Michigan City parish celebrates legacy of 125 years of faith and tradition
Father Walter Ciesla, pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka, stands inside the church in Michigan City. Rich in history and filled with Polish tradition, the parish is celebrating its 125th anniverary this year. (Bob Wellinski photo)
By Bob Wellinski
Northwest Indiana Catholic correspondent
Perched on the highest point in downtown Michigan City known as “The Hill,” St. Stanislaus Kostka continues to be a beacon for Christianity in that community. This year, the parish is celebrating its 125th anniversary. While the lighthouse just to the north alerts boats to Lake Michigan’s southern shoreline, the majestic twin bell towers at St. Stanislaus signal Christ’s presence in the city.
“When you drive down the main street in Michigan City, you see our two towers with those crosses on each tower,” remarked Mary Sebert, a St. Stan’s parishioner and church secretary. “You can see them for miles. That’s the symbol of Christ in Michigan City,”
This symbol did not come about easily, though.
As the Polish population in Michigan City increased during the mid-1800s, so did the need for a Polish parish. In 1890, Father Emmanual Wrobel was given permission by Bishop Joseph G. Dwenger of the Fort Wayne diocese to start the new parish and school. Father Wrobel was officially named pastor of the 90 family parish on Jan. 1, 1891. The new parish was named St. Stanislaus Kostka.
The newly-founded parish was temporarily housed on the second floor of Michigan City’s St. Mary the Immaculate Conception grade school until its new church was built on a site purchased by the Polish congregation.
Construction on the two-story wooden structure was finished in 1892. According to current pastor Father Walter Ciesla, the first building encompassed the church, school and convent. A second two-story building served as the rectory.
In 1909, Msgr. Joseph Bolka became the parish’s second pastor and would shepherd the parish for 31 years. He would guide the parish through the building of a new and much larger steel-framed church starting in 1916.
As a child, Father Bolka grew up in the small farm community of Otis, seven miles south of Michigan City. According to Father Cielsa, Father Bolka wanted the farmers in Otis to be able to see the new church; therefore, the steeples of the new church would stand nearly 150 feet tall. They also served as aerial landmarks for planes coming into Chicago. In 1967, the steeples were lowered forty feet due to deterioration.
One could even say that the new church would be built with a lot of sweat equity.
“Our roots run deep. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears in that church,” Sebert noted.
Parishioners, including Sebert’s great-grandparents, hand dug the 14,000 square foot foundation, shovelful by shovelful. Old photos show parishioners on scaffolding laying brick. Father Ciesla noted that parishioners did a lot of the work and were very dedicated to building the church.
“At one point when they were talking about organizing the diocese, this church was considered in the mix to be the cathedral because of its size,” Father Ciesla stated.
The new church would be built in stages. The lower level was used as the church while the upper (main) level was being finished.
“Father Bolka was a very good financier. Everything was paid off as they went along,” Father. Ciesla commented, noting the church was paid for before the dedication in 1926.
“The church is magnificent. It’s a beautiful church,” Father Ciesla added.
With 63 stained glass windows, each representing the mysteries of the Rosary, statues and paintings of angels and saints decorate the church under the 42-foot high ornate ceiling..
The original building was dismantled in 1940, making way for a new school, which continues to provide Catholic education for students in preschool through eighth grade.
Ciesla said the school was originally run by sisters from the Holy Cross order. Because of linguistic problems, they left and Sisters of Notre Dame, a Polish order from Wisconsin, assumed the duties. They remained until the mid-1980s.
At 102 years old, Veronica Olszewski Skierkowski is the oldest parish member. A lifelong member, Skierkowski was baptized, educated, married and raised her children at St. Stanislaus. She remembers speaking Polish in class and how the sisters were very strict. Her 99-year-old sister, Sister Mary DePaul, would teach at St. Stanislaus until her retirement.
Father Ciesla, the parish’s ninth pastor, spoke how the complexion of the parish has changed over the years.
“One thing about linguistic parishes, and that’s what this parish is, it would be classified non-territorial,” Father. Ciesla said. “Because we’re a Polish parish, we would take people from anywhere as long as they were Polish. But that’s not relevant anymore.”
According to the pastor, the parish currently has 490 members. The Polish Mass has been discontinued due to low attendance.
Despite now being a more diverse parish in terms of ethnicity, the St. Stanislaus community still maintains some of their Polish traditions, such as the blessing of food baskets, the Easter Polish procession, Polish Christmas caroling, Taste of Poland and the Polish Platter.
The former convent now houses the Chapel of Divine Mercy, a shrine dedicated to St. Maria Faustina Kowalski, and the parish Resale Shop.
“This church has a tremendous history and there’s a lot of emotional attachment to this particular church,” Father Ciesla said.
In 2008, the church’s time capsule was removed from the cornerstone and opened. Inside was a document in Latin, two 1916 newspapers, three pennies, two nickels and 2 dimes. The items were documented, photographed and returned to the capsule along with a letter signed by the pastor and parish council president, a 2008 calendar and a parish directory.
“My hope is that my grandchildren and their grandchildren will be able to walk up that aisle and receive Jesus in the same church their ancestors helped build,” Sebert said.
An anniversary festival is planned for July 30 and 31.