When residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake and visitors to the town queue up outside St. Mark’s Church Saturday to buy a fresh-baked cherry pie, they will be taking part in a community tradition that goes back 31 years.
However, what started on a fairly small scale back then, with local women baking pies in their homes and donating them to the church to help it raise funds, has grown into an assembly line which hand-crafts delicious pies by the hundreds.
Diane Turner, a member of the St. Mark’s congregation, has led the pie-making team for the last nine years. Her work begins with the purchasing of the cherries for the pies and jams that will be offered for sale at the festival.
That occurs a year in advance of the event to ensure her team has enough high-quality fruit on hand the following April, when her talented volunteers come together for the first time to make more than 700 pies.
The purchased cherries are then frozen and kept in storage in St. Davids until they’re needed to make the pies and jams that have become a hallmark of the St. Mark’s Cherry Festival.
There’s more to the Cherry Festival than pies and jams, however, says Ben Buholtz, the chair of the volunteer team organizing and running the event. Traditional favourites, including the silent auction, nearly-new clothing sale, treasures sale, cherry pie slice a-la-mode sale, cherry float sale and baked goods sale are all taking place this year, along with the sale of lightly-used DVDs, CDs and books.
Buholtz and his team of volunteers have also worked to offer festival goers what may soon become new favourites. This year, the festival will include a supervised children’s arts and crafts area. Kids can be dropped off to experience the venue, leaving parents free to visit other festival attractions.
There will also be live music in the church throughout the day. Musicians will include Jim Bourne, the new music director at St. Mark’s, as well as John Northfield. A schedule of performance times will be posted at the event.
Another highlight this year is likely to be the sale of a book, written by members of the congregation, on the history of St. Mark’s and its grounds, organized by the archive team.
Of course, the festival is also about food. In addition to cherry-themed treats, there will be peameal bacon on a bun for breakfast, as well as barbecued hamburgers and hotdogs for lunch.
For Buholtz and other volunteers, the day is about more than the attractions and food that will be on offer at the church.
“It’s about giving back,” said Buholtz, who made Canada his home two years ago and is already working on his third Cherry Festival. “The folks in the St. Mark’s community have taken me in, adopted me,” he said.
And that sense of community is in so many ways why the Cherry Festival has become such an important annual event in NOTL. Money raised at the festival goes to St. Mark’s ministry fund, explained Rev. William Roberts.
The fund is used to finance the day-to-day operations of St. Mark’s, to offer people in the community a space for spiritual growth and development, and to reach out to people who are hurting, he said. Among other initiatives, it supports Alcoholics Anonymous, which meets in the church, as well as a migrant workers program.
Roberts describes the Cherry Festival as both a “friend-raiser” and a fundraiser.”
“It is such a community building event,” he said. “It involves people who are regular attenders (of the church), people who like St. Mark’s and come from time to time, and friends of friends who want to help out in a positive way.”
Now working on his third Cherry Festival, Roberts says it is continuing to grow. There are more pies each year, more items in the silent auction, more jewelry and books.
“What’s particularly gratifying is that there are more people volunteering,” he added.
And that is what he likes best about the Cherry Festival – the sense of community and the connections it builds.
“It’s so gratifying to walk in on the Monday mornings when they’re (Diane Turner and her team) making pies – just to see 20 to 25 people working together, smiling together, getting to know one another and making a difference for one of the most significant churches in NOTL,” said Roberts.
Building a sense of community through the event has also been a focus for Buholtz. He and his team leaders were determined to increase the number of volunteers helping with the festival this year by 20 per cent, a goal which they have achieved by reaching out into the broader NOTL community.
For Turner and her team, one of the most challenging parts of the pie-making process is just about to start. At 8 a.m. this Friday, the baking begins. Some 350 of the pies that she and her team handcrafted in April will be brought from St. Davids, where they have been kept frozen, to St. Mark’s.
They will be baked in batches of 45 pies at a time in Addison Hall’s commercial-size and two regular-size ovens, cooled, bagged and boxed to be ready for festival-goers to enjoy the following day.
The key to getting one of those pies to take home and enjoy is to get to the event early. Invariably, the fresh-baked pies sell out quickly. But there are still hundreds of frozen pies available, and this year Turner has come up with an innovative idea to help festival-goers who buy one.
She’s borrowed a number of freezers, which will be set up on the church grounds. For a small fee, purchasers can store their frozen pies in a freezer while they enjoy the other attractions on offer.
Instead of having to hurry home before their pies defrost, they can relax and enjoy the day with other members of the community, then pick up their pies when they are ready to leave.
When the festival closes at 3 p.m., Turner will be able to look at the empty fresh-baked-pie table and frozen-pie freezers with a true sense of accomplishment.
“We beat last year’s record by one, with 749 pies made,” she said.
But she won’t have much time to enjoy the moment – it will be time to purchase cherries for the 2020 St. Mark’s Cherry Festival.
The event runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 6, at St. Mark’s Anglican Church on Byron Street.