THE CULTURAL HISTORY OF SAINT MARIA
The cultural history of a parish is not a simple “telling of the
story” because there are, in fact, many stories. The value of a
parish cultural history, like individual, family, and other
institutional histories, depends on where you begin, what you
include, and what you don’t include.
“The story” is often assumed to be a seamless tale that reveals and
accurately reflects the truth. More accurately, however, in
contemporary story telling, the story is neither homogenous nor
accurate but a series of fragments of stories that disclose the
complexity, depth, and messiness of any human narrative.
That being said, Saint Maria Goretti Parish is a continuing story of
a conversation with God and God’s Word and this community that
struggles to be faithful. Jesus Christ is always encountered in a
particular time and place.
The conversation began with intention in a time and place when
Father Richard Ameling began in early 1977 to talk with Catholics in
the Dyer-Schererville area. A local church, a Catholic parish, came
into being and was soon identified with geography and bounded,
becoming a “place.” A building was built, and that building was
dedicated on December 20, 1981. The dedicated building, consecrated
with the Sacred Chrism, became the gathering place for the local
Catholic people. The building and surrounding property was called
Saint Maria Goretti Parish (the naming would be a story in itself).
Father Ameling tried to form this faith community through listening
to the Word and celebrating Mass. The early celebrations of the Mass
in the neighborhood public schools had a significant influence in
the forming of this faith community that can’t be overestimated
because everyone had a part in the liturgy.
It is important to note that the Mass itself was being significantly
altered as this parish was beginning its “story”. The symbolic
language of the Mass, both spoken and unspoken, was in the process
of a radical change. Father Ameling and the young and growing
Catholic community could not have imagined the consequences of that
change at that time.
This sacred place, the church building became a home for people not
related by blood but by faith. They held much in common and, in
fact, had much in common. They called themselves a family. They were
almost all of European ancestry but had already, for all practical
purposes, lost the connection between their particular European
experience that provided the link between the Catholic faith and
their celebration of that faith.
Even still, they found a degree of intimacy that joined them to one
another and the Church, this church building, specifically. However,
even as this “family” was celebrating the Dedication of the Church
on that December day in 1981, the very notion of community, not to
mention family, was being challenged.
Dyer, Schererville, Highland, Munster, and Saint John blurred their
borders with large influxes of “outsiders” moving south from East
Chicago, Hammond, and Whiting, even, Munster and Highland people
were coming south. People living on the South Side of Chicago and in
the south suburbs in response to real and perceived social, racial,
and economic change began to move in substantial numbers to the
Saint Maria Goretti area. This migration will likely continue in
increasing numbers for the foreseeable future.
In the spring of 2004, Saint Maria Goretti Parish has 20% of 1200
families belonging 9-27 years, 20% belonging for less than 2 years,
and 40% or registered parishioners belonging 2-9 years.
In all of this movement, today, the people who claim the parish have
become accustomed to the absence of a common sense of space and the
lack of a community center. Saint Maria Goretti Church has become
another building. Like Meijer or Wal Mart or Jewel or Borders, it is
another destination lacking any particular sacred dimension, another
place among other places.
The comfortable, small manageable, neighborhoods of 1977 have become
sprawling tracts of homes characterized by anonymity and
temporality, with no really connecting sidewalks, front porches, or
other familiar places to meet for gossip, news, and the common good.
There is no shared history by the majority of the people of the
parish who claim the parish as their “church.”
It is dramatically obvious at the weekend Masses, that this is not
even a “place” for young people. Their absence is deafening. A
conversation has not been developed or maintained with them after
their elementary experience with Catholic religious education,
school or CFP, and these young (19-45) people are probably lost to
the parish and an appreciation of the wisdom of the Catholic faith,
not to mention the practice of the Catholic faith.
Among the largest group of people moving into the parish in the last
ten years, perhaps not so surprisingly, are so called, “senior
citizens” and “empty nesters.” They experience on many levels a
sense of loss and the accompanying grief. They have left homes and
home parishes, neighbors and neighborhoods, all the familiar places
that gave meaning and direction to their lives that they took for
granted, and come to an area without traditional community creating
“places.” They have no corner taverns, grocery stores, no convenient
parks, no sense of neighborhood, and nowhere to walk.
The most serious loss, as far as their Catholic faith is concerned
for them, is the loss of a place that holds sacred memories, i.e.
the place where they were baptized, made their First Communion, got
married, and buried their parents and grandparents. Saint Maria
Goretti is a church, not their church.
They maintain the practice of the Catholic faith and generally
attend Mass with regularity, but find no sense of belonging to this
community. To witness the reality of this strange and detached faith
practice, one only need attend Mass on any given Saturday evening.
Many people begin gathering an hour or more before Mass, sit in the
same place every week, and develop a sort of “neighborhood.” The
exodus of large numbers of people before the Mass ends is troubling
and sad because it indicates the absence of the sense of belonging
to a community so necessary to a Catholic parish.
Movement and mobility, traffic and time, are central daily issues.
People are increasingly accustomed to “being somewhere” with time a
very limited reality of their daily and weekly life. At the end of
the week there is very little, if any time allocated to communal
worship, Mass. In reality, there is very little time available for
any leisure activity.
A sense of self-containment and self-reliance has been introduced
into family life as families find themselves living further and
further from their homes of origin. “Home” has become an ambiguous
term, but more or less, temporary. The Internet, the fax, and
cellular phones have had a profound effect on the value and manner
of human communication.
Catholic Mass requires personal presence and time to cultivate a
sense of the personal in the details of life. Both of these are
seriously lacking in the experience of the people of this parish and
without a creative, imaginative response, it is likely that in the
very near future there will begin a dramatic decline in Sunday Mass
attendance and participation in any kind of parish life.
It is not at all clear what is held in common by the people who
claim this parish today. It is not at all clear what we have in
common. The parish is still overwhelmingly of European origin with
the emergence of a small Latino and Asian membership. The notion of
a parish being a “family” in the sense understood by the founding
members is no longer operative and probably not possible, if
The younger, tentatively attached parish members will become
increasingly vulnerable to the marketing-like proselytizing of the
non-denominational Christian churches. Like Saint John the Baptist,
we are in a desert place, pointing the way to the Christ. We are not
the Christ. Like the disciples of Jesus, we are called to feed the
multitudes with our own “bread and fishes.”
We will wait and see what happens next.