EAST CHICAGO | On the wall of the St. Joseph's Carmelite Home hangs a photo from 1913. It shows some of the first children admitted to the organization, standing on the porch of one of its original frame houses on Grasselli Avenue.
For 100 years, the Carmelite Home has remained a constant in the region, nurturing children entrusted to the care of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus.
Today, as the home celebrates its 100th anniversary, the Carmelite sisters say their mission of helping children in an ever-changing society is unchanged since its founding mother came to East Chicago.
“They serve a very primary role in the work they do,” said Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who chairs Carmelite Home's board. “They're a hidden treasure over there, believe me.”
Soon after Mother Mary Teresa Tauscher opened the home, it grew to house about 70 children. A lot of times children came to the home after their fathers were killed in the mills and their mothers could no longer afford to take care of the family.
Now the home – the oldest Carmelite home still open in the United States – serves approximately 65 children, aged newborn to 18, on the same East Chicago street where it began. It has grown to start new programs providing care for teenage mothers and their babies and emergency shelter services.
'They are my roots'
The home's administrator, Sister Maria Giuseppe, stood recently in front of the 100-year-old picture at the Carmelite Home, recalling the first time she met two siblings who were among the girls photographed.
Then well into their 70s, the two women had come to the home with an envelope of money they had saved over the years to repay the place where they had grown up.
Sister Giuseppe told the sisters she couldn't accept the donation, and the women told her, “Mother would have wanted you to have it.”
Sister Giuseppe, who has been at the home for nearly 36 years, said her favorite memories are from reunions when children, who had lived at the home from as far back as the 1930s, gathered to share memories. Even though the women were aged in their 60s and 70s, and most are grandmothers, they're still referred to as girls, Giuseppe said.
Some former Carmelite girls have even returned to the home to work in adulthood.
One of those girls is Michelle, who requested her last name not to be used. Michelle came to the Carmelite Home when she was 13, and the sisters put her through Bishop Noll Institute, provided transportation to and from her job and helped her open her first bank account.
“They are my roots. They are my everything,” Michelle said. “I really wonder where I would be if I didn't have them.”
Michelle eventually made enough money to afford to rent an apartment at the home. She paid rent to Sister Giuseppe, who secretly saved all the payments and wrote her a check for every dime as a graduation gift.
“I've seen pictures of the Carmelite Home, where it began,” Michelle said. “I just think it's astounding to me that they made it 100 years, and that's the mission of the Carmelite sisters right there. They worked hard. They worked so hard and selflessly, too.”
Caring for children
The home initially began as an orphanage and over time evolved into a nonprofit residential treatment center. Now children are placed in the home through the Indiana Department of Child Services, and the length of stay varies by case, Giuseppe said.
Focus is centered on rehabilitating the whole family, and often, the home will house siblings.
Though the Carmelite Home in East Chicago accepted girls and boys for a couple years when it first opened, the same Carmelite order opened a home specifically for boys in Hammond in 1915 and ran it until 1998. The East Chicago home began housing boys again in 2001, when it started providing emergency shelter services. Sister Giuseppe said the home now houses boys up to the age of 12.
Buncich said during his first term as sheriff he partnered with then-Lake Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura to work more closely with the Carmelite Home.
Buncich said the nonprofit's board is working to increase placements at the home after a recent shift in state policy toward placing children in foster care left the Carmelite Home in fear of losing funding. Buncich said placements are now picking back up.
Diocese of Gary Bishop Dale J. Melczek said Northwest Indiana was truly blessed when Mother Mary Teresa founded the home in 1913.
"Thousands of women in Northwest Indiana have been blessed with a very strong formation by the Carmelite sisters," Melczek said in a statement. "All of us have profited from their prayers and their witness. This centennial anniversary is a splendid occasion to give thanks to God for the prayers, witness and ministry of the Carmelite sisters and their co-workers over the past 100 years, and to thank them for the sacrifices they have made in order for others to lead better lives."
Sister Giuseppe said Mother Mary Teresa stayed close to the East Chicago home throughout her life, even requesting soil from the home be used on her grave in the Netherlands.
"I think she's here right now," Giuseppe said.