Malcolm (Baldy) Wilson rolls out the dough that will be stuffed with potato and cheese.
Henry and Mae Maki know the ingredients by heart: five eggs, four tablespoons of salt, 20 cups of flour, (“oh, several”) bags of potatoes and “several” pounds of cheese.
They have been mixing and kneading, boiling and cooking with these ingredients to make perogies – potato- and cheese-filled dumplings – in the basement of St. James church, in Geraldton, Ont., about 260 km northeast of Thunder Bay, in the diocese of Moosonee, for the last 15 years. Together with about a dozen volunteers they make these old world treats with Eastern European origins that have raised money to help the 65-year-old St. James church survive the ebbs and flows that most churches have struggled with in the last century.
There were many years when, after deducting costs, they produced a profit for St. James of $15,000 to $18,000. On a particularly productive year, Mr. Maki recalls that the group made 2,500 dozen perogies (that’s 30,000 perogies) during the two-month period (usually in the fall) that they make them.
It all began when the Anglican Ladies Fellowship group met in the Maki residence and tried to figure out what fundraiser to initiate for the church. A Ukrainian parishioner suggested perogies and provided a recipe.
“We did everything by hand when we started,” recalls Mr. Maki, adding that because the church basement was being renovated they initially made the perogies in his home kitchen. As sales increased and word got around about the little church that made delicious perogies, the group bought machines to speed up the process: a giant mixer and a Hunky Bill’s perogy former.
Mr. Maki, a retiree, recalls his routine during Sundays each fall, for the last 15 years. He heads down to the church basement at 4 a.m. and begins boiling the potatoes. Then he mixes and kneads the flour to make the dough. Next, he mixes the cheese with the potatoes and sets them aside for Monday and Tuesday, when the assembly line of volunteers turns the dough into balls, flattens them out, shapes them, fills them with the potato and cheese mixture, puts them in bags and freezes them.
The perogy fundraiser “has given a sense of strength and capability to the congregation of St. James,” says Rev. Hal Graham, who became rector in 2004. “It has also made other parts of the diocese and the community aware of the church.”
The perogies, which are usually boiled, pan-fried in butter or baked and served with sour cream on the side, have become “little signs or emblems of the church that gets carried to other parts of the diocese,” adds Mr. Graham. (At a recent meeting, Archbishop Caleb Lawrence of Moosonee mentioned buying 60 dozen perogies after a recent trip to Geraldton.)
Sadly, however, Mr. Maki says his group is uncertain whether the perogy ministry can go on. He and his volunteers are aging, some have died, some have left town and no one has come to take their place. “I’m also getting tired. When I joined I was in my 60s, now I’m in my 70s,” he says. “We need younger persons to help but the young Anglicans don’t come to church, let alone volunteer.”
The group is now down to eight volunteers, which has slowed production considerably.
The rising cost of ingredients has also made the perogy project unprofitable, explains Mr. Maki. “With the rising cost of ingredients, we’re just about break-even,” he says. “A 50-pound bag of potatoes used to sell for $2 to $3, now it’s $16.”
The group only adjusted its price once, to $4 from $3.50 per dozen perogies. “We should be charging $6 per dozen but if we do that, nobody will buy because supermarkets sell them from $2 to $3 per bag,” says Mr. Maki, noting ruefully that last year, they only managed to give $6,000 to the church.
But, he hastens to add that the volunteers are not about to hang up their aprons. “We might just have spaghetti dinners, which doesn’t involve a high volume of work.”
Mr. Graham says he is amazed at the congregation’s dedication and commitment to the church. He has no doubt that Mr. Maki and his group of dedicated volunteers will rise to yet another challenge should the perogy business close shop.
“The resource that we have is the people,” he says. “Replacing perogies is not going to be a problem when you have people who are creative.”
He acknowledges that the original movers and shakers at St. James, as in many churches, are aging. At the same time, he says that he also sees “signs of tiny blades of grass growing.”
Slowly but surely, there have been new additions to church membership, he says. Lutherans, whose local church recently closed, were given a new place at St. James. People from the Association for Community Living, a community for children and adults with development disabilities, have likewise been integrated into the church.
St. James, which is at the heart of this former mining town, says Mr. Graham, “is a congregation that’s open to new ideas, that’s willing to work and be transformed.”