Bob Filice poses for a photo with St. Mary School principal Christa Hanson as they prepare the sauce Friday morning for the 50th anniversary Spaghetti dinner.

Any Italian will tell you – it’s all in the sauce. At Saint Mary School, the recipe has five decades of staying power behind it; and on Friday, the Catholic school on First Street celebrated its 140th year of education with its semi-annual spaghetti dinner. This year marked the dinner’s 50th anniversary, making the event especially significant.

More than 20 volunteers arrived in the early morning hours Friday to help make the special day a success.

The landmark event drew hundreds of hungry people and brought in an estimated $15,000 in ticket sales, according to the event’s chairman Mike Dipietro.

The Saint Mary Men’s Club organizes the dinner that normally delivers a large turnout and is a big money-maker not just for the club, but the school as well, said Dipietro, who has been involved with the event for 13 years.

A portion of the dinner’s proceeds go to the school’s athletic department, to help students cover costs for things such as equipment, uniforms and fees.

But ensuring that the traditional spaghetti dinner is successful and goes off without a hitch year after year, Dipietro admits, it involves “a ton of preparation.”

Cooking the tomato sauce is the most arduous task of the day. Volunteers took extra care when adding ingredients such as oregano, parsley, garlic, and mushrooms, among other spices. For four consecutive hours, they carefully and continuously stirred the sauce inside giant aluminum commercial stock pots – each about three feet deep and more than a foot in diameter – before leaving the sauce to simmer for another four hours, until it was finally ready to serve.

The pots belong to the Saint Mary Men’s Club and have been used to prepare the dinner for years.

“What’s great about this dinner is that everybody wants to help,” said Christa Hanson, the school’s principal, who will retire this year after 22 years at Saint Mary School. She believes the sense of community and family is what makes the dinner so popular.

Dipietro speculates that the dinner’s success (they served approximately 1,000 dinners Friday night) is also due to the fact that “we’ve been making the same recipe for 50 years.”

For a half-century, the Italian-style meal, which also includes a salad with special homemade dressing, spaghetti and buttered garlic bread, has remained virtually unchanged.

Bob Filice, whose late father, Val Filice, co-founded the fundraiser dinner in 1962, grew up watching the event draw in large support from the community. Filice, a 1966 alumnus of the kindergarten through eighth-grade Catholic school, has been involved with the event “for many years.” Although tradition keeps him coming back, that’s not the only reason he lends his expertise; “It’s rewarding, and that’s why I do it.”

For Hanson, the event is also special in more than one way. After 22 years of service as principal, she will be leaving when the school year ends to begin working as the director at the Learning and Loving Educational Center in Morgan Hill, a nonprofit, education organization that helps mostly Spanish-speaking women learn English and gain work skills. Hanson, who has had the longest consecutive tenure of any principal in the school’s 140-year history, admits she’ll miss the school and the children, but said she’s confident her successor Kim Shields is well-suited for the job.

Shields will become the school’s new principal beginning with the 2012-13 school year. Shields was a teacher at Saint Mary School for seven years before becoming the principal at Saint Justin Elementary School in Santa Clara for 10 years.

Though this may be her last dinner as principal, Hanson said she will remain a familiar face at the event for years to come.

“I’ll be here to eat every spaghetti dinner,” she said.

With changes on the horizon for Saint Mary School – Pastor Dan Derry, 74, will retire Dec. 31 this year after a 17-year residency at Saint Mary Parish – one thing that may never change is the popularity of the fundraiser.

Even after a half-century, the event is still as in demand as ever among alumni, parents, students and supporters of the parish, further cementing its place in local history.

High school seniors are invited back to Saint Mary School for a reunion and party on Wednesday, May 9. Call 842-2827 for more information.

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