In at least 10 states, parishioners have received emails and texts from what they thought…
Urgent outreach leads to Gary parish renewal
In March 2015, the outlook for St. Mary of the Lake Parish was grim.
The parish, a mainstay of the Miller section of Gary, Indiana, since its founding in 1929, was down to about 40 worshippers on any given Sunday, and it had to borrow more than $100,000 from the Gary diocese just to make ends meet the previous year.
It didn’t look like Bishop Donald J. Hying, just installed in the diocese two months earlier, had any real choice. He met with parishioners and told them that the parish would close.
This Easter, the parish has turned a corner. Regular Mass attendance is between 100 and 200 people, and its debt is paid off with enough money left over to repave the parking lot. It has reopened its food pantry, rejuvenated community events and has started new initiatives, such as a basketball camp run in partnership with a local Lutheran church and, this summer, community garden plots. The change was so remarkable that the parish’s resurrection story made the front page of three local newspapers on Easter Sunday.
Retired bishop as pastor
Parishioners give much of the credit to retired Bishop Dale J. Melczek, who volunteered to serve as pastor just weeks after Bishop Hying announced that he would give the parish one more year to see if it could stop its slide and start growing.
Bishop Melczek volunteers his time, taking no salary or benefits, and celebrates daily as well as Sunday Masses. He supports every ministry as much as he can, he said, and plans to continue as long as his health permits.
Bishop Melczek gives the credit to the parishioners, who spoke with enough passion about how much the parish meant to them and how much it meant to the Miller community to make Bishop Hying reconsider.
Then they put their words into action, Bishop Melczek said, starting an evangelization outreach team that knocked on every door in the parish — more than 3,500 homes — over the course of three summers.
Bishop Melczek, 79, joined them.
“The fact that Bishop Dale really, actively participates — he’s not just doing Mass on Sunday — he really cares, and that means so much,” said Josie Werhowatz-Neiman, who rallied parishioners in advance of their meeting with Bishop Hying. She had plans to get married in the church in July 2015, and she wasn’t going to let it close before then.
Answering the call
One of the people Werhowatz-Neiman reached out to was Jim Wiseman, who had grown up at St. Mary of the Lake. His mother worked at the parish, and he started cleaning the pews on Saturdays when he was 8 years old. He started working at the rectory in high school, and for seven years, he lived in the convent building.
But he moved away years ago, and for the last 10 years he and his wife attended a much larger suburban parish. While they were members, he said, no one ever asked him to get involved in any ministries.
So when Werhowatz-Neiman called and said the parish was in danger of being closed, he knew he had to go to that meeting.
“That was the night that forever changed St. Mary’s,” Wiseman said. “It lit a spark under us.”
Wiseman joined the evangelization team, visiting homes and calling former parishioners. He threw himself into planning that year’s Festa Italiana even before the parish learned of its reprieve (“If we were going go out, we were going to do it with a bang,” he said) and made sure there was a table to get contact information from parish and school alumni.
After the school closed in 1993, he said, many families with school-age children left to join parishes that had schools, but several have returned now that their kids are grown. That was what happened to Peg Sangerman, who had been a parishioner at St. Mary of the Lake until she enrolled her children in school at St. Patrick in Chesterton, Indiana. Then, in the summer of 2015, she and her husband were out washing their deck when Werhowatz-Nieman and her husband walked up and asked if there was any way she could support St. Mary.
“It was the first time in my life anyone from a Catholic parish came to my door and evangelized me,” Sangerman said.
She went back to St. Mary of the Lake and now leads the hospitality team, making sure there are greeters at Mass and coffee and refreshments the third Sunday of every month.
“It’s a wonderful parish,” she said. “We invite people all the time to come see us.”
Bishop Melczek, who has lived in the Miller community since he was assigned to Gary in 1992, said he was impressed by the welcoming spirit of the parish.
“It’s a wonderful spirit among the people,” he said. “We’re a very, very diverse parish, but we are of one heart and one mind.”
Bishop Melczek said he was surprised when he was knocking on doors and ran into Carole Barnes, who once worked in the diocesan center but left when she moved out of state. She had not been going to any church once she returned, until the retired bishop turned up on her doorstep. She started attending Mass and parish meetings, and ended up the chairman of the food pantry, which has many volunteers and clients who are not Catholic.
“It’s really had great support from the whole community,” Barnes said. The parish also gets a lot of participation at its community events from neighboring faith communities and, in return, supports their events as well.
“I attribute our success not just to the church, but to the whole community,” Werhowatz-Neiman said. She added that the parish remains small enough that newcomers are noticed and welcomed.
Another person who attended the March 2015 meeting was Therese Carey, who identified herself as a “lapsed Catholic” when Bishop Hying asked speakers to say whether they were parishioners. She had been invited to the parish many times by the choir director, Jack Denges, but never went, until he told her about the meeting.
She talked to Bishop Hying about how important institutions like St. Mary of the Lake are to the Miller community. Then she went to Mass the following Sunday, sat in the choir loft, and was shocked at how small both the choir and the congregation were.
“I don’t know if I’ve missed a Sunday since then,” said Carey, who now is president of the parish council and is working on the Sacred Places project with Indiana Landmarks, a nonprofit that is helping congregations find ways to be better stewards of historically significant places of worship. Carey said while she hasn’t taken leadership of any of the many events that have become staples at St. Mary of the Lake, she instead shows up and does what’s needed.
“If people needed photos taken, I took photos. If someone needed to run the silent auction, I ran the silent auction. If someone needed to count money after an event, I counted money,” she said.
She worked on the diocesan planning process to set priorities going forward. One of her biggest concerns, she said, is developing more and deeper leadership so the people who jumped in to save the parish don’t get burned out.
Another challenge is keeping everyone focused on moving forward instead of thinking the job is done, Carey said.
“That’s going to be the hard part,” she said. The plans the parish is making maintain a clear view of what is happening and what still needs to be done. That’s something that might have gotten away from the parish a few years ago.
“We really had become stagnant,” said Werhowatz-Neiman, who not only celebrated her marriage at St. Mary of the Lake in 2015 but later had her first child baptized there. “Maybe we didn’t see it then, but looking back, we had to change what we were doing. We had to find a way to rejuvenate.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.