By Alan R. Madeleine
Who she is: Cindy Bonneau is the organizer of the annual St. Florian Strawberry Festival. Let’s get the lowdown on what it’s like to put the festival together and what’s coming up this weekend …
Let’s first get a bit of background on the St. Florian Strawberry Festival itself. The flyer for the 2011 festival says, “Tour Our Historic Church, Founded 1908.” So if the church has been around for just over a hundred years, for how many of those have you been doing a Strawberry Festival? And, why celebrate strawberries particularly?
Bonneau: The Strawberry Festival began in 1968 as a small Ice Cream Social fundraiser for the St. Florian Schools. The late Allen Konaszewski, a much loved teacher, founded our event, and even formed a Polish dance troupe called the Strawberry Festival Dancers. That was before my time, but the story goes that Mr. Allen, as he was affectionately known, had his student dancers luring customers to the school with strawberry ice cream and pies by having the students wave them in from Jos. Campau.
Strawberries were chosen as the theme because we’re a Polish parish, and strawberries are the first fruit harvested in Poland in the spring. Our patron’s feast day is May 4, so our festival date is always set for the first weekend in May, and as close to St. Florian’s Feast Day as we can make it. This year it’s also on Mother’s Day, which will make for a lovely way to spend the day with mom.
How did you come to be the organizer of the festival? What was your background, including with St. Florian’s? Did you have any prior past experience as a festival organizer? How many others before you have had the task?
Bonneau: I became the organizer in 2006, the year after our elementary school closed. At that time, most people assumed the festival would be no more, because most parish festivals must rely on their school families to staff and support a festival.
But, I’m an optimist with a great love for my parish and the city of Hamtramck, so I decided that our parish and our community needed this event and that, if it was within my power to help keep it going, I would. I knew that our parishioners, alumni and local citizens would agree, and would come forward to continue this tradition — and they have.
The people I’ve met through my work with our festival always express their gratitude that St. Florian’s is still hosting this event, which makes all the hard work worthwhile.
My history with St. Florian’s is like that for many other parish families. My husband and I became parishioners as newlyweds in 1981, and we sent our children to St. Florian schools, which required us to volunteer in various capacities through the years. Along the way, we learned some skills, and made friends with wonderful people who do incredible things not only for St. Florian’s, but for Hamtramck too. So when the future of the festival was uncertain due to our school closings, I went to the pastor to offer my help to whomever would be chairing the festival. The pastor took that to mean I would be chairing the festival, as there were no other offers! Fr. Tomasz is a man you cannot say “no” to, so I took on the job.
With its long history, the Strawberry Festival has had many wonderful organizers. Ron & Shirley Michalski, Judine Chronowski, Stephanie Colonna and Kim Hancasky come to mind. And there’ve been literally hundreds of dedicated parishioners and student families involved.
From others I’ve spoken with in the past who have organized festivals, the general sentiment I keep getting seems to be that it’s always a lot more work that one could expect, with so many details to keep track of. How have you found the going to be? How have you managed to keep it all straight? Were there certain aspects that were harder to put together than others, for instance booking the musical acts?
Bonneau: It has proven to be more work than I imagined. It takes a lot of organizational skills, salesmanship and patience that I didn’t know I had until I became the festival organizer.
Believe me, I was scared to death at first, but I consulted with people who were involved in the past, and prayed a lot, and somehow it all worked out. For sure I’ve made mistakes, but with each one I learned something. I can’t say that any one thing is harder than another– it’s all somewhat difficult, but also very rewarding.
Let’s talk about this year’s festival in particular. What’s been added to, or subtracted from, last year’s festival? Is there anything in this year’s program that’s making a re-appearance after a period of time? Any perennial favorites in there again?
Bonneau: This year we’re offering Wally’s Frozen Custard, served from Wally’s fire truck, which is a perfect fit because St. Florian is the patron of firefighters. Children will be able to sit in the truck, and ring the bell and siren. We’re also planning on a Planetarium exhibit, hosted by Tom Cervenak. Each year we try to offer a little something new, while keeping everyone’s favorites such as the strawberry pies, sundaes and homemade Polish food.
Our parish has changed a little in the past decade. By that I mean that most of our parishioners now are recent immigrants from Poland. Their culture is a little different in that they prefer a continental or Eurodance style of music, while Americans of Polish descent prefer polkas and waltzes.
Both groups contribute their culture, skills and labor to make our event a success. While we have alumni in the tent dancing to the Polish Muslims, we have newly emigrated Poles dancing Euro -style in the church hall. And while the American parishioners are serving up city chicken, the Poles are serving szaszlyki. I don’t know of any other Polish festival that is this versatile.
Talk about the entertainment. Most people in this town will be familiar with The Polish Muslims – what about the others? Where did you find them, or hear about them? Had you a chance to see them or hear them before, or did they send videos or tapes, or provide links to them for you on, say, youtube?
Bonneau: Where the polka bands are concerned, they’re all pretty famous in the Detroit area, so we have a list that we go from to hire one or two each year, and rotate so that we don’t have the same band two years in a row.
Our customers have their favorites, and by rotating the bands, we keep everyone satisfied. With the Polish groups playing the modern Polish music, some of them are parishioners, or else they have some kind of history with St. Florian or our current pastor.
They’re very popular in their musical genre, and draw large crowds. Walt Cieslak, a Michigan Music Hall of Fame inductee, will provide the polkas, and Muza Mix and Alex Tone, friends of our parish (and fine musicians) will provide the modern Polish music.
What about the food? Any highlights you want to mention? What if, well, some of your attendees just don’t like strawberries all that much (aside from the obvious answer, being ‘Why come to a strawberry festival, then?’)
Bonneau: You know somebody that doesn’t like strawberries? (Reporter’s note: Er, as a matter of fact…) Our food is what I’m most proud of.
All of it is made in the tradition of old-fashioned Polish comfort food. Every year, our suggestion box is full of compliments on the food. Our very talented cooks will be serving up the finest potato pancakes, Belgian waffles, city chicken, stuffed cabbage, as well as many other items.
It’s the kind of food that conjures up memories of your Grandma’s kitchen. An interesting side note is that, for the past few festivals, we had many Muslim Hamtramckans coming and trying our potato pancakes, pies and pierogi. We really do have something for everyone!
You’ve got several different raffles going on – care to expound on any of those? For example, what some of the prizes may be – or, at least, a hint or two?
Bonneau: Our main raffle is the “Strawberry Raffle,” with the largest prize being $2,000. We also offer the popular 50/50 raffle, as well as instant pull-tab tickets.
A big attraction is our “Tin Can Auction Raffle,” where customers can choose which prizes (from out of dozens) to try and win. We’re raffling off bikes, a BBQ grill, exercise equipment, and much more.
Last, but not least, is our “Quilter’s Club Raffle.” The ladies of the Quilter’s Club outdo themselves every year. It takes them hundreds of hours to hand stitch the quilts, and (the finished products reflect all this) work.
What’s up with the “Planetarium and Astronomy Exhibit” – how will that work?
Bonneau: I won’t go into the Planetarium details (right now), because some of Mr. Cervenak’s equipment was stolen. He’s working on replacing it, but I don’t now know how it’s going to work with the changes. I don’t (want) to supply incorrect or incomplete info.
Anything else you’d like to add? The “floor” is yours …
Bonneau: On behalf of St. Florian Parish, I invite everyone to visit us, and I sincerely hope we’re good hosts. Mother’s day is this Sunday, and our festival is a perfect way to treat mom to a delicious meal and a little dancing.
Cindy, thanks so much for your time!
Bonneau: Thank YOU very much!