GARY | Margaret Horan Stallings has spent her life in and around St. Joseph The Worker Croatian Parish in Gary.
She was baptized there, made her First Communion there, went to school there, married there and has buried loved ones there.
“It was a centerpiece of our lives,” she said. “We all lived right near the church. We had holidays there, carnivals, parish dinners. We revolved around church and the church’s school. It brought people together.”
Her grandfather Nick Prahovich was one of the 12 founding members of the church, which was first known as Holy Trinity Croatian Church.
“It was a very tight-knit Croatian community,” she said. “He went door to door, collecting money to build that church.”
St. Joseph the Worker Croatian Parish will celebrate its 100th anniversary Sunday with a 10 a.m. Mass, followed by a banquet at the Croatian Center in Merrillville.
The service will be celebrated by Bishop Dale Melczek, of the Catholic Diocese of Gary, the Rev. Stephen Loncar, and the Rev. Robert Rayson, whose grandfather was one of the church‘s founders.
The service also will include traditional Croatian tamburitzan music.
Peter Podnar also has spent his life in the church. He remembers being a boy and sitting in the front pew, listening to the priests.
“It’s been a rock for me. I’ve been with the church as long as I have been alive,” he said. “At times like this, you take a step back and understand what a part it has played in your life.”
From the initial dozen members 100 years ago, the church grew. Attendance peaked in the 1950s and 1960s with about 1,000 members, and membership dwindled.
In the late 1990s, there was talk of closing the church. But parishioners rallied, said Loncar, who joined the church as assistant pastor in 1994 and became pastor in 2000.
“We resisted closing. We thought it was important to be here,” he said. “We prevailed.”
He has hopes of growing the church even more in the future.
“We’d like to increase our number of church members, and do some renovations and construction,” he said. “We would like more people to help pitch in.”
Over the years, the church changed names twice, becoming St. Joseph the Worker in the mid-1950s when it moved to its current location, 330 E. 45th Ave. It also has built several schools, convents and rectories to serve the community's needs.
The church still has a core of Croatian members, enough so that the 8:30 a.m. service every Sunday morning still is said in Croatian. But its members are now more reflective of the region as a whole.
“We’re a mix of what the world is today, and that’s good,” Stallings said.
Loncar agreed the church has embraced the community but stayed true to its Croatian heritage.
“Very few national parishes have made it as far,” he said. “But people stayed because they love each other and support each other. They might have moved out of Gary, but they come back.”
As she celebrates her church’s 100th anniversary on Sunday, Stallings said she will be thinking of her mother, Mary Horan, during the service.
“She would’ve loved to have seen this,” she said. “The church was very important to her. It was her second home.”