OTIS – Described as “a little gem in the country,” St. Mary Church marked its 150th anniversary on Sept. 10 with a Holy Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert J. McClory and a catered luncheon attended by past and present members of the faith community and guests.
“The best thing about our parish is our community and our beautiful little church, which you won’t find anywhere else,” said Sheree Warnke, a parishioner since 1969. “It is a very welcoming place, and I see more involvement; there were some people working for days to get ready for this party.”
The parish’s historical “claim to fame” is as the first Polish parish established in the state, thanks to the arrival of hundreds of railroad workers from Poland beginning in 1862. “When more than 100 families were found to reside in the area,” according to historian Arlene Hudgens in “150 Years of Faith Filled Service,” the sesquicentennial parish book, “the Most Rev. Joseph Dwenger, bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne, instructed Father Simon Bartosz, Polish pastor of St. Joseph German Church in LaPorte, to look after the spiritual needs of the community.”
Father Bartosz, using a cumbersome farm wagon or on horseback, visited the Polish settlers who favored the area for its available farmland as often as he could, saying Mass in the farm house of immigrants Jacob and Barbara Lewandowski or outdoors.
After Father Bartosz’ death, the services of Father Francis X. Szulak, a Jesuit from Chicago, were secured to offer the Polish faithful the sacraments. He soon suggested the community was large enough to warrant a parish, and Bishop Dwenger gave permission for St. Mary, the first Polish Catholic church in Indiana, to be built in what had become the village of Otis.
The congregation paid $454 for a little over two acres of land and began construction of a church 20 feet high with a 70-foot tower in 1872, at a cost of $2,550, and Father Szulak dedicated the building on June 22, 1873. A cemetery was soon added, and in May 1876, a rectory was built for $975.
Heart of Jesus parochial school was built in 1880 for $2,000. A two-story frame building, it contained two classrooms with seating for 100 children. The top floor provided living quarters for the Felician nuns and about 30 student boarders who lived too far to commute during the school term. Due to dwindling enrollment, the oldest school in Indiana closed in 1965 and the site became a parking lot.
The congregation celebrated its 25th anniversary on June 11, 1899, just a week after Father Joseph Bolka, an Otis boy, was ordained to the priesthood in Milwaukee. The pastor, Father Urban Raskiewicz, had celebrated his golden jubilee the previous year. By 1900, the parish had a membership of 500.
After fire destroyed the church and rectory in 1918, a new church was dedicated on May 26, 1919, and Father John Wroblewski, pastor, “boarded out” until the new rectory was completed in 1922.
Father Bolka, then of Michigan City, celebrated a golden anniversary Mass on June 24, 1923 with a number of neighboring priests.
Father Louis F. Bozik was pastor when 75-year anniversary services and a steak and chicken dinner was held in 1948, followed by “games and other diversions.” Five priests were a product of the Otis parish, which numbered about 125 families.
A new parish center was constructed in 1989, and major renovations took place in 2008 to enhance the interior of the church, rededicated by Bishop Dale J. Melzcek on Nov. 2, 2008, while the parish was under the pastoral care of Father Gerald Schweitzer.
“It’s wonderful being back here. It was really nice seeing the church with members from St. Mary, Sacred Heart, and St. Martin parishes, The Catholic Communities, joining together,” said Father Schweitzer. “I think the celebration of this community will continue into the future because of the personalities of the people, which are really Christ centered … so that another 150 years, hopefully and prayerfully, this continues to be a community of Christian Catholic faith people who always invite and always take care of each other when needs arise.”
Mary Ann Groszek, director of religious education, said a rejuvenated St. Mary Altar and Rosary Society is planning to revive the Polish dinners that had been a tradition in the past. “We have some newer members who want to return to our roots,” she said of the planned dinner on Saturday, Nov. 4, in the church hall.
Hudgens, who spent the past several years collecting historical information for the anniversary book, found out a number of interesting facts during her research. “Probably the biggest thing is that I was able to verify the actual date of the fire that destroyed the first church building as Feb. 13, 1918. There had been inaccurate postings that were off by about a year, but I corroborated the date from a newspaper story about the church organist, who said she had played on Ash Wednesday, ‘and then the church became ashes.’”
After the Sept. 10 Mass, close to 200 people filled the church hall for a luncheon, finding several large “150 Years” banners and tables appointed in Marian blue and white colors. As guests thumbed through the anniversary book, loud applause erupted when it was announced that St. Mary had been the first Polish parish established in Indiana.
“One-hundred-and-fifty years is really an extraordinary milestone and, of course, this parish was founded with strong Polish roots which are still evident today,” said Bishop McClory.
The occasion, he added, marks “150 years of serving our Lord, 150 years of praising God and enduring difficult circumstances along the way. The church totally burned down, they rebuilt, and they continue with great vigor. It’s to their credit that the people of St. Mary have been operating several years now with St. Martin and Sacred Heart to share common leadership as a community.”
Ken Zarazee, also known as ‘Grandpa Otis,’ has been a fixture around the parish. He was honored at the luncheon for his dedication to caring for the church, hall and property. A screen slide acknowledging his work read, “Kenny has spent endless hours at St. Mary’s taking care of what needed to be done. His devotion to our church can only be described as a true labor of love and WE LOVE YOU.”
Zarazee became emotional, starting to weep as his parish family paid tribute to him. “St. Mary’s means everything to me. It’s my life. I thank God for everything he gave me,” he said.
Nancy Parkman, anniversary committee chair, said she and her husband came to St. Mary nearly 20 years ago. “It’s such a great group of people. It’s a great community. Everybody’s welcoming. It’s like home,” she said. “I actually did not know it was the 150th anniversary until a couple of the other parishioners started talking about it. We thought we had better celebrate big. To see the church full, with everyone from all three parishes and all the priests, was great.
“The bishop’s homily was on loving one another, and that’s what we do here,” she said.
Contributing to this article was Bob Wellinski, NWIC correspondent
Caption: Bishop Robert J. McClory blesses the faithful at St. Mary's in Otis during the recessional following mass on Sept. 10. The parish celebrated their 150th anniversary. (Bob Wellinski photo)