NOTE: The 2020 Fall Festival has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
CHELSEA, Iowa — Carefully kept records describe dinner donations from parishioners of St. Joseph’s Church for its annual Fall Festival.
“Mrs. Anthony Novak: strudel, kolaches, potato salad, cream. Mrs. Jos. Musil: meatloaf, sauerkraut, potato salad. Mrs. John Sichra: loaf of rye bread, qt. pickles, 1 pie,” notes a portion of the more than 100 donations made in 1932.
In 2019, St. Joseph’s still relies on its parishioners and volunteers as it celebrated its centennial year of the annual festival, held the Sunday before Labor Day, and dating back 100 years.
Settled in the mid-1800s by Czech immigrants who found the rolling hills of east-central Iowa similar to their home country, Chelsea residents and surrounding farm families still retain Czech traditions, notably in their cuisine.
Jamie Kupka — who prefers not to have a title but is the de facto chairwoman of the festival’s dinner — said the meal typically attracts 600 or so people who dine on chicken, ham, potatoes, thin Czech-style noodles, sauerkraut, salads, desserts and the Czech favorite: fruit-filled kolaches. For the centennial year, it appeared they might top that number, she said.
Pointing to where poppyseed-dotted Czech dinner rolls known as rohlicky had run out, Kupka murmured that more rohlicky bakers were needed.
About 50 to 60 volunteers are needed for the dinner, which, as it did in the beginning, relies on donations from St. Joseph’s parishioners.
Some of the earliest financial records of the festival are in Czech, making them difficult to decipher, Kupka added, but the parish has kept track of the years since the first festival, marking the 100th this year.
She and other members recalled when the dinners were held in the church basement and even earlier, in what’s commonly called the Chelsea community hall, next to the church grounds.
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The school, which long ago closed its doors, is now the site of the dinners and is also rented out for social events for parishioners.
Bingo, paddle wheel, ring toss and other games are held on the church grounds, with some iconic games, such as the balloon darts, used for decades and others, such as “cow chip bingo” that are newer.
Like many rural communities, Chelsea has struggled with a declining population, particularly following devastating floods in 1993 and other years. Currently, an estimated 250 people live in the town, located about 15 minutes away from the Tama County seat of Toledo.
The priest for St. Joseph’s, which originated in 1867, also serves Catholic parishes in Belle Plaine and Tama.
But, quashing a rumor, one point Kupka wanted made clear is that although 2019 is a monumental year for the St. Joseph’s Fall Festival, “this is not the last one.”
Learn about one of the best places to buy authentic kolaches in Iowa, and see more from the St. Joseph’s Annual Fall Festival, below: