Story and Photo by Diane White McNaughton
Under a spare rooftop cross splayed against cloudless blue skies soaring above Middletown, the sounds and smells of the Seven Sorrows BVM chocolate Easter egg volunteers rise up like a prayer.
There is quiet conversation, metal chairs sliding over tiled floors, the aroma of warming chocolate, and, most of all, laughter.
On this blindingly bright winter day, more than 30 church volunteers are ignoring the thermometer and thinking spring. Donning aprons, hairnets, hats, and sterile gloves, they join petite blonde dynamo Lisa Fortunato in manning their chosen station in the low-ceilinged lower cafeteria of the school. They represent just a fraction of the 100 volunteers who work for four months straight to produce, deliver, take orders, and sell coveted chocolate Easter eggs at all weekend Masses.
Many have been egg volunteers from the start, more than 10 years ago.
They are part of the sweet squad that produces more than 81,000 homemade chocolate Easter eggs a year. They come, religiously, to roll, dip, bag, chat, taste, talk, lunch and laugh.
Working in small groups of both men and women, most are retirees who look forward to this camaraderie as much as the tiny tastes they can sneak when they run out of room on their silver tray and must wrestle with a dab of excess, just asking to be eaten. They hover with care over metal trays of white and brown ovals, lined up in tidy linear rows.
The volunteers not only love chocolate and the art of candy-making; they clearly love each other, and they are there to help their school and church.
“They are getting out. They have purpose,” says Fortunato, a mother of two teenage boys. “They are the heartbeat. They make friends. They come together.” Often, they eat lunch together. The candy-making becomes baked into their lives.
It is a tradition that has fallen by the wayside in many other churches, crushed by the demands of double-income families, and the easy availability of store-bought coconut and peanut butter eggs from the likes of Reese’s, Mounds, Russell Stover and Cadbury eggs. The volunteer candy-makers may be rolling eggs in the shadow of Chocolate King Hershey’s, but mass-produced, store-bought eggs can’t hold a Lenten candle to homemade, handmade, hand-dipped eggs, they say. The Seven Sorrows eggs have more texture; they’re better… smoother, the workers say, as they struggle to capture the delicious difference in words.
So what does it take to make 81,000 eggs annually?
Besides the fluffy white powders and silky cocoa-colored ingredients, Fortunato refers often to her “egg”ceptional volunteers.
And then there’s 4,800 pounds of 10X sugar; 4,320 pounds of chocolate; 6,000 pounds of peanut butter; 1,800 pounds of cream cheese; 870 pounds of butter and margarine; 420 pounds of coconut; and 70 pounds of vanilla.
Fortunato says they use six football fields of aluminum foil to cover batter pans. If eggs are placed end-to-end, the egg line would stretch for four long miles—the distance from the State Capitol to Boscov’s in Camp Hill. They have outgrown their crockpots and Dutch ovens and are moving to acquire an industrial kitchen, equipped to handle the growing volume.
Defying the stereotype to “never trust a skinny cook,” Fortunato, the tiny candy coordinator with stylish blonde hair and dazzling white teeth, likened the egg-making process to the fight of the caterpillar to emerge from the cocoon as a butterfly. “It’s the ‘struggle’” of how we get there,” Fortunato wrote in a recent church bulletin.
The total eggs sold in 2019 earned the parish $80,787, and after deducting expenses of $26,605, the volunteers made a respectable profit of $54,182 in 2019.
In the first year, they sold “only” 6,000 eggs, netting a $4,000 profit. It’s been an upward trajectory ever since.
The venture began when a neighboring church asked if their members could sell their chocolate eggs at the popular Seven Sorrows Lenten fish fry. Fortunato thought, “Why don’t we make our own?” The recipe is not Grandma’s, handed down from generation to generation. It’s Google’s, discovered through an online search and tweaked by seasoned taste-testers over the years.
There is a role for volunteers of all ages and abilities. If candy-making is not your forte’, you can help sell in the narthex of the church after Mass. You can help buy and lift those deadweight bags of powdered sugar, or deliver the delicately wrapped eggs to points of sale. You can donate jars of Jif. The invitation is open to everyone. It’s “bring a friend” and “no experience needed.”
The eggs are sold at Hershey and Middletown-area diners, restaurants, hair salons, pharmacies, and pizza shops. The week before Palm Sunday, the final push, “is a killer,” says veteran volunteer Sue Dussinger, a retired nurse.
They are thankful that snow days have not slowed them down this season.
Their sales are a study in central Pennsylvania tastes: out of 80,787 eggs sold, 50,394 were peanut butter—clearly the fan favorite. Coconut came in second, with sales of 15,000, and butter cream, at about 10,000, followed by 5,000-plus for peppermint. In 2019, they sold about 12,000 eggs at the Friday Lenten fish fry alone.
More than 1,000 jars of Jif peanut butter have been donated this year alone.
Their eggs have even been sold as far as Florida, Guatemala, and Italy.
One buyer bought 303 eggs the other day. They ship well, and freeze well, the workers say.
One volunteer, Nancy, is legendary for her perfectionist streak. “They have to be just so,” she says succinctly. No splits in the chocolate or fork marks will pass her Quality Control.
Another volunteer is musician, author and college instructor Joe Trojcak, who says, “We have a crew of three to six who prepare the dipping area on Sunday mornings after the 8 a.m. Mass for Monday’s production days.”
They move pre-made batter from the walk-in fridge to the prep fridges. They also open hundreds of jars of peanut butter and get the chocolate and sugar into place.
Trojcak also helps sell eggs before and after the 8 a.m. Mass.
“It tends to be steady before 7:55 a.m. and then there’s 10 minutes of absolute exciting activity right after Mass ends,” Trojcak adds.
He says one parishioner may be buying 50 eggs to resell at Harley Davidson, and the next might be a 10-year-old girl who shyly offers a dollar bill to buy just one peanut butter milk chocolate egg.
He says it takes four to six volunteers to set the table up with all the selections and keep up with the rush.
Trojcak has volunteered for three or four years. He watched the operation for years, and then Fortunato reached out for help with some heavy lifting for the Sunday set-ups and the 8 a.m. Mass sales.
“We have a fun group. It is fun to help it all come together. You just want to be part of the action. Part of the solution,” says Trojcak.
“The parishioners at Seven Sorrows who prepare, make and sell the eggs understand that this entire process of making and selling Easter Eggs is a labor of love that truly helps our parish financially. It also puts a smile on so many as they enjoy a tasty treat,” Trojcak adds.
“The eggs are special because they are made with fantastic ingredients. Plus, they are a nice big size. I often cut one egg into three sections. Better choice at my age. If I was 10, I could polish off three with a huge glass of milk. They really are that good!”
Seven Sorrows has many shifts: a morning, an afternoon and an evening. The afternoon shift of all men is legendary for their speed, cranking out eggs like a well-oiled machine.
“They are dipping fools,” says volunteer Dussinger, who is known for running a “tight ship.”
There is friendly competition among shifts, and churches. If one shift cranks out 1,000 eggs in a few hours, it’s “game on,” for the others.
They come Monday through Thursday, beginning the first Monday after New Year’s. There’s no time for the post-holiday blues. Easter is waiting. They’ve gotta make the candy.
Other churches also make Easter eggs.
St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church on Derry Street has also entered the egg-making business.
Led by Paolina Stains-Miller, who hosts a Facebook page as Paolina’s Creations, volunteers meet in the basement of Leo Hall to make coconut and peanut butter eggs.
The volunteers began making the delicious confections in late January. Paolina also makes custom candy for birthdays, sports championships and other events, so she brings her expertise to the recipe and the routine.
Their eggs are available in white, dark and milk chocolate, through April 3.
Zion Lutheran Church in the charming borough of Dauphin is another beloved egg-making fun factory.
They sold 9,000 eggs at the Front Street Diner in Susquehanna Township alone last year, which is sizable for a small congregation, says Bonnie Bechtel, a retired state employee who took over the egg brigade at Zion about two years ago.
As an older congregation, they make the eggs every Monday, and sell them at places such as Dauphin Pizza, Philadelphia Steaks and Hoagies in Camp Hill, and Hornung’s Tru-Valu on 29th Street in Harrisburg.
The church volunteers have made and sold Easter eggs for more than 20 years, selling about 38,000 eggs a year.
They offer white, milk and dark chocolate, and flavors that include peanut butter, coconut cream, double coconut, and butter cream.
Like Seven Sorrows, most of the workers are retirees. They show up every Monday at 6:30 a.m., with 25 to 30 people, both men and women. At Zion, volunteers range in age from 50 to 92. In fact, two volunteers are 92 years old.
The story begins with the melting of the chocolate.
At 8 a.m., the egg-rollers come in, then at 10 a.m., the dipping commences. Then after 11 a.m., they start bagging. They work until 3 or 4 p.m.
Milk chocolate peanut butter eggs are by far the top seller and Bechtel’s personal favorite.
Calvary United Methodist Church, on Locust Lane in Lower Paxton Township, is another go-to source for homemade chocolate eggs. Volunteers made 16,000 eggs last year, and they still sell for a dollar an egg. According to Dottie Bickel on Facebook, eggs are available in coconut and butter cream.
Back in Middletown, what impresses Fortunato the most is the dedication of the volunteers. One man carries oxygen, but the process allows him to sit while working at the long cafeteria tables. Another woman moves cautiously with a walker. One elderly woman came out in an icestorm one year, falling and breaking her arm, but still she wanted to get in to make the eggs.
Bechtel agrees. We have a lot of fun and good fellowship, and we always make sure we have lunch available for them.
“They know what needs to be done and everybody has a great time working together.”
Yes, there’s fun, but they can also be all business when they need to be.
Why do the eggs sell like hotcakes when Reese’s are everywhere?
“Ours are so good and creamy, and they’re made with lots of love,” says Bechtel.
Calories expended for charity also seem like they shouldn’t count.
The egg proceeds are devoted to the operational funds of the Dauphin-area church.With the profits, they have bought appliances for the kitchen, a new stove, and a new fridge. It goes right into the church, Bechtel emphasizes. They are also building a new parking lot so funds will go toward that cause.
The final day of egg-making before the Easter holiday is April 6.
Whether the eggs are made in northern Dauphin County or the county’s southernmost point, “There’s a lot of pride,” Fortunato says. “They’re an inspiration.”
“It’s just an extraordinary thing. Everyone can help. It doesn’t matter what age.”
One mom with three little children comes to contribute by washing the large bins.
For the candy-buyers, the candy-makers, the businesses who sell them, and the church-goers eager to welcome the sunny warmth, brightness and promise of spring, Bechtel says, “It’s a blessing for all of us.”