Visitors to Saturday’s historical tour of St. Mary the Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Michigan City heard tales of 150 years of devotion, both spiritual and communal.
The complete set of Zettler stained glass windows which encircled the interior of the church, the Alfonso Ianelli Indiana limestone altar and bishop chairs, and the mosaic stations of the cross are not only pieces of art, but they are part of St. Mary’s thanks to the dedication of the community over the decades.
“We hope that people realize what treasures we have here,” said Patricia Gruse Harris, historian for St. Mary’s whose great-grandparents were two of the original group of parishioners at the church 150 years ago.
“The stained glass windows are priceless and were designed and installed here in 1927 by F.X. Stained Glass Studios in Munich, Germany. There are 18 Gothic style stained glass windows and we are the only church (in the world) to have a complete set,” she said.
One of those windows, a rather large one, was commissioned and donated to the church by Vincent Milcarek, grandfather of the Rev. John Scott, who is now retired from the parish, though he attended Saturday’s event and continues to serve in other ways.
“My mother tells the story that my grandfather was a member of St. Stanislaus down the street because he was Polish, but his wife was German and was a member here at St. Mary’s. He was a contractor and donated a small window at his church, and his wife asked him to donate one here. But it was a lot bigger and he was shocked when he got the bill. It was $500, which was a lot of money in 1927,” he said with a laugh.
The altar also involved multigenerational dedication, as intern Bailey Roberts told visitors during the tour.
“Katherine Baker was married to a man who was well known in the community and was Episcopalian, but she was Catholic, and Catholics weren’t very liked in the 1800s, so she had to keep it under wraps. So her daughter, named Catherine with a 'C,' had this altar commissioned in 1927 in her mother’s honor, perhaps as a way to say, 'I’m still here and I’m still Catholic,'" Roberts said.
Sacristan Grace Nygren explained to visitors the altar is a piece of art, uncovered from seven layers of latex paint during a restoration process in 2004.
“The paint was so thick, you couldn’t see the Bedford limestone," she said. "It weighs 23 tons and it was installed here, block by block. The Barker family and foundation helped to renovate and restore this and were extremely generous. They came from all over the world to see it when it was done.”
For all parishioners, sharing the art and history of their beloved church over its 150 years has been a labor of love that perhaps none know as well as Gruse Harris, who has just completed writing a book on St. Mary the Immaculate Conception Church which will be distributed during a Mass of Thanksgiving on Nov. 5.
“I guess you could say that I have a love for it,” she said, humbly.