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Church Food Sickens 300, Kills One Diner

From as far away as suburban Washington and Baltimore, busloads of diners came here to Our Lady of the Wayside’s annual church dinner to savor the home-cooked specialties such as ham, turkey and fried oysters.

But two days after the fund-raiser brought 1,400 diners to this rural town, the church success has turned to tragedy.

One person has died, 17 have been hospitalized and about 300 others were sickened after eating at the $15-a-plate Sunday church supper in St. Mary’s County, authorities said Wednesday.

St. Mary’s health officer Ebenezer Israel said investigators have isolated salmonella-B as the culprit but have not pinpointed which food item caused the illness, which is characterized by diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and fever.

Investigators said some church members cooked food at home and brought it to the Catholic church, while other foods were prepared at the church.

No regulations govern food-handling practices for occasional meals served by nonprofit organizations such as churches and volunteer fire departments, Israel said.

A full investigation will determine what food is to blame, who handled the food and how it was processed, health officials said.

“We’re all having a real hard time,” said Virginia Tennyson, 56, who helped organize the meal. “It feels like a death in the family and you’re just sitting there numb. And you’re just trying to cope.”

Church members said they had worked long hours in the church kitchen from Wednesday through Sunday preparing the meal, the centerpiece of a fall festival that had sickened nobody in three or more decades of collective memory.