If there’s such a rivalry as Old Parkrose versus New Parkrose —similar to the disconnect antagonizing neighboring Portland—Old Parkrose just took a sizable hit with the termination of St. Rita’s annual All-you-Can-Eat Spaghetti Dinner. For the first time in eighty years, this cultural benchmark won’t be providing eager community members with handcrafted meatballs, intimidating lines and graciously packed takeaway bags.
“It’s because of the lack of leadership roles being filled,” says St. Rita Pastoral Administrator Lisa Porter, who has volunteered at the dinners since her move to Parkrose in 1982. “We just couldn’t find enough people to pull it off.”
The demise of the spaghetti dinner illustrates a larger demographic shift in the Parkrose area. When the original spaghetti dinner arrived in the spring of 1937, it was the product of seven Italian-American women—two of them sisters—who wanted to feed a large array of immigrant farmers as part of a thriving cultural scene.
“There were all these farmers,” explains Chris Kugel, the daughter of Rose Garre, who was one of the seven founding women. “And they could leave during a weekday to attend the spaghetti dinner and finish their work at home at night. But you can’t leave work now. Plus, we had five to seven priests involved—whereas now, we have one who’s kind of part-time. It was tough to get enough volunteers to fill the chair positions, and that’s why the dinner died.”
Gradually, Italian farmers became a sight for sore eyes in the Parkrose area. A cocktail of housing developments juxtaposed with increasing industrialization has forever changed the local social landscape.
Still, Kugel recalls the thriving Italian-American community that traditionally demanded 200 gallons of sauce along with 9,000 meatballs. For decades, the tradition held up as its original staff readily surrendered the torch to bright-eyed descendants, who took the reins in reviving the event year after year. Rose Garre was the only remaining member of the original seven matrons.
“For the very first dinner, these seven ladies made the sauce at home and brought it with them,” says Kugel, whose father didn’t speak English until he went to school in America. “But halfway through the dinner, they ran out of pasta. So one of them ran up to the priest’s kitchen and made fresh noodles right there and served them.”
Garre attended the event every year from its inception up until the second-to-last meal in March 2015. She passed away that April.
Naturally, Kugel is not the only community member with roots stretching out of the wholesome gathering.
“It was weddings, funerals, or the St. Rita Spaghetti Dinner,” says resident Joe Rossi, who had been attending the dinners since 1964, a year after he was born. “If you were going to cook the sauce, people would say to only wear clothes that you wouldn’t wear for the rest of the year. Otherwise, your house would always smell like you were cooking spaghetti.”
Some members of the community wonder if the historic dinner will ever attempt a comeback. For the moment, some remain hopeful.
“I don’t know what the future will hold,” says Porter. “I’m hesitant to say that it’s totally gone.”
However, Kugel is less optimistic.
“It hurts me that it’s come to an end, but the times have outpaced the ability to put the dinner on. The dynamics of the area have changed so much,” says Kugel. “It’s almost sad, but my mom was a progressive. She always said that change is progress, and we’ll have to embrace it.”
For more information about St. Rita Catholic Church, visit their website, stritapdx.org, or Facebook page, www.facebook.com/st-rita-catholic-community-119577118067398, or call them at 503-252-3403.