GARY — Four generations of Joe Hojnacki’s family have gone to St. Hedwig Catholic Church in Gary. John Trafny’s grandfather helped build the church. Both Hojnacki and Trafny volunteer time with other parishioners to maintain the church.
Established in 1908 at 1737 Connecticutt Ave., the church had more than 1,400 members at one time. But changing times, a shrinking congregation and rising costs are forcing the diocese to consider closing it. The diocese says no decision has been made, but everyone knows closing is a possibility.
“They’ve been trying to shut it down for quite a while — at least three bishops ago,” Hojnacki said. “The latest bishop (Donald Hying) said he wants to close it because of the insurance and maintenance costs. The congregation is only about 40 now. There used to be a school, but that closed in the 1980s, I think.”
Debbie Bosak, communications director for the Gary Diocese, said the diocese is looking at all the parishes. She said at the time St. Hedwig was established, that was the area where people from the steel mills were concentrated and the diocese could feed and maintain a parish on almost every block. That is no longer the case, and the bishop is meeting with the parishes to discuss the viability of each one.
“We will not make a decision on closing any of them without careful thought and input from the community,” Bosak said.
Hojnacki said Hying met with the parishioners Aug. 28 and said the church needs a new roof, and with the upkeep on that and on the rectory, it might be best to close it. Hojnacki said the bishop told them someone had made an offer to buy the property and it would be in the diocese’s best interest to listen to the offer. Church members said they wanted to preserve the church’s handcrafted stained glass windows showing St. Hedwig, Jesus and other biblical figures as well as the organ, statues and other artifacts.
Since then, Hojnacki said the diocese brought a man interested in buying the property to the church. The man reportedly has another church and wanted to use St. Hedwig as a nondenominational church and the rectory and convent as a halfway house. Hojnacki said the convent is up for tax sale. It was sold about 15 years ago to someone who wanted to turn it into an assisted living and rehabilitation facility. After being plagued by vandalism and scrappers, the owner abandoned it, he said.
“Everybody donates their time and money to keep up the church,” he said. “It’s self-sustaining except for the repairs on the roof. If we could put the roof on, we’d be good to go.”
The roof repair is estimated to cost $120,000, which Hojnacki said the diocese is reluctant to pay.
Trafny, who, like many in the parish, attended the church as a child with his family before leaving the area for a while. Now living in Highland, he has attended for more than 30 years and has written four books about Gary, including “The Polish Community in Gary,” which includes a history of the church. He said the school, originally built in 1917, had as many as 600 students in the 1920s. Construction of the present church started in 1940 and wasn’t completed until after World War II. Hojnacki said the huge bells had to be put in place and the church built around them.
The area had an influx of new people after World War II, including refugees, who boosted church membership again. As late as 1958, the church had 1,430 members and the school had 300 students. The convent was for the nuns who taught at the school, and Trafny said all of them were Polish in the order of the Sisters of the Blessed Kunigunda.
“It’s not just a Polish parish anymore,” he said.
Bosak said St. Mark and St. Joseph the Worker churches in Glen Park are merging, and the bishop met with them many times to talk about how they can best benefit the community. The new church will have a new name.
“We are nowhere near that with St. Hedwig,” Bosak said. “The parishes are very near and dear to the people’s hearts, but I’ve heard the bishop say often the parish is not brick and mortar; it is the people. If it’s not used as a church, and if there were a buyer, we would listen, but we’ve made no decision at this point to close.”
“It’s all kind of up in the air,” Hojnacki said.