CLIFTON PARK -- Clifton Park's Tony Bifaro paused for a church lunch -- and reflection -- on Ash Wednesday.
"I think it helps begin the 40 days of reflection," said Bifaro, as he sat inside the social hall at St. Edward the Confessor Church in Clifton Park. "Reflection, prayers and thoughts. Also, it gives you an opportunity to gather with friends and count our blessings."
Men and women followed similar plans during a gray Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season for members of many religious denominations.
Easter preparation means abstinence and fasting; many avoid eating meat on Ash Wednesday and during the seven Fridays that this year precede the Christian holy day.
Fish fries were popular choices during the day.
In Clifton Park, hundreds met for fish and fellowship during a lunch and dinner that lasted all afternoon into early evening at St. Edward's.
In Fort Johnson, more than 100 were expected to pick up take-out meals at Rolling Hills Country Club during an event sponsored by the Ladies of Charity of Montgomery County.
Clifton Park's annual lunch-dinner was sponsored by the Knights of Columbus of St. Edward's Church. In addition to fried fish, the menu included French fries, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, rolls, beverages and cookies.
"Our big push will happen around 3 p.m.," said Tom Halabuda, the Knights' membership chairman. "The kids get out of school, they get their ashes and they usually get dinner."
Proceeds from the event, which began at noon and ran until 6 p.m., will benefit Clifton Park charities and organizations.
Others offered reasons for their attendance.
"I'm just having a really good time and I love Father Butler," said Julie Bifaro of Rev. Patrick Butler, St. Edward's pastor. "He's gentle, kind and he really understands the message of our faith."
Ann Wertalik, a 35-year church member, helped as a server on Wednesday. She said the mood inside church, during services, could be somber. "Here, it's joyful," she said. "It's a wonderful community of people."
Clifton Park's Joanne Sweet used the late lunch to begin her Lenten observance.
"It's a time to sacrifice," she said, "and also a time to do good deeds. It's not just give something up, it's do good for other people."
Barbara Smith, another Clifton Park resident, was happy for the togetherness.
"It's the start of Lent," she said. "It's kicking it off with the community, the community is big in St. Edward's."
In Fort Johnson, Amsterdam's Rich Tatara kept the faith -- he kept meat off his breakfast, lunch and dinner plates.
"But I like fish, too," Tatara said, as he carried a packaged, fried fish dinner out of Rolling Hills. "I try to adhere to the conditions. It was one of the things I was brought up with and if I don't do it, I just don't feel right."
"This is a fundraiser for the Ladies of Charity," said Kathy DiBlasi, who co-chaired the dinner with Helen Seward. "Many people abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday so therefore we thought it would be a good day to do the fish fry. And also, Lent is often considered to be a time of alms giving, so by supporting this event, they are also supporting the Ladies of Charity so we can carry on our work."
That work includes assistance to local food pantries, homeless shelters, adult nursing homes and the senior community. The Ladies also help families and individuals.
The dinner party included beer-battered cod or panko-encrusted haddock, coleslaw, French fries and cookies, cupcakes and brownies.
"It's a good cause, they do things for the community," said Kathy Skrzynecki of Amsterdam, who picked up four meals. "And today is Ash Wednesday, we always start Lent with fasting, that's why we have the fish."
Betty Niski, who also lives in Amsterdam, said fish dinners during late winter and early spring are part of her religious tradition. "When you're raised a Catholic, that's what you do," she said.
Chris Tambasco's plan was to help the Ladies help the community through her personal financial support. "And I hear the fish here is pretty good," said Tambasco, who lives in Fort Johnson.
Tambasco lamented the loss of several fish fry spots in Amsterdam.
Fort Hunter's George King, a longtime member of the Tribes Hill Volunteer Fire Department, said an appreciation for food was one reason he visited Rolling Hills. Returning a favor to the Ladies of Charity was another.
"They support us, we support them," he said.