by Joe Bollig
BALDWIN — The Maple Leaf Festival here is the kind of Americana that Norman Rockwell would paint if he were still around.
The third weekend of every October, more than 30,000 visitors swell the streets of Baldwin, a town of 4,500 people, to admire the fall foliage and enjoy festivities ranging from a parade with firetrucks and marching bands to booths selling food and craft items.
The planning and preparation required for this kind of “make-or-break-your-annual-budget” event takes months. And as the biggest and most important fundraising event of most of the town’s organizations — Annunciation Parish included — it taxes the labor and leadership of any participating group.
Father Jomon Palatty, MSFS, had no idea what he was getting into when he arrived to become pastor of Annunciation on Oct. 5, 2016 — just two weeks before the Maple Leaf Festival.
“It was my first experience — I didn’t know anything about it,” said Father Jomon. “I went around, asking the people about it. . . . Basically, [I was told] it was a city festival but [the parish] had a booth there and we’d get to talk to many people, and many would ask about our Catholic faith. All the more, we’d provide good and tasty food.”
Annunciation has about 125 families, and that first year it seemed to Father Jomon that nearly all his parishioners were involved. He was surprised how the parishioners took charge and ran their booths.
Father Jomon is pastor of both Annunciation Parish and St. Francis Parish in Lapeer, about 15 miles west of Baldwin. Some parishioners from St. Francis also volunteer to help.
Traditionally, Catholic participation in the Baldwin Maple Leaf Festival involves four things.
First, there is a baked goods booth set up on the front lawn of the rectory, across from Baker University. Second, the parish usually has a float in the parade, sponsored by the parish religious education ministry. Next, the fourth-degree Knights of Columbus of Lawrence and Baldwin usually co-sponsor a parade float, but transportation issues this year prevented that.
The biggest and most important component, however, is the big food booth, usually staffed by parishioners just south of the intersection of High and Eighth streets, in front of the Baldwin Police Station.
The Catholic food booth is the largest and busiest booth at the festival. It is a prefabricated building with a steel frame and fiberglass panels, erected every year. Over the years, it has withstood some intense winds and storms.
Running the food booth is a big job — so big that it requires two “czars,” so designated by a former pastor. The czars are members of a 12-person core planning committee.
This year, the czars were Harvey Ward and Dave Kronoshek.
Ward, the “grand czar” thanks to his seven long years of leadership, said the role of a czar is to oversee everything — the setup, the supplies, the cooking, the serving and whatever crisis management might be required.
The booth has four big gas-fired grills that, at times, can barely keep up with demand. Ward estimates they sell about 1,000 hamburgers, 800 pork burgers, 600 hot dogs and 600 bratwursts. Also, on the menu, are various chips, nachos, chili soup and drinks.
It takes about 100 people to operate the booth at the two-day event.
“We have people who cook the food, wrap it, serve and sell the food at the cashier [windows], sell drinks and man tables to clean up,” said Ward. “There are just all kinds of people to manage the event each day.”
The town’s Maple Leaf Committee loves the Catholic booth for its long rows of tables and chairs. They are the only place people can sit and rest a bit after walking all over town.
Rookies couldn’t pull off something this big and complicated, but veteran volunteers make it work.
“You have to understand that the people involved with this have been doing this for a while,” said Kronoshek. “Donita Turk, [for example], had ordered supplies for years. She has the history of what to order and the vendors. When you have all that already in place, it’s basically just executing.”
But the Annunciation food booth at the Maple Leaf Festival does more than feed people which, in turn, funds parish ministries. It is a public witness of the parish to the community and strengthens community within the parish.
“It draws a lot of people together into relationships that might not otherwise happen,” said Kronoshek. “While working, you get to know [people].”
“Having to work with people intensely for a few hours,” he concluded, “you get to know them.”