SPRING HILL — Jan Sunderland recalls, 18 years ago, when Father Michael O'Brien was assigned to the new parish of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church on Spring Hill Drive.
O'Brien quickly recognized the diverse ethnicity of people who were sitting in his pews.
In order to draw more members to the parish, he suggested a potluck supper with everyone bringing their favorite ethnic dish: Polish, Italian, Greek, American, whatever.
So successful was the outpouring, members of the parish decided the next year to sponsor an ethnic festival. The food was copious, though the only entertainment was O'Brien on the seat of a dunking booth.
People poured in, and the first night of the festival the church volunteers ran out of food. The festival was scheduled to last through the weekend.
Sunderland said a favorite butcher shop opened at dawn for the event, slicing sausages and other meats. The Knights of Columbus opened their kitchen so workers could chop and prepare onions, peppers and tomatoes and make meatballs.
In the end, the first festival was such a hit that the church decided to make it an annual affair.
The 17th annual festival opens this evening and runs through Sunday on the church grounds at 13485 Spring Hill Drive. The volunteers have been preparing all week — men in their 60s, 70s and 80s raising tents and toting refrigerators, women in their home kitchens stirring up ethnic concoctions.
Sunderland staffs the Greek booth, where gyros are the main attraction.
"It's very seasoned lamb, roasted on a spit, thinly sliced, then heated and grilled, with fresh tomatoes, onions and a sour cream sauce wrapped in a pita bread," she said. The sauce is named tzatziki, with chopped cucumbers, minced garlic, olive oil, vinegar and minced fresh dill or mint.
Even after 17 years, it's the favorite fare of Sunderland, 67.
Festival co-coordinator Tony DelVecchio claims he doesn't have a favorite fare.
"Probably everything," he said.
That includes stuffed cabbage, sausage and peppers, bratwurst from the German folks, Cuban sandwiches from the islanders, pizza, cannoli, cream-stuffed eclairs and flavored ices from the Italian contingent, pierogis from the eastern Europeans, ever-popular funnel cakes from Pennsylvania Dutch country, and, for the traditional American, Philly cheesesteaks, hot dogs, hamburgers, root beer floats, soda, beer and wine.
Sunderland said the festival really took off when it added a carnival with rides and games.
"There are approximately 25 carnival rides," said DelVecchio. "They change every year." Also included are carnival games.
An indoor flea market, known as Second Hand Rose, will be open daily. Musical and dancing entertainment, as well as tae kwon do and other demonstrations, will appear on stage.
A mini-raffle at $1 a ticket or six for $5 has as prizes like a GPS system, a 19-inch flat-screen TV, a Wii game, two vacation cruises, the writing of a will and trust package, a $50 gift certificate from Publix, and a $59 gift certificate from Hess gas.
The large raffle, with tickets $20 each, includes payouts of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000.
Based on past experience, DelVecchio expects a turnout of 20,000 to 30,000 over the four days.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.