A History of St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish
For much of the 1800's, the area of Northwest Indiana now known as Whiting was
a vast wilderness of sloughs, swamps and sand ridges. It was sparsely populated
by only about 40 families, mostly German immigrant settlers who worked for the
growing railroad industry. The undeveloped terrain, access to Lake Michigan and
excellent railway service attracted officials of Standard Oil to the area. In
1889, Standard Oil purchased hundreds of acres through Henry Schrage, leading
to the development of a vast refinery which eventually became BP/Amoco.
The photo at right is an aerial view of the Wolf Lake area from as late as 1950.
It is swampier and far less developed than the area we know today. Calumet Avenue/George
Lake are at the upper left of the photo.
Trainloads of lumber, steel and other building materials poured into Whiting
along with a growing pool of laborers engaged in the building of the refinery.
Among the influx of settlers were Slovaks who came from Joliet, Streator, Blue
Island and Chicago in 1892 and 1893. Eventually, immigrants of Slavic origin made
up over ninety percent of Whiting's population.
As the social structure took shape, organizations formed, including church, lodge
and recreational groups. Among those groups was Branch 113 of the National Slovak
lodge, organized in 1893 and including both catholic and non-catholics alike.
Eventually, Catholic members of Branch 113 sought something more expressive of
their faith and formed Branch #130 of the First Catholic Slovak Union.
At that time, catholics of the area were shepherded by the Church of the Sacred Heart, an Irish Church. Rev. Michael Byrne, a doughty priest who had been ordained
in Fort Wayne, ministered to Whiting's catholic flock at Sacred Heart. The spiritual
needs of the Slovaks in his flock did not go uncared for by Rev. Byrne. Occasionally,
Rev. Valentine Kohlbeck of the Benedictine Fathers in Chicago would come to Whiting
to hear confessions and preach in Slovak.
Sensing the need for a more permanent spiritual guide, Father Byrne, working
with a committee from Branch 130, twice petitioned Bishop Joseph Rademacher in
Fort Wayne for a Slavic priest. Demonstrating a showing of 50 prospective parishioners
(twelve families and single persons) and having purchased property on which they
built a social center (a little meeting hall for Branch #130), the Bishop gave
a favorable response to the committee and agreed to write to Austria-Hungary for
a Slovak priest.
Father Benedict Arrives
Good news came back from Eastern Europe. Rev. Benedict M. Rajcany was on his way from the old country. He was scheduled to arrive in Hammond on
April 17, 1897. Father Benedict arrived on that date, Holy Saturday, to find pre-easter
hustle and bustle along with a landscape of flat sandy wastes, lakes, woods and
only a few farm houses, far different than the well kept homeland landscape which
he had just left.
A mass meeting was called for discussion of plans regarding the future of the
parish and the church. After some lively democratic discussion and not a small
bit of drama, a motion was made and passed that the little meeting hall would
be transformed into a church. The church was dedicated on July 4th, 1897 to St.
John the Baptist, because Father Benedict, the first pastor, himself felt like
"one crying out in the wilderness" when he came to his new field of labor in the
The photo at left is the first St. John the Baptist church, which was transformed
from the little meeting hall of the First Catholic Slovak Union Branch #130.
The First School
The first beginnings of St. Johnís school were indeed humble. Father Benedict
was interested in the education of youth from the very start. He early joined
with Dr. Putnam in organizing a little school consisting of seven or eight boys
who were taught English. Father Benedict was the first teacher in the budding
St. Johnís Parochial School together with Miss Katherine Wade, the first lay teacher.
Classes were first held in the back room of the rectory.
For a number of years, it was not possible to have even eight years of common
school, because when pupils reached the age of eleven or twelve they were constrained
to seek work and could no longer attend school. In the first years, the number
of pupils hardly equaled thirty-five.
The progress of the school was very rapid. The first new school consisted of
a four room frame building and a Sistersí home. They were erected in 1900; and
the next year, October, 10th, the school opened with seventy-five pupils. The
new teachers were Sisters of Providence from St. Maryís of the Woods in Terre
Haute. By 1908-09, the number of students was 278. Two years later the number
grew to 363 and by 1918, it had mounted to 685.
The old school is shown here in the photo on the right, inside the old church,
By the time the First World War began (1914), the church had to be enlarged to
make room for the growing parish. An extension, all brick, was built in the front.
A side entrance was built for the choir loft along with a shrine to our Lady of
Lourdes. Facilities, including the Sistersí home, had to be sold in order to construct
new buildings to fit the growing Parishís needs.
During this period and into the Ď20ís, Father Benedict sought help from other
priests in ministering to the vast needs of the parish. In 1921, Fr. Benedictís
first assistant was formally appointed, the Rev. Michael Kosko who was Slovak
by birth. Fr. Kosko was at St. Johnís until 1923 and was instrumental in the formation
of Immaculate Conception, another one of the beautiful Parishes of our cluster.
By the summer of 1921, Father Benedict decided to spend some time in Florida.
It seems he may have made up his mind to settle in Florida and had begun to look
for someone who would be satisfactory to succeed him. It was not an easy task.
Father Benedict was disposed to emphasize the English language and rapid Americanization
of his own people.
Father Joseph Zalibera, from Ohio was his choice. After Father Benedict was gone,
Fathers Zalibera and Kosko were the only ones at hand who could speak Slovak.
Difficulty soon followed. In a July 1921 mass, Fr. Zalibera stressed in his sermon
the neglect of the Slovak tounge in both church and school. Subsequent occasions
emphasized the same point. Father Benedict became the object of severe criticism,
with a movement underway to remove him as pastor. Delegations were sent to the
Bishop who refused removal knowing there were no grounds for the accusations.
When the Bishop did act, it was to remove Fr. Zalibera. Father Benedict was petitioned
in Orlando to return to the parish. Not all were pleased. While preparing for
his return, prowlers around the rectory hurled a stone through the window attempting
to strike an occupant at table inside (believing it to be Father Benedict). Fortunately,
the stone missed, but was unfortunately followed by anonymous, threatening letters
vowing to kill Father Benedict if he returned to Whiting. Undeterred, Father Benedict
did return. He promptly turned the tables on the anonymous ill-wishers by handing
the letters to The Hammond Times. The letters were quite a sensation in the Parish and the community.
As the letters were written in the dialect of a certain region of Slovakia, Father
Benedict, an adept linguist who spoke five languages, easily could identify the
malcontents from the congregation. A detective was called in and confessions were
quickly obtained. Cowed by public exposure and frightened by both the detectives
and possibility of prison time, Father Benedict requested mercy for the perpetrators
instead of justice. The incident abated.
Father Kostik Arrives
In September of 1925, Father John Kostik, CPPS a Precious Blood priest came to Whiting to become permanent assistant to Father
Benedict. In addition to English and German, he could speak Slovak, Hungarian
and Polish. He had a charm of character and great willingness to work that was
admired by Father Benedict. As he watched Fr. Kostik work, Fr. Benedict realized
he could well place in the hands of the young priest the charge he had taken up
30 years before. On December 18th, 1927, Bishop John F. Noll, following the suggestion
of Fr. Benedict appointed Fr. Kostik pastor of St. Johnís. Fr. Benedict returned
Noteworthy in 1926 was the presentation of 'Mammy's Lil Wild Rose', a stage play.
Shortly after the successful production, St. John's Drama Club was formed in 1928
under the direction of Jim LaPert, a long time leader and inspiration of St. John's
drama community. St. John's Drama Club evolved into the Marian Theatre Guild we
After Notable plays Now Adolph in 1928 and The Noble Outcast in 1929, the Drama Club assumed an important position in the social and educational
work of St. John's. The organization was fortunate to have a group of gifted young
actors and actresses at it's disposal along with the warm interest of Mr. LaPert,
who directed over 60 plays over the years. In addition, Mr. LaPert was also instrumental
in helping with the staging of liturgical celebrations in the church.
Mr. James LaPert is pictured here at left.
The New Church
The principal task of the years that followed was the construction of a new church.
The first work toward the building of the church was the breaking of ground on
May 20th, 1930. The cornerstone was laid on July 6th, 1930. The ceremony was performed
by Bishop Noll. The ceremony was large and well attended. Fr. Benedict was even
in attendance and preached, receiving special warmth from the people.
The picture at the right was taken at the laying of the cornerstone. Quite a
crowd was present on the day of the ceremony, Bishop Noll presiding.
A Challenging Undertaking
The new church cost was $300,000. Collecting of funds was a daunting task given
Fr. Kostik's limited understanding of financial management and the onset of the
Great Depression. Fr. Kostik ascribed the success of the effort to the patronage
of the Little Flower under whose protection the project was placed. In this period
of financial stress and strain, the parish lost only $340.
Parish debt in 1932 stood at $192,000 and was cleared by 1942. Interest paid
out in the 11 years amounted to $80,000 which was a huge amount considering the
total parish income of 1929 was only about $56,000. The tremendous financial burden,
was remarkably shouldered by a parish family population of roughly 600 families!
After construction was completed, parishioner ranks swelled to over 700 families
The present day church is the work of Herman Gaul, a Chicago architect and is
a monument to his artistic talent. Contractors were the Minuda Brothers. Other
contractors ranged from Hammond plasterers, to Chicago interior stoneworkers to
Wisconsin woodworkers, to lighting fixture experts from Kentucky.
'A Monument to Undying Zeal'
Work was finished in the summer of 1931, with dedication on June 21st. In the
Ben Franklin News of June 17th, Fr. Cyril Ernst wrote, ďMid the hum of industry, the chimneys
and smoke of Standard Oil and the flame of molten steel, this Temple of God raises
its solitary tower of 190 feet towards the Heavens as a finger pointing the way
of salvation. Here then, may they who man the monsters of industry find haven
to worship their God within the peace and quiet of its walls. The new edifice
is the result of the cooperation of a generous people with a zealous pastor, and
will stand for ages as a monument to their undying zeal and effort.Ē
Architect Herman Gaul
Rt. Rev. Bishop Noll D. D.
Souvenir Dedication Book Cover
A picture of the church at the time it was finished is at the left. Note the
absence of trees, bushes, the rectory and the row of period automobiles circa
Did you also know you can purchase a porcelain, electrically lit replica of St.
John the Baptist Church? Replicas are available in the rectory for only $40.00!
Father Kostik did not go unaided in these years. Priests of the Society of the
Precious Blood provided many able assistants. His first assistant was Father Isidore
Stadtherr who came to Whiting in 1927 and was a great help and at times a special
line of defense against over-eager salesmen of the depression years. Also noteworthy
was Father Cyril Ernst, appointed in 1929 and Father John Lefko, CPPS who was
appointed assistant in 1938 upon Fr. Stadherr's promotion to pastor of St. Mary's
Church in Centerville, Iowa.
It is during this point in the parish's history that the number of religious,
social, athletic and arts-related (drama and choir) organizations became more
numerous and active, due in great part to the industriousness and care of Frs.
Stadherr and Ernst. For example, the new church had been planned with out a basement.
However, Fr. Ernst insisted it should have one. He kept arguing the point even
after the foundation and tile for the church floor had been laid. He argued the
basement case citing need for meeting and club rooms while noting that no great
degree of excavation was needed. He won out to the great benefit of the parish,
creating what is now know as Benedict Hall.
Fr. Ernst also managed the remodelling of the old church into a gymnasium, to
the joy of the young and the vehemence of the older folks who felt it would be
sacrilege to play games where Holy Mass had been offered. Fr. Ernst was an able
carpenter, unhappy unless building something, provided assistance to the gymnasium
construction along with booths and a large Bingo stand for the big bazaars St.
John's hosted every summer.
At left, Father Isidore Stadtherr
At right, Father Cyril Ernst
Firsts, Organizations and Departures
Among many firsts occurring in the parish at that time was the first mass of
Father Gabriel Brenkus, CPPS, May 8th, 1932. It was the first of the 'First Masses'
in the new church and was of special interest as it occurred on Mother's Day.
Fr. Brenkus is noteworthy as 'one of ours'. He was born to St. John February 10,
1902 and joined the priesthood via the Precious Blood Seminary at Burkettsville,
The Junior and Senior Daughters of Mary, the choir, the athletic club (particularly
the basketball team), the dramatic club, the Young People's Sodalities, the Junior
and Senior Holy Name Societies, Catholic Order of Foresters and other organizations
all flourished at this time. Particularly noteworthy was St. John's drama community,
churning out 42 productions in the twenty year period from 1928 to 1947.
April 17th, 1937 saw St. John's reach it's 40th anniversary. The auspicious occasion
called for a celebration. Fr. Benedict returned from Florida for the special event.
Festivities were well attended. Many clergy from the area and even Chicago attended.
There were also more than 900 people at the jubilee ceremonies, including 30 members
still living from the original parish. Whiting Mayor James T. McNamara and Hammond
Mayor Frank R. Martin were there to extend their felicitations.
The photo at right gives an idea for how splendid St. John's the Baptist's early
Fr. Benedict's appearance at the Jubilee celebration was his last in the parish
which he loved. Scarcely a month after the celebration, he died of a sudden heart
attack on a train en route to Florida. His body was interred in the shadow of
a large cross erected in the middle of St. John's cemetary by Fr. Kostik on May
St. John's first true tragedy stuck about five years later on 'picnic day' traditionally
one of the longest remembered non-spiritual or academic activities. One summer
Sunday after mass, children were loaded on to two trucks to be taken to Washington
Park in Michigan City for an outing and picnic. Forty boys were in one truck and
thirty girls in the other. At a South Shore train crossing, one of the drivers
noticed too late a train was fast approaching and tried to stop his truck. Finding
that impossible, his effort to speed across the tracks failed and the train plowed
into the truck just back of the cab. The truck was crushed, killing four and injuring
eleven, some severely.
Better events occurred in 1943, when the first Solemn Masses of John and Edward
Homco, native sons of Whiting, were celebrated. Happily, Fr. Ed Homco celebrated his first mass in the newly decorated church with all pomp and ceremony.
Two years later, Fr. Homco felt privileged to be assigned to St. John's after
two years of priestly work elsewhere. He returned to St. John's in September of
Father Ed in his early days at St. John is pictured at the left.
Fr. Ed's appointment was the result of a change in Pastoral duties. Fr. Kostik,
who had frequently been occupied in important duties for his community had been
chosen for the Provincial Board. In that position, Fr. Kostik journeyed to Rome
for discussions. He resided in Rome for a considerable part of the year. As a
result of his loyal service, Fr. Kostik was appointed Superior of St. Charles
Seminary and Motherhouse of the Fathers of the Precious Blood in the United States.
Fr. Kostik's appointment created a need for pastor at St. John's which was filled
by Father John Lefko, CPPS, who had been the parish assistant since replacing Fr. Stadherr in 1938.
Fr. Homco filled Fr. Lefko's assistant position.
In 1946, a renewed effort on the part of the pastor and assistants to reach youths
not in the parochial school with religious education ran afoul of the Hammond
School Board. The refusal of the Hammond School Board to permit the Catholic children
to receive religious training in the public high school (Hammond Clark) during
school hours was looked upon as evidence of a disregard of the will of the Catholic
people of the area. The controversy saw much press and public conversation.
The fifty year Golden Jubilee occurred in 1947. It was crowded with spiritual
and social events including missions, days of recollection, the Old-Timers Gathering
and the stage play Career Angel, a basketball tournament, the card party, the
dedication of the sacred mural, the Calendar Banquet, the Jubilee Jamboree Dance,
the Spiritual Month of May and finally, 'The Day'. This was Sunday June 29th on
the feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul. Bishop Noll celebrated the Pontifical Mass,
Fr. Kostik preaching the sermon. In the afternoon, parishioners gathered at Eggers
Field in Illinois for a jubilee picnic.
The first years of expansion at St. John's found pastor Lefko a leader admirably
suited to the task. Having formulated creative plans for a new school according
to modern patterns, Fr. Lefko prepared for a graduate degree at the University
of Indiana shortly before his appointment as pastor. Envisioning a new school,
Fr. Lefko issued a brief announcement in the Paranews of June 20, 1948: 'Work
on the new school begins this week.'
A. M. Strauss is shown here on the left and Roy E. Clark, Jr. on the right
Plans were carefully drawn up. The new school would not interfere with the present
school building. Less than a month later, the old gym was demolished, excavation
for the new building rapidly following July 11th, 1948. In the Paranews, the planned
school was referred to as 'The School of Tomorrow'. A. M. Strauss was selected
as the architect, Roy Clark, Jr. was the builder and Howard C. Buckel the superintendent.
The school is shown here under construction in 1949. While outside professionals
were retained, much project work was done by skilled parishioners.
Assistants changed again. Fr. Ernst moving on to Pastor at St. Joseph's Church
in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Father John Blasick was appointed assistant and arrived in
April of 1949.
The school was finished in 1950, solemnly dedicated by Bishop Noll as the St.
John Parochial Center on March 5th. Tours and inspections were made available.
Those first tours of the center were thrilling to those that participated. The
building was planned as a facility that could accomodate many different activities
for the parish seven days a week from 8:30am to midnight.
In May 1951, the top-floor convent was completed as was the Quonset Gym. It was
erected on the site of the present parish home. A Paranews item read stated that
the building was intended to be built at minimum cost with no pretention.
Changing of the Guard
On July 19th, 1953, Sunday masses announced that Father Lefko was to be transferred.
Father Gabriel Brenkus, the first 'one of ours', was appointed pastor. An informal farewell gathering
for Fr. Lefko occurred in the Panel Room.
On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1953, Fr. Homco celebrated his ten
year anniversary. Fathers Semancik and Letko were ordained and celebrated their
first masses in 1953/54. This time frame was noteworthy overall for the church
because of Vatican II and for the cannonization of Gaspar del Bufalo, founder
of the Precious Blood.
January of 1955 saw the death of John Francis Noll, the beloved archbishop that
had celebrated at so many of St. John's milestone events. Seriously ill because
of a stroke he had suffered in August of 1954, he was thought to be on the road
to recovery. He was 80.
In March of 1955, The Times Graphic of Whiting reported on the ground-breaking of a much needed addition to St.
John's parochial center. Strauss and Clark once again were key on the project.
On November 11th, 1956, Bishop Leo Pursley dedicated the new wing containing six
classrooms, a school library, three sound-proofed music rooms, three meeting rooms,
a sewing room, added panel room storage and serving facilities, a refreshment
center, two meeting rooms with adjoining kitchenette (the Mural Room and Founders
Room), the gymnasium and the Marian Memorial Auditorium.
The photo above was taken from what is now the back of the school, over ground
that would soon be home to the Marian Memorial Auditorium and the new gymnasium.
At the left is a Lincoln Avenue view of the expansion construction in progress.
A new diocese was formed in Northwest Indiana with Gary as episcopal in 1957.
It was deemed that Lake, Porter, La Porte and Starke, with their large Catholic
population and populous area merited separation from the distant Fort Wayne diocese.
Monsignor Andrew G. Grutka chose the Church of Holy Angels in Gary as his episcopal
Fr. Brenkus did not attend the episcopal consecration. He was in St. Catherine's
with a serious illness. While initially the news wasn't good, Fr. Brenkus' condition
improved over time and he was eventually released from the hospital. Happily,
he celebrated his Silver Jubilee June 2nd, Bishop Grutka attending part of the
celebration on June 5th. The long illness, however, took its toll. Fr. Brenkus
was forced to give up his charge of St. John's and was replaced by Fr. Edward Homco, who was offically installed as pastor on July 14th.
Years of quiet progress followed. Noteworthy was the sale and dismantlement of
the Quonset Hut Gymnasium. As practical as it had been, the old gym became obsolete
with the completion of the new gymnasium in the Parochial Center expansion. It
was sold and made into a church in 1958.
In the beautifully renovated Chapel of the Assumption of Mary at Carthagena,
Ohio, John Kalicky, in a class of eleven deacons, was raised to the priesthood
on June 10th, 1961. Father Kalicky celebrated his first mass on June 11th, assisted
as archpriest by pastor Fr. Homco. Two choirs, many priests, the Hol Name men
and the Knights of Columbus all joined in celebration of the event.
On April 17th, 1962, Fr. Brenkus celebrated evening mass at St. John's then went
to Phil Smidt's restaurant with Fr. Homco for supper. As he was finishing his
meal, he suddenly slumped over the table. In a matter of moments, he was dead.
He had said his last mass on the very same altar on which he had celebrated his
first mass after ordination.
A number of notable occurrences happened in 1963. Well loved Pope John XXIII
passed away on May 22nd. He was succeeded by Pope Paul VI. On a happier note,
Father John Zvijak, Fr. Richard Elo and Fr. Joseph Hanish were ordained to the
priesthood on June 8th. Work also began on interior decoration of the church.
First order of business was the repairing and cleaning of the stained glass windows.
As recorded in the 75th Jubilee Year book, 1964's major concern was the decoration
of the church. Many professionals along with an immense volunteer effort were
involved. Work was very comprehensive, addressing everything from painting to
detailed work in the sanctuary to varnishing of the woodwork and pews. Over $36,000
was collected to cover the basic contract, but other jobs had to be done by the
parish outright like floorwork beneath the pews, flooring in the choir loft and
tuck pointing. Final touches were added to the main altar, with the altar stone
consecrated on May 7th. Embedded in the altar slab were sacred relics of the holy
apostles Andrew, Jude and Thomas, of the martyrs Wenceslaus and Maria Goretti
and of the confessor Casimir.
In March of 1966, bids were opened for the Rectory Project along with a symbolic
ground-breaking ceremony. Plans for the new Rectory were finalized in early June,
with a contract awarded for the project to Leo Reuth and Sons at a cost of $245,000.
On July 7th, 1967, Bishop Grutka blessed the new, completed rectory in a simple
ceremony on the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, patrons of the Slavic nations.
Though the new parish home was unready for occupancy, parishioners were invited
to visit the new edifice. Only two months later, some of the rooms were occupied.
The photo at right shows an overhead view of St. John's Parish in 1967.
On December 5th 1968, St. John's honored their pastor, Fr. Homco with a jubilee
mass celebrating the 25th anniversary of his ordination. Father Kostik preached
the homily at a 9:30am mass, followed by a 6:30pm mass later that day.
Father Kostik Passes
On Sunday, August 9th, 1970, Father John Kostik died at St. Catherine's hospital.
He was stricken early in the evening in the rectory garden where he had gone to
recite his beads. He was 75 years old. His last years were spent at St. John's
serving in auxiliary roles until his retirement in August of 1969 as pastor emeritus.
Father Kostik's Mass of Resurrection was concelebrated by many priests, chiefly
including Bishop Grutka.
The close of 1971 ushered in St. John the Baptist Parish's Diamond Jubilee. January
1st's Paranews proudly announced "You'll be hearing Jubilee Year throughout this year of 1972....St.
John the Baptist Catholic Church in Whiting is 75 years old." And the Paranews was correct, the entire year of 1972 was filled with Jubilee activity.
Early in the year, but indirectly related to the Jubilee, was the blessing of
the Knights of Columbus Hall by Bishop Grutka on January 15th. Many other events
followed, including Jubilee dinners, a Birthday Party, Parish (Founders) Day,
a large Holy Week and Easter celebration, Marian Theatre Guild presentations and
a large Parish picnic.
Every event of the Jubilee year contained much activity and was attended by many
parishioners. The afternoon Parish Day dinner was especially large. Hosted in
the Panel Room, the April 23rd Chicken Dinner was referred to by the Paranews as "huge and hearty", serving 1,300 pounds of chicken to over 1,200 guests by
Just reading about the Chicken Dinner, you can almost taste the home cooking
served up by the wonderful women who have worked as cooks in our Panel Room and
Cafeteria over the years. Got a hankerin' right about now for some good old Slovak
fare? Did you know you can purchase a copy of the Favorite Recipes of the St.
John's Rosary Society Cookbook at the Rectory? It's $7.00 if you pick it up there
and only $12.50 by mail!
Tom Puplava becomes principal of St. John School in 1973. It was an historic
event in that Tom was the first lay principal of the school, which had been administered
for years chiefly by the Sisters of Providence. Shortly after he assumed that
role, the school celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1975. The festivities were
capped by a rousing eighth grade play featuring old home movies of the school
The photo of Mr. Puplava at left appeared in the 1974-75 school yearbook.
Sadly in August of 1978, Pope Paul VI died, setting a chain of events in motion
that would profoundly affect the Catholic church for nearly the next thirty years.
On August 26th, Pope Paul was succeeded by John Paul I who lived only one month,
dying September 28th. John Paul I was succeeded by John Paul II on October 16th,
1978. John Paul II, the first Slavic (Polish) Pope, turned out to be one of the
most loved and influential popes of the 20th century.
John Paul II made a landmark visit to Chicago in October of 1979. It was an important
event, as the city of Chicago has the largest population of Polish people outside
of Poland. In addition, the entire Chicagoland area is settled by both Poles and
many Slavs of other ethnic descent.
The Pope's mass at Grant Park was attended by hundreds of thousands of people.
St. John the Baptist sent a large contingent of parishioners to the mass by bus,
dropping them off more than a mile away from the Grant Park celebration.
The Chicago Archdiocese archive photo at right was taken in Grant Park during
Pope John Paul II's historic 1979 Chicago visit.
The Changing Face of the Parish
In the late '70's and ino the eighties, two events changed the face of the St.
John's Parish literally and figuratively. As subsequent generations of the original
Slavic Whiting/Robertsdale community reached adulthood, they generally moved out
of the Northwest Indiana region. Concurrently, a new community of immigrants began
to re-infuse the Whiting/Robertsdale community with their presence, looking to
settle here for the same reasons as the original Slavic founders: many industrial
job availabilities and a strong sense of community.
This new infusion of immigrants helped to make Whiting/Robertsdale's cultural
community and St. John's Parishwest Indiana region. Concurrently, a new community
of immigrants began to re-infuse the Whiting/Robertsdale community with their
presence, looking to settle here for the same reasons as the original Slavic founders:
many industrial job availabilities and a strong sense of community.
This new infusion of immigrants helped to make Whiting/Robertsdale's cultural
community and St. John's Parish family much more representative of the United
States at large, as the new families moving to the community were primarily of
spanish-speaking decent from as near by as East Chicago or Chicago, or as far
away as Mexico and other countries.
At the same time, another phenomenon began to exert influence on St. John's Parish.
The latter portion of the '60's thru the 70's and '80's saw significant reductions
in the numbers of young men called religious to religious vocation. The impact
started to be felt in the form of fewer priests in residence at the Parish, in
the Gary Diocese and in the Precious Blood community at large.
Finally during these years, the physical church saw yet another redecoration
process. In the summer of 1980, an announcement in the Paranews noted that the interior of the church was showing significant wear and that
a redecoration of the church would need to start soon in order to be ready for
the new church's 50th anniversary in 1981. Bids began to be solicited and donations
collected shortly thereafter.
As it got going, the project had some hiccups. Initial bids came in astoundingly
high and donations trickled in only slowly. More bids were requested and a donation
drive organized. By November, the Parish Council had approved the work to go forward
and by December almost $14,000 had been raised. In January, Fr. Homco and Bishop
Grutka agreed on a project not to exceed $50,000 and the donation drive continued.
Amid the planning, church bells rang out loudly at 12:30pm on January 20th, 1981,
on the release of the many American hostages held in Iran. Sunday's Paranews proclaimed in a bold headline 'FREE AT LAST! 444 DAYS!'
St. John the Baptist, with its new blue interior color palette, is pictured above.
A contract was awarded to H. A. Green Decorating of Gary to repaint the church,
improve lighting, sound and furniture in February. $37,000 had already been raised.
Work began in the choir loft amid Ash Wednesday observances, continued through
Lent and Easter and generally created the same level of inconvenience in the parish
community as we experienced with our recent redecoration. Work progressed steadily,
however, being largely completed just in time for the 50th Anniversary Celebration
which occurred at 5pm, June 21st, Bishop Grutka presiding. As part of the celebration,
a plaque was installed at the rear of the church in memorial of Fr. Kostik, 'Our
The project was very successful. So much so that by the end of the drive, enough
funds had been collected to not only complete the refurbishing and redecorating,
but to trade out an old boiler for a newer piece of gas powered machinery.
The repainting project replaced the red, beige, gold color palette which had
been present for years to a fresh deep blue, light blue and white color scheme,
bringing a new look and vibrancy to the interior of the parish that would last
for more than 20 years.
New Leaders and Pastors, New Times
Reaching the age of his mandatory retirement at 75 in 1983, Bishop Grutka passed
on his stewardship duties for the diocese and Bishop Norbert Gaughn became second
bishop of the Gary Diocese in October.
Back at St. John's, facing deteriorating health conditions, Fr. Homco turned
over Pastoral stewardship of St. John the Baptist to Fr. Andrew O'Reilly in July
of 1988. Fr. Homco remained in residence at St. John, serving as an able associate
pastor resource for Fr. O'Reilly.
Fr. O'Reilly maintained those responsibilities until June of 1991, when Fr. Kalicky
was reassigned from his Provincial duties with the Precious Blood community to
become the third home-grown pastor of St. John the Baptist.
Change occurred again in the Diocese in 1996 as Bishop Gaughn was succeeded by
our current Bishop Dale Melczek on July 2nd. In the Chicago Archdiocese, loved
and much respected Cardinal Joseph Bernardin passed after a long and public illness
During the 1990's, a number of physical and philosophical evolutions made arenas
before the domain of the clergy more welcome to the lay members of the parish.
On the philosophical side, facing dwindling numbers of clergy, the Catholic Church
moved to involve lay parishioners in more parish ministry. Specifically, lay Eucharistic
ministers were established to enable dwindling numbers of clergy to maintain ministry
of their parish families. St. John's happily embraced the new evolution, leading
to a supportive community of Eucharistic Ministers in our Parish.
In addition to changes in ministry, there was a physical reconfiguration of the
front of St. John the Baptist. Since it's construction in the '30's, the sanctuary
of the church had been the domain of the clergy. A marble rail spanned the width
of the sanctuary, providing a physical and philosophical boundry between the celebrant
and the flock.
But as prepartion for St. John the Baptist's Centennial celebration, in late
1996 working into 1997, the long standing rail was removed from the sanctuary
and reconfigured to create a new altar and Baptistry in the Sanctuary of the church.
Fr. Kalicky is pictured blessing baskets at the old communion rail in a Holy
Design of the altar and Baptistry was done by Mrs. Regina Kuhn, with Mr. George
Piwowarczyk of the Natural Stone Company artistically turning the plans into creative
reality. Much gratitude was expressed to the First Catholic Ladies Slovak Association's
donation of $15,000 which helped to fund the project.
Marble from the original Baptistry in the rear of the church formed the actual
altar, while the lighter colored stone at the bottom and underside of the altar,
along with the Baptistry walls were created from the long-standing communion rail.
The bronze gates mounted on the original rail were removed and imbedded in the
new altar. Not only did the reconfiguration open up the sanctuary in a more welcoming
way, it also removed the psychological barrier the rail established between the
sanctuary and the congregation.
The new altar is seen here in the redecorated church.
The original Baptismal font from the back Baptistry was relocated to the front
of the church, specifically in front of the portrait of the Blessed Mother, the
Madonna of the Precious Blood. Fr. Ed Homco, who at the time was retired, did
not favor the placement of the font. A popular account for this relocation is
that one day, while praying before the portrait, he experienced a deep sense of
peace with the move of the font. Father felt sure that the peace of mind he experienced
came from Mary's inspiration. What better place for children to receive the graces
of the shed Blood of Jesus than in front of the portrait of Mary holding her son
with the chalice while both look lovingly on the children. Pictured at right is
the Baptistry in its new placement in front of Mary's portrait.
Celebrating 100 Years
With bold announcement in the December 1996's first advent parish bulletin, the
celebration of St. John's 100 years as a parish began. Parishioners were asked
to pick up individually prepared and named information folders for each family
and individual in the parish. Packets contained detailed information on coming
events, a specially designed prayer card, a commemorative medallion and a parish
seal. In the weeks that followed, each parish bulletin's cover included a 'Centennial
Moment' recounting a small bit of St. John history.
The theme of the centennial year would be 'We Remember, We Celebrate, We Believe'
and would see such events as a Lenten Parish Mission, a volunteer brunch, a special
Winter Festival, an Anniversary and many special masses, a Centennial Family Day,
a Centennial Concert, two Marian Theatre Guild productions (Our House and The Mikado) and a Parish Block Party.
A high point in the Centennial Year's festivities was Bishop Melczek's consecration
rite for the new altar on March 17th. In his homily during the celebration, Bishop
Melczek stated 'The artists took the old and transformed it into the new to the
praise and glory of God'. The Centennial Family Day was also particularly large
including a Family Mass, the traditional chicken dinner, dancing in the gym and
a talent show in the auditorium.
In conjunction with the many Centennial Year celebrations, the old Baptistry
in rear of church was re-named the Centennial Room. A beautiful quilt was hung
on the back wall of the room containing pictorial reproductions of the people,
structures and history of St. John the Baptist.
The cover for the Gala Celebration Program is at right.
The New Century Brings Many Passings
Amid the energy and excitement ushering in the 21st Century, many passings have
had their effect on St. John the Baptist. After many faithful years of stewardship,
Fr. Ed passed on December 23rd of 2000. In his memory, the small strecth of Lincoln
Avenue between the school and the church was renamed by the Hammond City Council
as honorary Father Homco Way. On a happier note, 2000 also welcomed the 50th anniversary
of the new school.
In 2002, St. John saw the departure of another faithful steward, as our third
pastor, Fr. Lefko passed in July at the Precious Blood Mother House in Carthegena,
Ohio. Also in the theme of passings, the effects of dwindling clergy and resources
contributed to hard decisions in the Diocese which led to the closing of Cluster
Parish St. Peter & Paul in June, 2003.
Also passing was the vibrant blue color of the church interior, needed and welcomed
in 1981, but showing its age by the turn of the century. That being the case,
a new, comprehensive church redecoration effort was conducted again starting in
2003 and completed in 2004.
In stark constrast to many of the projects undertaken in St. John's history,
full effort for redecoration of the inside of the church, from painting, to refinishing
of woodwork and pews, to new kneelers and many more aspects of the facility cost
more than $600,000. With historic symmetry, the project was similarly placed by
Fr. Kalicky under patronage of the Little Flower as Fr. Kostik had done for initial
church construction during the depression to equally wonderful results.
At right, St. John's after 03/04's redecoration.
The Grand Arch Mural
One aspect of the church redecoration that received a bit of extra attention
was the Grand Arch Mural which graces the span above the sanctuary entrance. It
received a thorough cleaning as part of the redecoration. The mural was blessed
and dedicated on April 27th, 1947 on the occassion of the 50th anniversary of
the parish. It is the result of much study and work of Chicago artist Ludwig Scheuerle.
The mural itself traces the roots of the Slovak people in the Catholic faith;
first in Europe and then to America and to the parishioners of St. John the Baptist.
At the center and focus of the mural is Jesus the Lamb of God. The Lamb is shown
as described in the Book of Apocalypse with seven seals, blood flowing from its
side, surrounded with bright rays of heavenly light. The Lamb is placed in the
center of the Tree of Life, the tree's golden branches wind themselves around
and in between the various scenes uniting the entire mural with their life giving
embrace. Beneath the Tree is the the Fount of Grace, a spring representing the
seven Sacraments whose flowing waters provide life-giving nourishment.
To the right of the Tree is St. John the Baptist, patron saint of our parish.
To the left is St. Andrew, traditionally known as the apostle of the East and
the Patron of the Slovak peoples. To St. Andrew's right and below him are two
brothers preaching. These are the two apostles of the Slovak people in the ninth
century, St. Cyril (in black) and St. Methodius (in gold). Following downward
from St. Methodius is St. Gaspar del Bufalo, apostle of the Precious Blood and
founder of the missionaries of the Precious Blood. Last on the left side of the
Mural Arch is Slovak Prince Pribina and the Slovak people accepting the faith
preached by St. Cyril. In the distance are the famous Tatra Mountains.
To the right of St. John the Baptist, on the right half of the mural is Father
Jaques Marquette, the sainted Jesuit missionary and discoverer whose travels brought
him to our region of America on his historic mission to the Indians. In the background
is Lake Michigan which the French named Lake Illinois.
Below Fr. Marquette is Father Francis Brunner, a member of the missionaries of
the Precious Blood who brought many missionaries to the United States in 1844.
In this portrait, Fr. Brunner is preaching to residents of the Ohio farmlands.
Just below Fr. Brunner is Father Furdek, organizer of many Slovak Societies and
Fraternal Orders in the United States presenting a charter of foundations to one
of the parish's families.
Finally, on the bottom right portion of the Grand Arch Mural, is Father Benedict
Rajcany, the first pastor of St. John Parish, with the first St. John Church pictured
in the background. His is looking into the future anticipating the growing success
of the parish. To the rear of the portrait can be seen the growing industrial
complex previously called Standard Oil, now British Petroleum. Surrounding Fr.
Benedict are parishioners of various ages representing the many who built and
continue to make up the family of St. John the Baptist Parish.
St. John the Baptist in 2006
Current events have already seen their share of important events. On a sad note,
April 2005 brought the passing of beloved Pope John Paul II. The massive media
coverage of today provided quite a contrast to the coverage present at his selection
as Pope in 1979. Pope John Paul II was succeeded by Pope Benedict XVI.
We have also experienced another very noteworthy changing of the guard. After
32 years as the first lay principal of St. John the Baptist School, Mr. Tom Puplava
retired as principal after 2004-2005 school year. In his honor, the School Library
was rededicated as the Thomas Puplava Memorial Library. In yet another instance
of historical symmetry, Mr. Puplava's important role as Principal of St. John
the Baptist Catholic School will be filled by a new Tom; Mr. Tom Feltz.
Today, St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish is a vibrant, multi-cultural community
of approximately 1,400 families consisting of around 4,200 parishioners. Our parishioners
reside not only in the Whiting/Robertsdale area, but in Hammond, East Chicago,
Chicago and many other communities as well. Our school serves more than 500 students
from pre-school age up to eighth grade.
Whether serving parishioners in their first or even fifth or sixth generation,
St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish is still fulfilling the mission and vision
of Father Benedict and its founding Slavic community under the name of patron
St. John the Baptist: 'a voice crying out in the wilderness proclaiming Prepare
the Way of the Lord!'