A Tribute to 25 Years of the Spirit of Community
Judy Stallone, chairman of St. William of Vercelli Catholic Church’s wildly successful Cajun Fiesta (formerly called Cajun Fest) for the past five years, refuses to take any credit for the incredible growth and success of the 25-year-old venture. “It’s all about community,” she says. “I can be a leader all day and have the greatest organizational skills, but it takes an eager team of parish workers and the spirit of community to make it phenomenal. All kinds of community—personal, family, job, church, town—are at work, all separate rings tying in together. We are especially blessed to be part of Carthage because it is such a nurturing community!”
The event began as Cajun Fest, a fundraiser each October for the church’s building fund. This years Cajun Fiesta will be held on Saturday, October 21, 2017 from 10 am to 6 pm. Proceeds from the events retired the debts for the church building and rectory and have more recently been geared toward paying off the new Holy Family Center. Judy explains that in 2008 a group of church members of Hispanic descent decided to add extra support to what was being done by Cajun Fest by hosting a Cinco de Mayo celebration and fundraiser featuring Mexican foods and activities. “Somehow as we all worshiped together, sharing the mystical Body of Christ and learning each other’s names and about each other’s families,” she says, “we decided to act on an idea to become one event and changed the name to Cajun Fiesta. Now we have wonderful authentic home-cooked Mexican food in addition to the amazing Cajun cuisine we have always served. After we combined the celebrations, we just blew it out of the ballpark in excitement, fun, and camaraderie for ourselves as well as for our guests and visitors. There was a ripple effect that just spread, and the event became huge. We work all year getting ready for it. It’s definitely more evidence of this spirit of community!”
In addition to the Cajun and Mexican meals served, the event offers all kinds of snack-type foods in their concession stands, as well as homemade cakes, pies, and other confections in the Sweet Shoppe. Activities include a gumbo cook-off, a silent auction and flea market, Bingo and Loteria, and many children’s activities. “Our children’s activities have absolutely exploded in the past few years,” Judy says. “Maria Gonzalez and her great team of mothers work hard to be ready to keep the children busy with a variety of games. They give attention to assure every child goes home with a big bag of prizes. Our goal for Cajun Fiesta is to make this a family-centered event.” There is free music and dancing, including a performance of ethnic Aztec dancing and music provided by the church’s Guadalupanos Dancers. “We used to have to import these dancers from Henderson,” Judy says, “but Rosio Valerio headed up a project to form our own group, and they are wonderful. They perform dances that give praise to God and to the Holy Mother during special feast day celebrations throughout the year, and we are excited to share this unusual talent with the community during Cajun Fiesta.”
Judy adds, “One of the events added since 2012 is our Cajun Swamp. Our parishioner, Elizabeth Lane, has hand made over thirty ‘stick people’ in period clothing from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Visitors can ride the hay wagons or follow the walking path to visit Olinton, Meauxville and San Guillermo. Signs along the trail tell the story of how Cajuns, Creoles, and Mexican people came to East Texas to live, work, play, and raise their families.”
There is no admission charge for the event. People can make donations to be eligible for drawings for a total of 13 valuable prizes, including a 2017 Chevy Spark, a Henry Golden Boy 30-30 rifle, a Green Egg grill, a 55-inch television, a $500 Visa gift card and a $500 HEB gift card.
Judy reiterates, “Cajun Fiesta is not about me! It is about our various pastors and the many parishioners who for 25 years have done the work of planning, setting up, and hosting one of the largest events in Carthage! Fellow parishioners let my almost-OCD organizational abilities get it ready, and they fall in to help make it all come together.” She adds that some of the people who have been working hard for so many years are getting a bit tired. “Old age is taking its toll on our worker bees, and we are anxious to teach another generation how to do what we have learned.” She says that even with the buildings paid for, the church will always have financial responsibilities and that no one can imagine not having the event. “We may not always need to have it so big,” she says. “We may have to downsize a bit, but we still want to have all this FUN! Folks tell us they look forward to spending the day with us and want us to keep having the annual festival. This is the energy for us from one year to another.”
However vehemently this energetic and caring lady protests, it is obvious that she is being very modest about her accomplishments. She has been a registered nurse for 47 years and has used her experiences as a nurse, as well as those great organizational skills, to bring to fruition one of the most meaningful things in her life.
She claims, “My Vietnam-veteran husband and I raised two children and operated a poultry farm, but learned that was not the hardest thing we had to do. It was caring for both sets of our parents through illnesses and getting them to their eternal reward! The final challenge was when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I had no idea how I was going to have a full-time job and also take care of her, but as I prayed about what I was supposed to do for this earthly mother of mine, I clearly felt God telling me, ‘Do it yourself!’ And He opened a door for me to do that—opening a facility of my own through which I could make a living, take care of her, and help others who were going through the same thing. So Marian Place was born.”
She continues, “I knew NOTHING about opening or operating an assisted living facility. My nursing experience and skills could take care of folks, but this was an altogether new business venture and a strange disease process.” But my husband helped me, we eventually got licensed, and again, doors kept opening that I didn’t even have enough sense to know needed opening! It was a huge learning curve, but as of August 18, we have now been here 14 years. I cared for my mother here for eight of those years! I have also had the privilege of caring for many other of the most wonderful people, and their families. We incorporate the help of home health agencies and hospice and the most caring staff imaginable. We bring in every resource we possibly can to give our residents care, love, time, and a listening ear, and finally as easy a transition into death as possible. Of course we see decline and death a lot here, but we all feel so privileged to be with these dear people as they go to meet their God!”
Judy explains, “The word ‘Marian’ means ‘having to do with Mary,’ and I chose that name to dedicate the facility to the Blessed Mother and to our Lord through His earthly mother. I am so happy that God had a plan for me that I never saw. I know that we are just a little cog in the bigger community, but I am so blessed and thankful, both TO and FOR that community—that we are all one, and how we support each other. I especially love how this town embraces people in times of trouble, and I am proud to be part of what goes on in Carthage, Texas!”