After Rita Zinn moved to the Shiloh/East Belleville area 20 years ago, she joined St. Clare of Assisi Church and decided getting involved on the new Oktoberfest Committee would be a good way to meet fellow parishioners.
Eighteen years later, she is the sole remaining member of the original committee and still devotes her all to the annual Bavarian-themed fall festival.
“It was a great way to help and meet people, and a lot of fun. I went from not knowing anyone to now I know practically everybody,” she said.
She is now one of 50 members who put the fest together, all happy to serve.
“We’re pretty much a well-oiled machine,” she said.
Producing fun is a lot of hard work. They start meeting in May and provide volunteer sign-up now through an online program. They fill about 700 shift hours.
“We have a very active parish,” she said.
The 18th annual St. Clare Oktoberfest is set for Saturday, Sept. 29, from 3 to 11 p.m., on the grounds at Third and Cherry streets downtown, between the school and the old church.
“When we first started, we fit on a little lot next to the school. Now, Third Street is blocked off,” she said.
Seeing crowds enjoying the event is what makes it all worthwhile, she said.
“It is satisfying to see all the people as we walk around the grounds. It’s wall-to-wall people. You see kids having fun and everybody having a good time. There is something there for everybody,” Rita said.
The addition of a new city parking lot has resulted in a different configuration, but the committee has worked around it.
“We will always adapt and figure out a way,” Rita said.
Currently, she takes charge of the basket raffle and silent auction. For 15 years, she handled the public relations.
The Basket Raffle could have up to 136 baskets, and the silent auction typically has about 30 items. She credits Peg Harter as the brainchild of this fundraiser.
“It’s all donated,” she said. Traditionally, a group of 12-15 volunteers gathers a week beforehand to assemble the baskets.
“We like to knock out as much as we can,” she said.
The silent auction offers some intriguing give-a-ways this year, she said. A brick oven, condo in Alabama and a smart watch are some of the ‘attention-getters.’ Plus, they usually have gift cards, signed memorabilia and St. Louis Cardinals tickets.
Considered an integral team member, Rita is not one for the limelight, but Oktoberfest Chairman Tom Knaust will gladly sing her praises.
“As a founding member of the Oktoberfest committee, Rita has the vision, experience and wisdom that we bank on each year as we prepare for this event. She has helped us grow Oktoberfest into a huge festival that draws more and more people each year,” Knaust said.
“As with our other Oktoberfest team members, she is someone we can always depend on to get the job done well. She is organized and a hard worker. Plus, she’s fun to work alongside.”
Zinn credits her Mater Dei High School classmate, the Rev. James Deiters, pastor of St. Clare, with giving her the nudge to volunteer.
Father Jim, as he is called, started the festival to celebrate the region’s German heritage.
“He is great at building community. He wanted to make a connection to our German heritage. He thought this would be an important event to not just get parishioners involved, but reach out to the region. He wanted to get people to come together,” she said.
The fest has since become known for its food, fun and fellowship for the entire family.
“While our region and our church today include a classic ‘melting pot’ of cultures and nationalities, many of the founders of our parish were first- and second-generation Germans, so our Oktoberfest is a fun tribute to that heritage,” Father Jim said.
Father Jim has been known to sport lederhosen or other German folk attire on, as he makes his rounds around the grounds. Ordained in 1991, he has been pastor of St. Clare’s Church and School since 1996.
For the first few years, parishioners made rouladen, a special German meat dish that usually features round steak flattened, stuffed with onion, bacon, mustard and pickles, rolled and cooked, then served with a gravy.
“Father Jim would be there to help the cooks, making it with them. It was labor intensive, so we started serving roast pork,” she said.
Besides the sit-down dinner served from 4 to 7 p.m. inside the St. Clare School gym, there are brats, pretzels, imported German beers on tap, plus other festival foods and drinks that are available all evening.
With increased attendance, so has the proceeds. They have grown from making $5,000 to more than $50,000, with revenue going into the capital fund to pay for the new church building near Green Mount Road, which was built 11 years ago.
Founded in 1867, the parish opened its third church building in 2007. But uses the old church for the festival.
“Father Jim wanted it to be downtown, to have that community feel,” she said. “We could move it, use Memorial Hospital for parking, and have a shuttle over, but he wants it downtown.”
The fest’s first year was 2001. The fest took place after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
“9-11 happened, and we had some military people on our committee who were deployed,” she said. It was a somber time.
They welcome their military parishioners to get involved, no matter if they are just here for a short time, she said.
This year’s festival promises to be bigger-and-better-than-ever. They are starting the food, drinks and music earlier, at 3 p.m. The committee has added new games for young people.
“We pride ourselves on offering a family-friendly Oktoberfest, featuring music, games, food and plenty to do for people of all ages,” Knaust said. “And, this year we’re adding a fun new area designed for teens, college-age people and young adults. We call it Das Zone.”
Das Zone will be the place to “hang out” with friends while playing 9 Square in the Air, Giant Jenga or Corn Hole – all for free, Knaust noted.
And there’s another big addition in Das Zone: an escape room – but it does have an admission fee.
“We have teamed up with the new Roaming Riddle Mobile Escape Room in O’Fallon to bring the game to Oktoberfest. This incredible, high-quality escape room will provide challenging fun for teams of eight players at a really reasonable entry fee of just $10 per person,” Knaust said.
“So, get some friends together and reserve a playing time at www.stclarechurch.org/ofest. We’ll see if you have what it takes to figure out the puzzles and ‘escape the room’ before the clock runs out!” he said.
Family-friendly activities include the “Rennen and Weg” 5K run/walk with a shorter run for kids, Bingo, games of chance, pony rides, inflatables and face painting. The “I Dood It” carnival game is a popular fixture – involving throwing small balls at a grid, and if they make five in a row, four corners or the center circle, they win a prize.
Registration for the 5K run begins at 3 p.m. and the runners will hit the streets at 4 p.m.
Other mainstays are live music, with the band South of Sanity playing from 7 to 11 p.m., and the Oktoberfest raffle. Throughout the evening, five people will win $100 cash prizes, building to the final draw for $10,000 at 11 p.m., the end of the fest.
A Breese native and 1983 Mater Dei graduate, Rita is glad she joined the parish when she moved to St. Clair County – The Belleville Diocese no longer has boundaries for parishes, so any Catholic can join St. Clare or a parish of their choosing.
Rita works at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis. She first began helping with the youth group at Father Jim’s encouragement.
“Father Jim is good getting people involved. He sees people’s talents and points them in the right direction,” Rita said.
Giving back to the parish is important, she said. The stewardship committee promotes giving of your time and talent.
“I have made so many friends,” she said. “The festival depends on getting people to do things, and they come out.”
Complete information on St. Clare’s 18th Annual Oktoberfest can be found at www.stclarechurch.org/ofest.
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