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GARY — The spirit remains strong at an unassuming parish in Gary, one that contains almost 200 years of history combined.

Ss. Monica and Luke Catholic Church, 645 Rhode Island St., is moving toward its fourth decade as a combined parish in the Glen Park neighborhood, several blocks east of the Diocese Center — Holy Angels Cathedral. The parish was formed when two churches, St. Luke and St. Monica, became one in the 1980s. Both parishes had a significant role to play not only in the diocese, but in the history of Gary.

A bit of history

St. Luke Catholic, originally founded on Gary’s east side, began 101 years ago when the area’s then bishop, the Most Rev. Herman Alerding of Fort Wayne, assigned it a pastor, the Rev. Frank Gnibba.

The 125 original members were mostly Irish, and its building at Seventh Avenue and Rhode Island Street was built in three phases. The parish and its eponymous school flourished until the 1960s, when church membership, and Gary’s population, declined, which eventually led to St. Luke church merging with St. Monica Catholic Church, then at 22nd Avenue and Adams Street.

The history of St. Monica's, so say longtime parishioners, parallels that of any African-American institution founded after the Civil War. Just as black colleges and universities provided education, black churches provided a place of worship. And in Gary, prior to the founding of St. Monica’s, black Catholics had no place to worship.

White Catholics did not worship with black Catholics in early 20th century Gary. Five Gary women who did not want that situation to stand — Lillian Bolden, Mary Graham, Louise Smith, Eugenia Williams and Beulah Wycoff — took it upon themselves to visit Archbishop John Francis Noll, also of Fort Wayne, and petitioned for such a church to be founded.

Current parishioner Mary Turner said her family was friends with the families of those founding women. The women, she recalled were “very outspoken."

"They went (to the bishop) and laid out a case (for the church),” she said.

The church they asked for and received 90 years ago was named for St. Monica, a patron saint of mothers and wives, and the mother of the far more well-known St. Augustine. It was the first Catholic Church in Gary where black Catholics were welcome. Lake County had one other black church — St. Jude church in East Chicago.

“The priests at St. Monica’s ministered to all Negro Catholics,” according to Patricia Brown, a parishioner whose memories were recorded in an official history of Ss. Monica and Luke. “We were always welcomed and made part of the faith community. The choice (to be Catholic) was not an easy one since the rest of the family might be ... some other Christian faith denomination. To some it may have seemed they segregated themselves twice, first by race and then by religion; since Sunday morning at 10 a.m., as well as now is, to quote Dr. (Martin Luther) King, ‘the most segregated hour of the week.’”

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The new parish thrived from the beginning, said Brown and others. Its eight founding families had no church building to go to at first and attended Mass at the American Legion Post on 25th Avenue and Jefferson Street. They later moved to a small frame church at 25th Avenue and Jackson Street.

“It was a gay old time back in the days,” Turner said.

She said St. Monica in the beginning was known as a mission church that ministered to the African-American community of Gary, “Gave us something of our own, something which we had never had before.”

'Filled with the spirit'

During the 1950s, St. Monica established its own credit union open to African-Americans along with the Legion of Mary, Holy Name Society, The Sodality, Boy Scouts, Altar Guild and Catholic Youth Organization. It opened a school in 1943.

The Rev. William Martin was the first pastor for the combined parish. The Rev. J. Patrick Gaza, now retired, served as pastor from 1992 to 2013. Gaza describes the parish as one “filled with the spirit.” 

“I grew in a sense that reinforced my faith in God," Gaza said of his time as the church's pastor. "It was just such a joy to celebrate with the people.” Like many clergy before him, Gaza said he has heard the comment, “I don’t get anything out of church."

"That’s never been a comment made from people at St. Monica and Luke,” he said. “These people really love Jesus.” They’ve also showed it, he said, in such ministries as the soup kitchen held out of the church basement and a food pantry; both of which are open to the community. “I watched members gradually get more and more involved; it just grows. That’s been a real joy to see that happen.”

The Rev. Kevin McCarthy, a former administrator for the church, found just as much enjoyment in Ss. Monica and Luke as his predecessors did.

“It is just a joy for me to celebrate Mass with them,” McCarthy said. “That sense of commitment (in the parish) truly energizes me. That’s what church is all about.”

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