posttrib
LUMINOUS 
Weather Updates

Jerry Davich: St. Mary Parish struggles not to perish

The Rev. Selvaraj Selladurai St. Mary Lake Catholic Church Miller greets parishioners its entrance. | Jerry DAvich~for Sun-Times Media

The Rev. Selvaraj Selladurai of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in Miller greets parishioners at its entrance. | Jerry DAvich~for Sun-Times Media

storyidforme: 63657975
tmspicid: 22911075
fileheaderid: 11103431
Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: April 24, 2014 6:14AM



Tina Evans prays for the future of her church.

After returning to St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in the Miller section of Gary, she couldn’t help but notice that its membership is nothing like it used to be. As a kid, Evans attended the historic church on Miller Avenue when its congregation was brimming.

Today, not so much.

The Diocese of Gary website says St. Mary has 345 families, but it’s more like 124 families who attend regularly, said the Rev. Selvaraj Selladurai. And that number is not getting any bigger.

“We are not a parish that is growing,” admitted Selladurai, who’s been there four years. “But we have a very faithful and loyal parish.”

Like Evans, I also remember when St. Mary was bustling with worshippers. Many of my childhood friends attended the church or took catechism classes there. I also remember attending several ceremonies there — weddings, funerals, baptisms and other milestones in parishioners’ lives.

Like every church from every religion, it is more than merely a brick-and-mortar building. It is a cornerstone of faith where souls are saved, believers are blessed and generations of families return on a weekly basis. It is a touchstone of ritual and tradition.

When I returned to the decades-old church last week, after more than 30 years away, many long-forgotten memories rushed back. The iconic Virgin Mary statue at its entrance, the beautiful view of the altar from the back of the church, and the massive Casavant pipe organ that towers over the pews from the rear balcony.

On the entranceway wall, an ancient message rooted in Scripture greets the flock: “I am the vine … you are the branches.”

“It’s still such a beautiful church,” gushed Evans, a former classmate of mine who returned to Miller to take care of her ailing father. “I was baptized here and the church has so much history.”

St. Mary of the Lake Parish was established in 1929 by Bishop John F. Noll, the bishop of the Fort Wayne Diocese at the time. The parish’s first Mass was July 1 of that year and the parish’s first church was dedicated on land donated by the Ansbro family in 1931.

Mother Nature and Father Time, however, conspired to destroy the original church. On July 16, 1956, its convent was struck by lightning. On Nov. 15 of that same year a fire destroyed the church. It had to be rebuilt and it did, around that spectacular pipe organ.

In 1961, the Gary Diocese’s first bishop, Bishop Andrew G. Grutka, laid the cornerstone for the new church. Soon after, its faithful congregation swelled again.

“This church is where my roots are and I want it to blossom again,” said Evans, who’s doing her best to spread the gospel about the oft-forgotten church.

As I toured the property with Evans and Selladurai, I learned there are several obstacles in the way of the parish’s prayed-for resurrection. First, its relatively low number of regular parishioners, many of whom are low-income and can give only so much in the weekly collection baskets.

Also, the parish’s school is closed again, after the charter school was forced to close last summer. (The building is available to rent if any organization is interested.) More importantly, with no Catholic school to offer the local community — unlike in its heyday — most young families choose to attend other churches in the region.

This only compounds St. Mary’s chronic problem: a graying, dying congregation, whose average age is 75.

“Tina and I are two of its youngest members,” the reverend told me with a nervous smile.

This can serve as a fitting microcosm for many Northwest Indiana churches that are struggling to retain, let alone recruit, their next generation of members. Plus, St. Mary’s food pantry had to be closed and there is a misperception that the church is no longer in operation, Evans said.

“When I tell people from outside Miller that I attend church here, sometimes they act surprised that it’s still open,” she said as we marveled at its altar and towering ceiling. “What I love about it is its old-fashioned traditions. It’s not about entertainment here. It’s about the word of the Lord.”

Yes, it’s about his word but it’s also about the numbers, even when it comes to the daily business of churches. St. Mary’s capacity is 1,000, but only 80 or so people attend each Sunday.

“It’s down from previous years but we’re still making enough to pay the bills,” said Selladurai, noting 99 percent of his congregation lives in Miller.

While that lakeside community blossoms in many ways — a renovated Marquette Park Pavilion and Aquatorium, Lake Street renaissance and summertime population spikes — the church gets neglected or ignored. And nostalgia only does so much to bring people back; usually it’s for only a peek at their past, not at their future.

“You should worship with us on Sunday,” Evans said with a welcoming smile.

Mass times are Saturdays at 4 p.m., Sundays at 10 a.m. and weekday mornings at 7 (except on Mondays), she told me.

I shrugged, knowing I wouldn’t be doing that. And politely smiled at her kindness.

This is call-out for local Catholics, I thought while walking out, not for wayward agnostics. It’s up to them to keep this parish from perishing. I’ve done all I can do.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.