Longtime St. Mary’s parishioners leave legacy of food and faith

Chef Paul Elbling is presented with a new coat, naming him Festival Executive Chef Emeritus during the 2019 RVA French Food Festival. (Photo submitted)

Champagne flowed at the first French Night fundraiser May 18 at St. Mary’s, Richmond. But it was more than fine food and drink that brought these hundreds of people together; it was the beloved couple who inspired the event.

Glasses and spirits were raised in honor of Paul and Marie Antoinette Elbling, beloved parishioners who passed away, but live on in the friends and culinary legacy they left behind.

Both Paul and Marie were born in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The men in Paul’s family joined the French Resistance while he, his mother and his siblings were sent to a German labor camp.

After the war, they returned to find their home destroyed. A kind American soldier gave them food and a ride to a relative’s home. Touched by the soldier’s kindness, Paul reportedly said to himself, “One day, I’m going to be an American.” Decades later, he would be.

Paul briefly went to seminary, but after working in its kitchen, he decided he wanted to be a chef instead of a priest. He later fought and was wounded in the Algerian War.

After returning to France, Paul and Marie crashed into each other’s lives – literally – when Marie nearly hit Paul with her car while running late to a party. As an apology, she invited him along to the party, and they were together ever since.

Mixing food and faith

Paul trained in some of France’s most famous restaurants before leaving for the United States in 1967. He worked in restaurants in Washington, D.C., before moving to Richmond in 1971 to open the first restaurant in the city serving fine French cuisine.

Paul is better known around Richmond as Chef Paul of La Petite France restaurant. He ran the kitchen while Marie ran the floor, greeting guests with her warmth and elegance.

Paul and Marie Elbling at their former restaurant, La Petite France, in Richmond. (Photo submitted)

The restaurant won several awards over its 39-year run, including the coveted AAA Five Diamond Award, the highest rating in a classification system for hotels and restaurants. Chef Paul won gold medals for the United States in the 1980 and 1984 International Culinary Olympics. He also held numerous titles in the Guinness Book of World Records, including world’s largest omelet, for which he used 10,470 eggs.

Though much of their lives revolved around food, God was at the center of it all. Every Sunday, Paul and Marie could be found at St. Mary’s. Parishioners for decades, they were involved in many ministries. “They never had children. For them, the church was like a large extended family,” explained Father Michael Renninger, pastor of St. Mary’s.

Marie, who could speak several languages, was part of the Hospitality Team. Father Renninger noted that she had a knack for finding new parishioners who needed a friend.

Paul was a member of the Haiti Ministry (St. Mary’s has a twin parish in Haiti and supports a school there). “He loved going to Haiti because most of the children spoke French. He was like a visiting grandfather to them,” said Father Renninger.

Paul was also very active with St. Mary’s Knights of Columbus Council 14129. In addition to numerous charitable efforts, the council hosts multiple fundraising dinners throughout the year. Paul and Marie were instrumental in these events.

Jim Hribar, who currently serves as the council’s Grand Knight, said, “Chef Paul and Marie were very generous, kind, and giving to all the people they met. One of Paul and Marie’s greatest gifts was to make everyone feel important.”

The Elblings began to consider retiring from the restaurant business, but still wanted to share their passion for food with the community. Out of this desire sprang the RVA French Food Festival, which was an annual event held in Richmond from 2009-2019.

During those ten years, $5 million was raised for the Little Sisters of the Poor. This money was vital in the Little Sisters’ work of supporting those in need, especially the elderly.

During this time, Paul also helped create the Knights of Columbus’ Council Culinary Team at St. Mary’s.

“Like many great ideas, this one was born over a bottle of great wine at Chef Paul and Marie Antoinette’s kitchen table,” said Robert Rosbaugh, fellow Knight and Culinary Team member. Paul had recently undergone two surgeries and Rosbaugh asked what would happen to the festival if he was no longer able to cook.

“We agreed that the festival would most likely end, leaving a significant dent in the operating budget for the Sisters. So, I then asked him if he thought he could teach some of his fellow Knights of Columbus enough that we could become his hands, preparing the food at his direction,” said Rosbaugh.

Under Paul’s careful guidance, the team successfully learned how to make multiple entrées and desserts.

A show of love

About 800 people attended the first RVA French Food Festival in 2009. It quickly gained popularity, with 22,000 people attending in 2019. The festival came to a close in 2020 because of the pandemic. In 2021, Marie died of cancer. Paul followed two years later.

During the Elblings’ illnesses, the St. Mary’s community rallied around the couple. Though Paul and Marie had no children, or family in the United States, they weren’t alone. Ladies from St. Mary’s and members of the Knights of Columbus took turns sitting by their bedsides.

When Paul moved into an assisted living facility after Marie died, he unsurprisingly did not find the cuisine to his liking. His brother Knights stepped in, with Rosbaugh and others cooking meals for him every single day for two years. They also worked together to make sure someone was always with him.

“We developed a schedule of friends to stay with him, so he would never be alone again. I took the night shift each night,” Rosbaugh said. “Paul passed while we were saying the rosary. I like to think he finished it with Marie Antoinette.”

The void left by Paul and Marie was gaping. Within months, Rosbaugh approached Father Renninger about having a dinner in their honor, which the pastor fully supported.

“I promised Paul I would try to bring his version of French food back to Richmond. French Night allowed me to fulfill that promise,” said Rosbaugh.

The parish community quickly came together to bring this idea to fruition. An eight-member planning committee arranged the logistics and 100 people signed up to volunteer. Rosbaugh served as head chef, with 16 others assisting him.

The event started with a champagne toast, something Marie always loved doing before meals. The menu included several original Chef Paul recipes, including boeuf bourguignon over egg noodles, salmon coulibiac with lobster cream sauce, ratatouille, and “Salad Marie-Antoinette,” a Chef Paul concoction dedicated to his wife.

Hundreds of people turned out for the first French Night in honor of beloved parishioners, Paul and Marie Elbling, May 18, 2024, at St. Mary’s, Richmond. (Photo/John Sweet)

During dinner, French red and white wines were served while a slideshow displayed pictures of the Elblings. After dinner, a ten-minute video was played that included interviews with people who had known the Elblings through church, volunteer work, and the culinary world.

Father Renninger said he hopes French Night will grow over time and eventually lead to the return of the RVA French Food Festival.

“The dinner achieved our goal to really honor their memory with the kind of evening they would have enjoyed: really good food, really good wine, lots of laughter, and people smiling,” said Father Renninger. “I like to think Paul and Marie were smiling, too.”


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