HOLLY HILLS – Once upon a time, Richard, Steven and Michael Gardner were happy kids riding the rides and laughing with friends at the annual picnic of St. Stephen Protomartyr Catholic Church.
That should have ended when they graduated from the parish school in the 1970s, but it didn’t. During the 2019 picnic at the church last week, they hung out with family members and caught up with old classmates. They also watched the current bunch of happy St. Stephen school students riding the rides and laughing with friends.
The kids got belly aches downing funnel cakes, not to mention riding rides such as the Monkey Maze, the Tornado and the Ferris wheel. But who cared, when there was so much fun and so many friends to see before the rest of the summer vacation?
“The school ended a few weeks ago, so they’re so excited to see their friends, and then the rides are amazing,” said Jill Pace, a past chair of the picnic and a volunteer at Wednesday’s event.
To make the picnic work, the need for volunteers was huge.
“We have a committee of probably about 50 people and hundreds of volunteers throughout the day,” said Ann Marie Guntli, who chairs the picnic with her husband, Matt. They have three children who attend the parish school.
Among other things, they had to organize the parade, they had to find people to serve chicken dinners from 4 to 7 p.m., and set up a big screen to watch the last game of the Stanley Cup Final that night. They had to staff everything from after the 9 a.m. parade until the event closed in a drizzle at 9 p.m.
The church and school usually get about $50,000 from the effort, not to mention fun for the children worth much more than that.
“I think we were just asked by some friends to help out, and we agreed,” said Ann Marie Guntli, explaining how she and her husband came to lead this year’s picnic.
It was worth it for Danielle Stolte and her daughter Ava, who is going into the sixth grade at St. Stephen. “She’s hopping around all the rides as we speak, rain and all,” Stolte said.
It also was worth it for the Gardners to talk about old times.
“The parade was huge,” said Richard Gardner, who graduated from the school at 3929 Wilmington Avenue in 1972.
Steven graduated in 1976 and went on to see his son graduate from the same school in 1996. Michael graduated in 1970 and now lives in Byron, Ga. Most years, he arranges a week-long visit home so he can attend the picnic. Nobody from the family attends the school now.
The brothers’ father, Marion Gardner, got up early on Wednesday and reserved two tents. Members of the extended Gardner family spent the day sitting around the table and catching up with old times. Michael planned to be at the bell tower at 6 p.m. to talk with old classmates.
“Fifty-seven years we’ve been in our house in this parish,” Marion Gardner said.
“I like seeing the kids ride, see they’re having fun,” said Beverly Gardner, who has been married to Marion Gardner for 64 years.
It’s a special time for the Rev. Ron Hopmeir, the church’s pastor, because it was one of the first things he experienced when he came to the parish.
“It’s a small neighborhood, and it’s right in the neighborhood. You don’t have to wait for long lines,” he said.
“Most of the kids know one another,” he added.