St. Cecilia's 99th Labor Day weekend festival welcomes tens of thousands
Independence church raises funds for school
Kevin Eigelbach | WCPO contributor
7:00 AM, Sep 23, 2017
INDEPENDENCE, Ky. -- St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church in Independence isn't one of the larger parishes in the Diocese of Covington. At about 900 families, it's only one-third the size of parishes like Immaculate Heart of Mary in Burlington or St. Timothy in Union, said St. Cecilia parishioner Ed Reynolds.
But every Labor Day weekend for the past 99 years, St. Cecilia has put on a church picnic. That picnic has grown into a three-day festival, which Reynolds believes has become the largest annual private event in the Tri-State.
"We are, like, the biggest festival nobody knows about," he said.
Well, not exactly nobody. Local firefighters estimated that at the festival earlier this month, 18,000 people crowded onto St. Cecilia's campus on Madison Pike on Saturday evening, and another 18,000 came on Sunday evening, said Cherri Pretty, the festival chairperson.
"That would have been a record crowd, both nights," she added.
Attendees come from as far as Dayton, Ohio, Reynolds said, and they return every year.
From the point of view of the city of Independence, it's a great opportunity to show this small Kenton County burg to the rest of the region, said Mayor Chris Reinersman, who runs the rubber duck races booth and serves as the festival announcer.
The latter job usually involves "talking too much and annoying people," he said.
The city's never measured the economic impact of the festival, he said, but he's sure it's a positive one. "The restaurant owners do see a definite uptick in business," he said.
What's the attraction? Music.
This year, the festival featured Little River Band, an Australian group that charted hits like "Reminiscing" in the late '70s, plus Night Ranger, known primarily for the '80s hit "Sister Christian." Both bands had performed at the festival about 10 years ago, Reynolds said.
Performers at past festivals have included '70s hitmaker Eddie Money, of "Two Tickets to Paradise" fame, and several cover bands.
The acts perform rain or shine, usually on a stage erected in the church parking lot. A Bruce Springsteen cover band played in the rain to an audience of about 10 people one year, Reynolds said. On another rainy day, about 200 crowded into the church undercroft to hear a band featuring the former lead singer of Boston.
"Boston basically played in our church basement," Reynolds said.
Do these acts charge less because they're playing for a nonprofit? Not at all, Reynolds said. Sometimes they want to charge more, he said, because playing a church festival can seem like a step down for them. But once they see thousands of excited fans and a great stage for them to perform on, he said, they usually feel better about it.
In 2018, when the festival celebrates its 100th anniversary, the organizers hope to bring in three national recording artists instead of two, and they're thinking of expanding the festival to four days.
One reason the festival can afford to bring in such acts is that it has had great sponsors help with the cost, Pretty said.
There's no admission charge for the concerts. The festival typically uses them to draw people in so it can make money from raffling off a Corvette or $40,000 in cash, Pretty said. Other moneymakers include beer sales: More than 20,000 beers were sold at the most recent festival, Reynolds said.
Festival profits support the church's school, Reynolds said. The profit from the festival doesn't quite wipe out the deficit that running the school creates, he said, but it does help keep tuition costs down.
On Labor Day, the church sells huge chicken dinners at $8 apiece. Marylou Kaub, 83, who was baptized in the church and has been a parishioner ever since, supervises the dinner.
The toughest part, she said, is ordering the right amount of food to feed 1,500 to 2,000 people. She doesn't want to buy too much, she said, "because it's a waste, and it eats into the profit."
This past Labor Day, 2,400 meals were sold until supplies ran out about 6 p.m., Reynolds said.
The chicken dinners are a holdover from when the festival began 99 years ago as a one-day church picnic on Labor Day.
Eleven years ago, Father Mario Tizziani became the church pastor, and challenged the church to make the festival something more. He thought getting musical acts would be the way to do that, Reynolds said, especially since St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music.
Reynolds, who was the festival chair at the time, said he printed up 800 yard-signs to publicize it. Some of them said that St. Cecilia's was the No. 1 festival in Northern Kentucky, which was not true at the time.
But sometimes, he said, you have to fake it until you make it. And it worked. He said Ernie Fletcher, the governor of Kentucky at the time, showed up at the first festival Reynolds chaired because he had heard it was the biggest in Northern Kentucky.
Kaub credited Tizziani's passion about the festival and his willingness to promote it with making it grow.
He's always reminding the parishioners that it's an opportunity for outsiders to see the face of Christ among the festival's 350 volunteers, Reinersman said.
"That's something we all focus on," he said. "People do go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome."