For 35 years, the Erie County Fair has hosted an annual tradition, one that is relatively unknown even to many Western New Yorkers, but consistently draws a crowd of around 200 people each year. Held on the fairgrounds' Evans Bank Family Entertainment Complex, this year's Mass on the Midway, a Catholic service to accompany its annual day honoring veterans, will take place at 10 a.m., Sunday, Aug. 13.
Father Fabian J. Maryanski, a retired diocesan priest who has remained active in the community since he formally retired in 2014, will serve as celebrant at the Mass at the fair, as he has done for 15 years. Since the venue is covered, the Mass will take place rain or shine. The service includes a veterans' procession and music by Paul Weisenburger, a well-known Buffalo musician who has played at many parishes.
"It's a very wonderful thing, because veterans are there, and people are there, the fairgoers," said Father Maryanski, who said being part of this tradition for such a long time has led to many people, who may see him only once per year, recognizing him when they see him elsewhere. They express appreciation to the retired priest for what he continues to do. "We do something to celebrate Mass for them. Otherwise, they are just going to look at the animals and eat the chicken, or things like that, but they come there to pray."
"The Erie County Fair is Western New York's, the region's, largest annual event. Our history goes back all the way to before the building of the Erie Canal," said Martin Biniasz, director of entertainment and special projects marketing manager for the Erie County Agricultural Society, which puts on the fair. "Our first fair was in 1820, so we've got a long, established tradition and history here in the community."
A historian who has written two books about the Erie County Fair, Biniasz said the fair's earliest-known honoring of the military and local veterans goes all the way back to the Civil War, when returning Union soldiers were coming home to Western New York. "They had a parade and a march, and they were honored for their service at the fair. As time has marched on, we've continued our Veterans' Day activities," Biniasz added, referring to the first Sunday of the fair in which it honors veterans, not the Nov. 11 holiday.
On the fair's Veterans' Day, veterans who show their military ID receive free admission to the fair. The day will also include a recognition ceremony, a veterans' parade and a celebratory picnic. The Mass on the Midway is part of this program, and as it has evolved over the years, it has become a unique place for Catholics to celebrate Mass by fulfilling their weekly obligations while already attending the fair.
"Our Mass on the Midway is one of the most unique traditions that we have here at the fairgrounds, and a tradition that a lot of people don't know about," Biniasz said. "It's always been attached with Veterans' Day, but there is a wider audience. We'll get 200, 300 people just for Veterans' Day, but there are a lot more people who are showing up. There are also a lot more traveling concessioners and vendors who are coming to our fair to be with us, to set up food concessions, booths or entertainers coming in to the grounds."
According to Father Maryanski, who last served at St. Andrew Parish in Sloan, the fair presents a special experience. "It's in the music tent, and the people are sitting all the way around," Father Maryanski explained of the tradition. "We have people who lead the music, readers and it's just wonderful."
The Mass on the Midway offers an unusual atmosphere for a Catholic Mass, in the form of a covered shelter surrounded by concessions, exhibits and various other sights and smells of the fair, Biniasz noted, which is an experience that no other venue in Western New York offers. Even as operators test the rides and chicken barbecue and cotton candy smells waft into the air, Catholics are able to celebrate Mass.
On the last Sunday of the fair, which falls on Aug. 20, the Erie County Fair will also be holding another non-denominational Christian Mass using a minister from one of the local Wesleyan churches, another option for Christians attending the fair. "There's a great reverence to God on our grounds both Sundays of the fair, but the 13th is our Catholic Mass, our Mass on the Midway," Biniasz commented.