Alphabetically, Zwingli United Church of Christ may come last, but as it’s said, “the last shall be first.” The wildly successful wood-fired pizza and concert series hosted on the church grounds proves this promise true.
For the last eight years, the Zwingli wood-fired pizza nights have lit a fire in the tiny community of Berne. In 2018, an estimated 20,000 people attended the concerts. One Wednesday last summer when fABBAulous—a popular local ABBA tribute band—performed, the volunteer staff for the event cooked 820 pizzas in 3.5 hours for the ravenous flock. That’s a bit more than 234 pizzas an hour. When Mary Lieser, one of the singers for fABBAulous thanked the volunteers, the more than 2,000 music lovers in attendance gave the workers a standing ovation.
The series is staffed with volunteers because its proceeds help support charities. So far, the series has helped more than 57 deserving groups, including everything from area food shelves to the Friends of the Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo.
Angela Organ, the Berne Wood-Fired Events coordinator, says her favorite thing about the concert nights is “seeing so many people—all ages and from across all of southeast Minnesota—flock to this little village in the middle of nowhere.”
“When I see the crowds swell each Wednesday night, I know we’re doing something right,” she says.
The pizza party happens every Wednesday in June, July and August from 5-8 p.m. This year, the series will launch on June 5 with the traditional Dixieland jazz of Minnesota Music Hall of famers Les Fields and the Turkey River All-Stars, followed by the Americana music of Six Mile Grove. The two bands have both donated their performances since the series’ inception.
“Back when we started, it was not an easy task finding bands who would perform at a small country church for no pay,” says Organ. “These two did and have continued to do so every year since.”
Brandon Sampson, the front man for Six Mile Grove and “a big fan of Les and the gang,” says “Maybe sharing the night with the Turkey River All Stars is a way of realizing deep down, it’s all just jazz anyway.” For Sampson, Berne is a perfect fit for a Six Mile Grove performance. “Our music is deeply rooted in small-town life,” he says. “I guess playing in Berne, in the backyard of a church, in the middle of nowhere, surround by cornfields, feels quite comfortable.”
So comfortable in fact, that at last year’s performance when the band’s keyboardist and guitarist Barry suggested they pose as scarecrows in a nearby soybean field, the band had a new press photo that made its way into the jacket for their recently released “Million Birds” album.
Summer’s here, and it’s time to celebrate with pizza and music. Organ sums up the weekly community gathering: “It brings people together in a way that you just don't see every day—people eating picnic-style, dancing to music, playing yard games, and just enjoying each other's company.”
Wood-fired Wednesdays are the perfect way to help your soul “Berne” a little brighter.