Ille Huening emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1958 and settled in the western suburbs after meeting her future husband at a wedding in Michigan. On Saturday, during an annual Oktoberfest celebration in Forest Park, she was pushing bratwurst and other German fare with what is still a heavily-accented tongue.
As a 25-year member of the Harlem Maenner-Und Damenchor, a cultural choral group promoting German ancestry, Huening said the organization’s participation in Oktoberfest is a no-brainer. The choir’s membership is aging and the festival is a great way to reach a younger crowd.
“There used to be a lot of Germans here,” Huening said of Forest Park. “We’re trying to keep the heritage up, for Germans.”
The weekend festival, held Sept. 18 and 19 for the second straight year at the picnic grove, was revived five years ago by the Damenchor and St. Bernardine’s, the only Catholic church in the community. Crowds are steadily growing, according to organizers, but decades ago Oktoberfest was a massive event held on Madison Street. It was moved south to Roosevelt and then, according to Marv Schlichting, also a chorus member, beer was banned and Oktoberfest fizzled.
At St. Bernardine’s, parishioners and church leaders were looking for ways to increase their visibility and lend greater financial support to its parochial school. A call was made to the Damenchor and, with a sizeable contribution from Ferrara Pan Candy, Oktoberfest was reborn.
“We said, ‘what about an Oktoberfest,'” Caroline Brogan, a parishioner and event organizer, said. “It was an absolute staple in Forest Park with the German heritage in the community.”
Since reviving the community’s Oktoberfest, St. Bernardine’s has worked to bring a German flair to the event while appealing to a larger audience. Carnival-style games are mixed with the food and sounds of German heritage.
“We want to make sure there is an ethnic presence in Forest Park,” Brogan said.
The church also displays photos, pamphlets and other information from its parish and adjoining classrooms.
Members of the Harlem Manner-Und Damenchor gather every Tuesday at the Eagles Hall, 446 Hannah Ave., for rehearsal. New singers are welcome, and German ancestry is not required.