Construction can’t stop St. John’s Fiesta

This year’s St. John’s Fiesta was never in doubt.

Some people in the community might have wondered after seeing the front of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church being torn to pieces because of remodeling. But organizers say they’re not going to let a little construction get in the way of tradition.

Volunteer Bert Bermudez pours a colander of browned rice into a pan for storage during preparations for the St. John’s Fiesta, which opens Friday night at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1234 Kentucky St. Bermudez and a volunteer crew spent Tuesday evening browning about 125 pounds of rice for the fiesta.

For the past 30-plus years, the Lawrence parish has, on the weekend after Father’s Day, played host to a Mexican fiesta, featuring music, dance and, perhaps most important, authentic Mexican food. Upward of 300 volunteers help put on the two-day event, which is attended annually by an estimated 14,000 people.

“It’s called St. John’s Fiesta, but believe me, it is a community event,” said organizer Buddy Langford.

St. John’s School has recently been expanding so it can start enrolling junior high students. That meant the garage that housed the fiesta’s supplies had to be removed — “It was like taking a family member away,” joked organizer Frank Lemus — and the grassy area where fiesta tents usually stood paved over. Construction was supposed to be completed by May, but organizers were still waiting for some of it to be done this week. If it doesn’t happen, “I guess we could go to Taco John’s and bring bags of tacos over,” quipped Langford.

Jokes aside, the fiesta’s organizers aren’t worried about the construction. They’ll work around the inconvenience, as often has to be done to keep an event going for more than three decades.

“I don’t think it crossed our mind” to cancel the fiesta, said Lemus, the organizing committee chair. “If you stop something, you run the risk of it not happening again or you lose your crowd.”

For the 43-year-old Lemus, like many others, the event is a family affair. His mother was among the founders of the event, he is now its chief organizer and one of his daughters dances in it.

“I used to dance but now I work the last food shifts,” said his other daughter, 14-year-old Olivia, adding that her favorite part of the fiesta is “getting to see everybody I don’t usually see.”

St. John’s 32nd Annual Mexican Fiesta

Friday and Saturday from 6-11:30 p.m.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1234 Kentucky St.

Free admission

Featuring authentic Mexican food, mariachi music, live bands, carnival games (on Saturday) and moonwalk

No outside food or beverages

The fiesta began in the early 1980s as a fundraiser for St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, which had recently split its parish. (This is actually the fiesta’s 33rd year but, because of some mathematical confusion along the way, it’s being called No. 32; next year, it will be properly referred to as the 34th.) Since then, the event, which started as a one-day “mini-fiesta” in the church basement, has evolved significantly, and now brings in money for the Spanish program at St. John’s School, scholarships for local Mexican-American students and other community organizations. The fiesta generally raises more than $25,000 a year.

The food will be there one way or the other. The ladies who cook it start about a week ahead of time. On Tuesday night, they browned 125 pounds of rice.

Outside, though, instead of taking two weeks to set up the event — putting out bleachers, tables, chairs, tents, lights — organizers will now try to do it in a day.

“We want to get the word out there for people who drive by and see the construction that we are having the fiesta,” said Lemus, adding that regardless of any complications, “Just know we’re going to host it and do the best we can.”