FRENCH SETTLEMENT — Despite warm temperatures Sunday, the grounds of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church became a holiday scene for the landmark church's annual Winter Wonderland Food Festival, a fundraiser for the church that has served its parishioners for almost 180 years.
The daylong event offered a variety of food choices, a crafts fair, hay rides and its most popular attraction, a visit to the Rev. Jason Palermo’s Christmas Village, a huge wonderland of miniature buildings and attractions. The day concluded with a “light parade” and fireworks.
Melissa LeBlanc, chairperson for the festival, said between 2,000 to 3,000 visitors were expected for the event's 10th anniversary. “People come from all over South Livingston Parish and from Baton Rouge and other places. It’s a community reunion as well as a fundraiser for the church. Families and friends get together at this time of the year to enjoy each other’s company and the church’s festival. It’s a special time for us,” she said.
LeBlanc said the festival is made possible through the assistance of a large group of volunteers. “We rely on between 100 to 150 volunteers to make the festival happen. Everyone knows their jobs and it all comes together easily. Everything is donated, so that increases the amount of money we can raise. I have some great chairmen who take care of their committees, and it all works smoothly,” she said.
LeBlanc said all funds raised are used to make general improvements to the church and its grounds.
Diners could sample all the dishes laid out on long tables. Available were fried fish, beef, pork, chicken, red beans and rice, many vegetables, casseroles, breads and a dish that LeBlanc said is unique to the area, “patate piquant,” a spicy potato casserole. The Blessed Eugene Council 6753, Knights of Columbus, offered gumbo and nachos to the visitors. Several restaurants in the area also provided food choices. The church’s youth group provided desserts for festival patrons.
Robert McLin, a member of the Knights of Columbus, said his cooks had been busy all morning serving their specialties.
Palermo, presiding over his Christmas Village, said he began collecting miniature village pieces when he was 12 years old.
“My aunt in Plaquemines had a small Christmas village, and I told her I wanted one like hers," he said. "She got me started, and I never quit. It’s quite a hobby, but it’s something I enjoy and I especially enjoy sharing my display with others.”
Father Jason, as his parishioners call him, controls the huge display with a small hand-held monitor. Several trains run through the display, more than a dozen amusement park rides whirl and twirl in motion, tiny skaters dance on an ice rink and miniature skiers glide down a small mountain in the brightly lit display that fills a large room.
Father Jason estimates that he has accumulated more than 750 pieces in his village and said it is still growing. His mother, Yvonne Palermo, assists her son with the display. She said every year each piece is carefully vacuumed before the village is readied for the public. She said that in most years, the pieces are boxed and stored, but Father Jason was so busy this year that he didn’t have time to put the display away.
Sisters Caroline and Cle' Sanchez were selling homemade pepper jelly, one of the many products on sale at the dozens of booths at the event. Caroline said this was the third year the sisters participated in the festival.
“Business has been good, and every year we are successful here. This is a fun, family event, and we enjoy being here,” she said.
The day concluded with the “light parade” and the fireworks.
“Father Jason is a big fan of Disney, and when he started the light parade, he said that anyone could participate for free as long as they had plenty of lights on their parade entry," Leblanc said. "That’s how we end our day, with plenty of light. A good ending to a day of fun.”