by Carolyn Kaberline
Special to The Leaven
TOPEKA — Work in Sarah Hutley’s vineyard began seven years ago on St. Patrick’s Day here.
“Some friends and I attended the [Topeka St. Patrick’s Day] parade together, but were unable to find anywhere downtown to eat after the parade and found nothing for families to do,” said Hutley, a member of Mater Dei Parish in Topeka.
“After some discussion, and realizing that Mater Dei-Assumption had a prime location,” she said, “we decided to create an event that would solve that problem and help the parish, too.”
The following year, Irish Fest was born on the Mater Dei- Assumption playground, and Hutley became the food volunteer coordinator, a job she has held ever since. Her responsibilities range from finding the food workers to “prepping the food, putting it in big containers, getting it to the servers and returning the containers to the kitchen for the next go-round.”
The first couple of years saw one food line and a limited menu offering a couple of Irish food items, hamburgers, hot dogs and bangers. But now there are several food lines and a much larger menu.
“When we started, there was a women’s group in the parish that already did an Irish stew,” said Hutley. “We had originally planned just to add on to that but, as the event got bigger, they asked us to take over.”
Not only has Irish Fest offered additional food items over the years, it has also added a 5K race and family-friendly entertainment. It has also outgrown the playground and now takes up much of Eighth Street in front of the church.
Hutley believes the hardest part of her job is “keeping up with everything the day of the event.” The easiest part is the six months of planning that comes before.
“Our committee enjoys getting together,” she said. “We enjoy each other’s company as friends.”
Hutley also noted that there is never a bad day in her vineyard, although she does worry some about the weather for this primarily outdoor event.
“A great day is a sunny one with lots of people, everyone having a good time — and selling out of everything!” she said.
Listing herself as one of the workers who came early to the vineyard, Hutley explains that she came because of a desire to fundraise and do something for her parish. While she feels she brought organizational skills, attention to detail and a love of good food to the job, she believes her work has taught her patience — especially when someone runs out of potatoes and a sense of urgency arises.
But she admits her job has definitely gotten easier over the years.
“Everyone has the routine down,” she said. “We have the same committee and the same roles as when we started. We learn so much every year. We get better and better.”
Despite the work and its sometimes hectic nature, Hutley enjoys her role. And she’s joined in her efforts by her husband Mike, who mans the grill, and her children Lauren, Brendon and Eric, who serve as runners.
“I like volunteering and giving back to the community and schools,” she said. “Volunteering is one of the greatest gifts we can give.”
Hutley also believes two former members of the Irish Fest committee are watching over her efforts: Lydia Schmidt and Charlie Buhler, both of whom have passed away. Buhler’s son and daughter-in-law have provided many of the recipes used, and Schmidt’s husband Kevin is still on the committee.
With this year’s Irish Fest scheduled for March 11, Hutley’s work is already in high gear.
“I’m probably the first in my family to really step up and volunteer,” she said. “But when your kids go to a Catholic school, you’re active and do everything you can to keep the parish and school open.”
“The parish is part of your family,” she added, “and your actions are examples you want your children to follow.”