GRIFFITH – In the Region, talk of summertime festivals invariably includes St. Mary’s Western Days. One of the biggest reasons it continues to draw large crowds is its wide variety of attractions, supported by a long history of volunteerism.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the fair held on the Griffith parish campus. Western Days debuted in 1972, though the American Wild West-themed event did not run in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Father Keith Virus, pastor of St. Mary, said that volunteers are in the driver’s seat of the renowned festival. “It’s a success because they believe in it; if not for them there would be no festival.”
On Aug. 16, a day before the opening of the 2023 Western Days, Father Virus visited to check on volunteers. In the early years of the festival, cowboy hats were a common sight, but the St. Mary pastor wore an Army veteran cap as he greeted those who were busy moving tables, stocking refreshments and setting up games.
He then walked through the festival grounds from the Ferris Wheel to the pull tabs tent, whisking the structures and people with holy water. And just like he would at the close of the event, the Griffith priest offered a prayer of thanksgiving.
During the days leading up the annual parish festival, Ann Cullum of Griffith brought her son and daughter, Dakota, 12, and Cheyenne, 7, to the festival grounds, which spans the parking lot between St. Mary church and school and Hildebrant Hall.
The Cullum kids, both St. Mary Wildcats, were a week away from the start of school and their mom said that helping the parish set up for Western days was a way for them to be productive but also have some fun.
“The environment is like we’re all one big family,” Ann Cullum said, “I’m here for the kids and the parish.”
Once the fair opened, Cheyenne was mostly off exploring the kids games or eating funnel cakes with her friends. Dakota also took advantage of his megapass, a ticket to ride that allowed access for the entire four-day event.
Ann Cullum has volunteered at Western Days for two years, but said she has memories going back to the early days of the festival. As a girl growing up in Calumet Township, she would look forward to the event.
“I grew up coming to this fair,” she said. “It’s the best around.”
Like the Cullums, some volunteers and guests recalled the festival days when former pastors Monsignor Richard Zollinger (1972-1992) and Father Theodore Mens (1992-2019) would visit wearing cowboy hats.
Over those years, countless local and more well-known musical groups have played on the stage in the Squirrel Tooth Saloon, the fenced-in section where adult beverages are sold. A barometer of the trends, the bands have played hits from groups such as the Eagles, Cheap Trick and Passion Pit depending upon the decade.
Music fads have changed but the neighborly spirit of summer fun remains year after year, according to Western Days chairman Vince Galambos. He believes it is mainly because the St. Mary event is a family-friendly endeavor, and it occurs on holy ground.
“Without the blessing of our pastor this would not exist,” Galambos said. “Everything is all for our Lord. Everyone has their own reason for being here, but when it comes down to it, our hearts are open… This is a festival that is run by good, loving Christians.”
Galambos said that some civic and church festivals have come and gone or are scaled back because of economic pressures or the lack of volunteers. But St. Mary parishioners have consistently stepped up to help; this year dozens signed up to assist at game tents, food concessions or with infrastructure and maintenance duties.
Jerry Macik was second in command of the American Food Booth, which, like all the food service, is stocked and operated by church members. Serving hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza by the slice, he and his wife Cindy wore identical aprons each sporting an American flag patch.
He served fair-goer Sanjay Paul, who complimented him on the tastiness of the pizza. Replying with a thankful greeting, Macik then reflected on the benefits of hosting the event.
“It’s fantastic; the turnout is good and people love it,” said Macik, who first attended Western Days in the mid-1970s. “We raise a lot of money here. When we are short with our Catholic Service Appeal (fundraising) this helps to subsidize it.”
Armed with a walkie-talkie, Galambos checked with a fellow volunteer about the location of concession supplies. He explained that Western Days has been such a draw among Region residents that event organizers do not have to call around looking for help.
Assistance has come, he said, from some initially surprising sources.
“The Griffith Public Schools run the booth that the Barenie family (of St. Mary) started. Every game in there is homemade,” Galambos said. “It’s not only the church, but it’s also the community that has stepped in... They love (the festival) and they don’t want to see it go away.”
When Leah Dumezich was growing up, she recalled the “best days of the year” were those summer visits to Western Days with her godparents. As superintendent of Griffith Public Schools, she has been instrumental in directing many young volunteers to coordinate activities at the festival’s kids tent.
“When Vince (Galambos) said we needed a chair for the fun fair, I got our public schools involved because it’s about all of us as a community, and building up those childhood memories like I grew up with,” Dumezich said.
A day before the opening of the fair, Jill Petersen of Griffith brought her daughters Sydney Petersen, 9, and Emma Petersen, 5, to help set up games such as the ring toss and duck pond. The girls attend Beiriger and Wadsworth elementary schools.
Many more were set to come once the bright lights of the carnival rides cast their glow and the sounds from the bandshell echoed in the kid’s games area. Dumezich said her school district has attracted 80 youth volunteers who direct activities from Hula Hoop contests to the dunk tank.
A new feature this year was a special-needs time reserved on one day for those fair-goers with disabilities who might thrive more with some of the festival sounds dampened and the lights lowered.
“It’s very close to my heart, because before becoming superintendent I was a director of special education,” said Dumezich.
Galambos also tipped his cowboy hat to another partner of Western Days, Fantasy Entertainment. He said the longtime partnership has ensured that St. Mary gets the best rides from a vintage-looking merry-go-round to a speedy Zipper at a good value.
“There’s something in here to do for everybody …You can come here and be safe and you can bring your family,” Galambos said.
Caption: Volunteers at the kids' tent (left to right) Emma Peterson, 5, mom Jill Petersen, Sydney Petersen, 9, and Leah Dumezich, superintendent of Griffith Public Schools, gather near the ring toss game set for the Western Days fair on the grounds of St. Mary in Griffith on Aug. 16. The St. Mary church festival debuted in 1972 and, during its 50th running, parishioners and guests took stock of the volunteerism that has helped make it a highlight of many local residents' summers. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)