ST. MARY CELEBRATES 125 YEARS Pastor: ‘Everyone can find home’ at East Chicago parish
By Steve Euvino
Northwest Indiana Catholic
EAST CHICAGO – On looking back over the years, Father Stephen Gibson, pastor at St. Mary Parish, commented his parish “does not record history; it makes history.”
For 125 years, St. Mary has been part of the East Chicago community, developing as the industrial-based city was growing.
As former pastor Father Robert Gehring wrote in a 1985 parish directory, “The faces of so many cultures and nationalities speak clearly about God’s all-embracing love which he revealed through his Son, Jesus, in his outstretched arms on the cross. The Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, as seen in the stained glass windows, show hearts pouring forth love for all peoples.”
Thirty years later, Father Gibson said, that love is still there – young immigrant families coming to the church, parishioners offering a helping hand to newcomers, and parish teams evangelizing in neighborhoods.
Pastor at St. Mary for 22 years, Father Gibson has seen the parish swell from 600 families to more than 3,000 families.
“People come on our doorstep, because they were told we could help them,” Father Gibson said. “Everything Pope Francis is saying, we are doing. We provide essential services.”
These services include faith formation programs in both English and Spanish, the Charismatic Renewal and Legion of Mary in Spanish, marriage preparation, youth ministry, Camino y Esperanza (for married couples), and Escuela de la Cruz (for male workers).
“We try to provide opportunities for people to find a pattern,” Father Gibson said, noting the parish also sponsors a Spanish-speaking Knights of Columbus council. “Everyone can find a home here.”
A successful program St. Mary started several years ago is Immigrant Support and Assistance Center (ISAAC), or Casa Santo Toribio. Since its opening, Father Gibson said, the volunteer-run center has helped thousands of Hispanic immigrants with legal services and other needs.
The parish has also fostered vocations to the priesthood and religious life, including the recently ordained Father Roque Meraz, a product of St. Mary. Father Gibson said St. Mary has also served as a catalyst for other parishes to develop their Hispanic ministries.
The parish, Father Gibson said, is celebrating this anniversary year “with special energy.” This included a 125th anniversary Mass on Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption, the parish’s patronal feast. A special vigil Mass was held Aug. 14. The parish also dedicated its summer festival Aug. 7-9 to the anniversary celebration.
Also as part of the festivities, St. Mary began a special mission on July 19 at Calumet Park in Chicago, where the parish’s youth soccer teams play. This as an ongoing opportunity, Father Gibson said, to reach those who are not regularly in church due to conflicts with sports scheduling.
In addition, the parish’s musical group, Mariachi Santa Maria, is preparing a professional recording of songs to Mary.
Father Gibson hopes the anniversary celebration will include the groundbreaking for a new parish center. Even using the former Sacred Heart facility a few blocks away, the parish has no more room for programs, the pastor said.
“This parish has always been special,” Father Gibson said. “The people have this call to go out and share their faith with others. We have been blessed with a receptive community and they have a hard-core devotion.”
Because of this devotion, the pastor said, the parish has been able to maintain an open-door policy, with church doors open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Although the first St. Mary Church was dedicated on Oct. 26, 1890, the parish dates back to 1888. As East Chicago was opening itself to industrial development, a Mass was offered in Frederick Fife’s clothing store. Eventually that group of worshippers moved to an opera house and seven lots were later purchased for $900 for a church.
The first pastor was Father F.G. Lentz. Subsequent pastors included Fathers Michael Byrne, George Lauer, Edward Werling, Edward Vurpillat, Michael F. Shea, and Carl Holsinger, Msgr. Robert Charlebois, and Fathers Stephen Vrabely, Joseph Till, Robert Gehring, and Theodore J. Mens before Father Gibson’s arrival.
The former parish school has since been closed and the building was razed. A new church building was completed in 2000, with an addition erected in 2005.