there until the year after grounds supervisor Otto Hanish had to pull out dozens of people stuck in the mud, including the Geauga Country Sheriff. The barbecue moved to its current home in the McGarry Gym in 2010, which Sister Margaret believes “is the best spot yet.” People can enjoy their meals without the threat of rain, heat, wind or bees. And those desiring to eat outdoors, of course, may still do so.

The meal changed over the 50 years, too. In the early days, the sisters served Jell-O with carrots and other vegetables, for example. But one hot year, that turned into vegetable soup and that was the end of that. Lots of efficiency was gained through the years, too. These sisters and their volunteers have learned a thing or two about chicken barbecues over the years.

In the early 1960s, the ticket price for the dinner was a $1.50. According to Sr. Margaret, the sisters nudge up the price about every seven years. Today, the chicken dinner is $10 or $13 if you choose a rib dinner. You wouldn’t be the first if you’re finding yourself wondering, “Is this really a fundraiser?” The fact the Notre Dame sisters raise more than $100,000 most years should put your mind at rest. Clearly, the sisters, their families, friends and students work hard for every penny. What’s inspiring to witness: they obviously love every minute of it.

The Boutique

An important part of the event—for the pure enjoyment as much as the financial aspect— is the boutique. The sisters and their associates offer customers homemade jams, jellies, pastries, and chocolate. Sr. Mary Ann Cirino stays up making bread until 4 a.m. The sisters also sell greeting cards, books authored by the sisters, paintings, pottery, placemats, hand towels, fleece pillows, baby items, tree ornaments and other handmade crafts. Many of the items come from the Notre Dame Global Missions in India and Nicaragua. Many others are made locally. Sister Donna Gonda makes the “to die for” chocolate—“dark, regular, cream filled, chocolate covered nuts, chocolate covered potato chips, chocolate covered everything. You name it,” says Sr. Antonee.

“We call her Willie Wonka,” Sr. Margaret interjects.

Over the years, the event expanded to include ribs, ice cream cones, the NDCL marching band, balloon artistry, llamas, alpacas, antique cars, face painting, dollar raffles, door prizes, 50-50 drawings, and a jam-packed patron book.

Does anyone question God’s hand in this annual miracle? Or think for a minute they won’t attend this year’s barbecue?

What’s in store for the Fiftieth? You’ll have to come to find out.

BBQ Flyer September 23 and 30

Geauga News
Author: Geauga News