By Sandy Hadler, contributor
BERNE, Minn. — Berne is the place to be Wednesday evenings.
At 5 p.m., the grassy green grounds around the Zwingli United Church of Christ are filled with hundreds of people of all ages. Some have already ordered and eaten pizza and are listening to music by the time the vast majority of people arrive around 5:30. Others bring their own food, wine, tablecloths and even candles.
In the relaxed atmosphere, children run freely around the lawn.
John Derby and Stan Streiff start the fires in the brick ovens between 9 and 10 a.m. The bricks must be between 700 and 800 degrees for the pizzas to bake; it takes at least seven hours to get to that temperature.
Last year another oven was built, with bricks donated by the owner of the old cheese factory down on the corner, which has been converted into a residence. The new oven was first used this year.
We built another oven because we wanted to cut down on the wait time, but that isn’t happening. All that happened is that we got twice as many people,” said Pat Derby, co-coordinator for Wednesday wood-fired pizza nights.
Derby added, “I have five people working the ovens. One is a substitute who gives the other four a break. It is hard work and very hot.” Meanwhile 22 people are working in the kitchen making pizzas, taking them to the ovens and slicing them.
“No one has a minute of rest,” she said. “But it is fun.”
The kitchen staff was entirely from the Zwingli congregation until recently. Because of the huge number of people ordering pizza, eight kitchen workers have been added from St. Paul Lutheran Church in Pine Island and Minneola Lutheran Church of rural Goodhue. Depending on the weather this summer, they have made anywhere from 80 to 550 pizzas on a given night.
Proceeds from the sales go to defray costs at Zwingli and for designated charities which include matching funds to Thrivent, area food shelves and a number of other causes. Both St. Paul and Minneola use their proceeds to support a mission in Baha, Mexico.
The idea for pizza nights came about in 2012 after serious consideration by the Zwingli Church Council, which decided that the long-running, very popular Swissfest was no longer profitable and needed to be replaced with something that would make money and be less work-intensive for the small, aging congregation.
Angela Organ, Derby’s daughter and co-coordinator, suggested converting Swissfest to pizza nights. She pointed out that they had an outdoor stage for entertainment and people loved coming to the beautiful grounds. Some members were skeptical and even those who thought it was a great idea, never guessed that within a few years hundreds of people would be coming to the weekly event, which runs from the first Wednesday in June through the last Wednesday in August.
So in June 2012, after 58 years, Swissfest morphed into the pizza/live band event.
Organ is responsible for lining up the bands. There is now a waiting list to perform, even though the bands play free of charge.
While there are no longer yodelers, flag throwers, Swiss dancers and alphorn entertainment every week, a Swiss heritage educational component remains. At 7 p.m. each Wednesday the church is opened and a history of the church, which was built in 1872, is presented, along with a history of the immigrants who settled in the small village of Berne. Three mannequins dressed in Swiss-style clothing stand in the narthex.
Derby explained that Dorothy Karlan, who worked with the youth in the congregation, had sewn rooms full of Swiss costumes that she created after looking through Swiss books. She created over 400 pieces for those costumes. They were used by Swiss entertainers and wood carvers who arrived each summer from Switzerland. “They were amazed at how authentic the costumes looked when they got here,” said Derby. She added, “But it was very expensive to get them over here. We made very little money, and if it rained, we actually went backward financially that week.” The high cost of flying the entertainers to Swissfest each summer contributed to the change in venue.
Swissfest was the brainchild of Sam Ellson, who was a youth director at the church and the church’s organist for 60 years. It began in 1949 when he had teens put on a Swiss night, highlighting Swiss foods. The event was held in the church and was advertised to the surrounding communities.
After two years, there were so many people attending that they couldn’t seat everyone. So the dinner moved outside and eventually entertainment was added, and it evolved into Swissfest, a two-day event, which officially was held for 58 years before ending three years ago.
Once a year, a tribute is now held at Zwingli United Church of Christ to honor Berne’s Swissfest, which ended in 2012. For 58 years, the festival celebrated the community’s Swiss ancestry. This year the commemorative event was Aug. 6.
Flemming Fold, a family musical group, sang Alpine folk music and yodeling. Pat Derby gave a history of the church and the immigrants who arrived in Berne, a small village which had 20 businesses at one time. All that remains is the church.
A special Swiss pizza, made with bratwurst and sauerkraut, was added to the menu and will be available for the remaining three Wednesdays of the wood-fired pizza and music season. Shirts and some Swiss trinkets were sold, along with bratzeli, a flat Swiss cookie made in an iron similar to a waffle iron. Five of the original alphorn players were on hand to play for the crowd.
Berne is located 10 miles south of Kasson and seven miles west of Pine Island. All proceeds from the Wednesday evening wood-fired pizza, band nights go to benefit the church and its chosen charities.