Parish opens former convent to EAA Fly-in guests

By | August 4, 2010


Irene Derus, a member of St. Jude Parish in Oshkosh, serves pastries to EAA Fly-in visitors Phil Wadsworth, left, Paul Gregory and Mike Stimac at the parish center July 28. Wadsworth and Gregory are from Canada and Stimac is from Traverse City, Mich. (Dick Meyer | For The Compass)

Seven years ago, the parish decided to open up those rooms for rent during the week of the fly-in. In the center, fondly known as The Nunnery by EAA visitors, parish volunteers keep the linens fresh and offer a sumptuous daily breakfast buffet that includes a variety of homemade breads. Irene Derus comes in each morning at 5:15 to set out breakfast and greet visitors as they come downstairs.

“I enjoy it,” she says. “I meet people from Japan, Australia and other places. Sometimes we get some people coming back each year. It makes it like a family.”

Jan Fendt, bookkeeper for the parish, says the money earned from the visitors pays for the building’s utilities for the year. And those who stay here enjoy it.

“Almost everybody wants to come back,” she says. “We have a lot of repeaters.”

Mike Stimac of Traverse City, Mich., has stayed here each year the rooms have been available.

“I’d never stayed in a convent before,” he says with a smile, “although I was always close to them, having gone to Catholic schools and through college life. I was pretty comfortable with the atmosphere.”

History of EAA

The Experimental Aircraft Association’sFly-In Convention, now known as EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, has been inexistence since 1953, when it was a small part of the Milwaukee AirPageant. That original EAA fly-in at Wright-Curtiss (now Timmerman)Field was attended by a handful of airplanes, mostly homebuilt andmodified aircraft. Fewer than 150 people registered as visitors. In1969, the EAA board approved the fly-in’s move to Oshkosh.

Today,more than 500,000 aviation enthusiasts attend the event annually. EAAAirVenture supplies the local and state economies with more than a$110-million boost during the week-long event. It spans the entirespectrum of aviation and attracts 10,000 airplanes each year.


He says he has stayed the entire week of the air show each year and always sleeps in the same room. “Nobody else has stayed in the room,” he says. “Seven has been my room. It really is home. There are certain sounds in this building (that you become used to). When I come to the spot, it’s as comfortable as it is at home.”

Stimac says he likes the welcoming atmosphere and the quiet The Nunnery offers, and he likes meeting returning guests from across the country who have become friends.

He praises Derus and Fendt, who have helped him out each year, as well as the volunteers from the parish who operate a food booth on the EAA field. He’s become so comfortable with all of them that he’s even offered his services at the booth.

“It’s been called the best food on the field with its locally made sausages,” he says. “It’s very guarded by the ladies. I finally got to be grill operator — and for being a guy that was top billing.”

His EAA chapter from Traverse City also offers little vans that transport pilots and their gear from planes to camp sites.

“Everybody from Traverse City volunteers,” he says. “You help the event succeed. Volunteering makes part of the experience.”

John Coleman came with Stimac from Traverse City. He’s always camped before, but at The Nunnery “you don’t have to worry about if it’s going to rain,” he says. “I call it upscale camping.”

He enjoys the breakfasts and the chance to sit and talk with other pilots. He also is comfortable with the atmosphere because he calls himself “a very traditional Catholic with 12 years of Catholic school.”

“This is a good setup,” he says.

This is Chuck Lanza’s first stay at The Nunnery. A resident of Germantown, Tenn., he says he’s stayed in similar accommodations at the St. Mary site in Oshkosh for nine years until that service was ended this year.

Lanza is a long-time exhibitor at the air show for Floats and Fuel Cells of Memphis, Tenn. When he first started staying at the St. Mary site, he told then-parish director, Sr. Judy Miller, that he was a Catholic and a former altar boy.

“Immediately, I had to go to Mass every morning at 6 a.m.,” he says. “That was a ritual — which was fine.”

He says the first night that he returned from the air show, Sr. Judy was waiting up for him with milk and cookies to make sure that he was in and everything was fine. Then she said, “Don’t forget — I’ll see you at 6 a.m. for Mass.”

“It’s been a great experience,” he says. “It’s not for everybody. But the price is right, and you’re not going to find a better breakfast. The only thing they don’t have is pancakes.”

Stimac interjects, “If you want pancakes, I’ll make them for you.”

Paul Gregory, a pilot from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, also is on his first stay at The Nunnery.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Gregory says. “It’s so peaceful, and everyone’s so friendly, even in the town. People from all over the world come together to celebrate something that’s quite phenomenal that we can do — fly.”

Gregory previously camped when he came to the fly-in, but The Nunnery “is much better than a tent,” he says. “I remember one night being woken up with a river running through my tent.”

Phil Wadsworth, who came with Gregory from Calgary, says he and his wife are Catholic and that is why they chose The Nunnery. “It’s very quiet, very peaceful. Everybody is so friendly. It’s nice and simple. The breakfast is just outstanding.”

Nick Modders, a pilot from Prior Lake, Minn., has been coming to EAA for 30 years and this is his first stay at The Nunnery. He previously stayed at the St. Mary site. Coming to the Catholic sites started out with simple availability, he says, “but once we found it, we didn’t want to leave the feeling of warmth and caring.”

When he first showed up at the St. Mary site, he says, “I could hardly get a chance to say my name, and the person on the phone recognized my voice.”

Although Modders is sorry the St. Mary’s site no longer is available, he says St. Jude Church “is more than filling the bill.

“It’s a warm, family environment. Almost everybody here knows somebody who knows somebody else,” he adds. “It’s a small world. We appreciate the facility’s being here and getting to know all these guys. I’ll be back next year, and it’ll be a reunion.”

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