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GARY — St. Mary of the Lake Church, once one of the largest in the Gary Diocese with an elementary school with hundreds of students, was slated to close last year.

The situation looked hopeless.

The 86-year-old church at 6060 Miller Ave., an anchor in Gary’s Miller neighborhood that had fallen on hard times, was more than $100,000 in debt. It was operating at a deficit. Attendance was down.

But parishioners had faith. They banded together, staged fundraisers and fanned out, going door-to-door in the neighborhood for outreach.

After a year of fish fries, online fundraising and talking families in Miller and Aetna into coming back, Diocese of Gary Bishop Donald J. Hying said the church has been saved and scratched from the closure list.

“I would say it’s more than remarkable. It’s a great testament to the great love the people of the parish have for their own parish,” said retired bishop Dale J. Melczek, who took over as pastor after St. Mary of the Lake was given a year’s reprieve. “I’ve heard it said, ‘I never thought I would see a miracle in my own lifetime, but this was certainly a miracle.’”

St. Mary of the Lake paid down the $103,000 debt, cut operating costs, and is renovating the gymnasium for general community use. The church now celebrates Mass at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday, and has more than doubled the number of people who attend Sunday Mass. Sunday collections are up by more than $1,000 a week, and there’s a new energy among parishioners.The church even started a food pantry that feeds 40 families every month.

“We’re always looking for donations,” outreach committee member Jim Wiseman said. “We’re feeding people in Miller, in Gary, really anybody in Northwest Indiana that comes in.”

St. Mary worked with Temple Israel Miller and Bethel Lutheran Church, such as by screening movies together. Support poured in and not just from Catholics.

The church has long been an institution in the Miller community, said Angela McCrovitz, owner of the Chart House Miller restaurant next door.

“It’s an amazing amazing asset to the community,” she said. “Even if you’re not Catholic it inspires you to believe in something.”

A celebratory mood is expected from 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Festa Italiana! fundraiser to help defray St. Mary’s expenses. Last year, the event — which will feature unlimited pasta for $10 a plate — drew more than 700 people and raised over $11,000 for the church.

This year, there will be a silent auction, a 50/50 raffle, a beer and wine garden, a DJ, a bake sale, and live accordion music from Indiana University Northwest professor Eve Bottando.

“The congregation is elated,” Wiseman said. “We’re off probation, but we need to move forward and keep our foot on the throttle. It’s going to be one heck of a celebration.”

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.