LAKE COUNTY INDIANA
SS. Peter and Paul Church
From a log cabin, to a stone building, to a brick building, and possibly to a renovated gymnasium, the parish has never crumbled -- only its buildings have. SS. Peter and Paul shows its age. Because of structural problems, Merrillville landmark church may soon have to be razed.
by CAROLINA PROCTER, Times Staff Writer, Jan 27, 2002
SS. Peter and Paul is, by far, the oldest Catholic parish in Merrillville. Established in 1841 by German settlers, SS. Peter and Paul turned 106 when Our Lady of Consolation opened its doors in 1947. SS. Peter and Paul was 124 years old when St. Andrew the Apostle opened in 1965, and it was 127 when St. Stephen, Martyr and St. Joan of Arc were established in 1968. The only older Catholic parish in Northwest Indiana is St. John the Evangelist in St. John, established in 1839. But the younger parishes are spared from what SS. Peter and Paul currently faces: The pains of old age.
The church building is experiencing structural problems that may ultimately call for it to be demolished.
"It's going to hurt because it's a beautiful building," said the Rev. Dennis Teles, pastor at SS. Peter and Paul since 1984. "People have lots of fond memories there. But nothing lasts forever. It's getting old, and it's going to get worse as time goes on."
The building at 5885 Harrison St. is full of history. Constructed in 1916, it has been the site of hundreds of parishioners' baptisms, marriages and funerals. Though the inside has been remodeled several times, the Renaissance-style brick facade hasn't changed. It still features the original door, windows and twin steeples. Preservationists are so impressed with the building, they named it eligible for the National Register of Historic Landmarks, according to the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. But the brick exterior and the foundation are beginning to crumble. The electrical and plumbing systems are too old to be replaced, and the interior walls are beginning to crack.
Teles said he consulted local architects, who advised it would cost about $1 million to repair the damages. Demolishing the old building and converting the parish's Fidelis Hall into the new church would cost half as much.
"Nothing has been written in stone," Teles said, but it appears it will be necessary to raze the old, crumbling church "within the next several years."
And saving the building for nostalgia's sake is not a cost-effective option, Teles said. "It would start to become a hazard and literally a liability," he said. Teles said an effort would be made to save and reuse the old church's stained-glass windows, altar, tabernacle and organ.
A long history
A chapter on SS. Peter and Paul is included in the book "A Pictorial History of Merrillville," compiled by the town's historical society. In 1841, a group of German settlers began convening for Catholic Masses. They built a log cabin-style church and named their parish St. John the Baptist. It was located near present-day 54th Avenue and Delaware Street.
In 1858, parishioners hired their first-full time pastor, the Rev. M. Paul Wehrle. In 1863, they moved the church to its current location on Harrison Street. The stone church was built on land donated by Peter Fox. The parish was renamed to honor the two men and the saints that shared their names. The present church building was constructed in 1916. Stone from the old church was crushed and used as brick mortar for the new church. The cornerstone was saved and placed near the entrance.
SS. Peter and Paul grade school was built next door in 1955. It reached its peak enrollment of 1,002 students in 1965.
In 1956, the school building was expanded to include a gymnasium (Fidelis Hall), a cafeteria (Madden Hall), a library and a garage. The school closed in the early 1990s due to lack of enrollment. Now, part of the old school building is leased to Certified Driving School. The rest is rented out for baby showers, wedding parties and funeral luncheons.
Building gone, but not the parish
Teles watched SS. Peter and Paul change from a parish of young families to a parish of elderly folks, an effect of the exodus of families from north Merrillville during the last few decades. But SS. Peter and Paul is still "very much alive," with 2,800 people listed as parishioners, Teles said. Most are involved in parish prayer groups, choirs or organizational committees.
"We've always tried to make people feel at home here," Teles said. "And the people have opened the door to any new people who come in. The warmth is very evident."
SS Peter and Paul Cemetery
Source: Gary Diocesan Cemeteries
SS Peter and Paul Parish can trace their history back 173 years when the first Mass was celebrated in a log cabin in Turkey Creek (Merrillville) 1841. The settlement of German immigrants occasionally had a visiting priest to say Mass for them.
The first church was a frame building erected in 1851 and was built on the present cemetery site (at 56th Ave & Delaware St on the east side of Broadway.) The Church and cemetery continued together until 1858 when Rev Philip Wegemeyer was appointed the first pastor. In 1863 the Church was moved to its present location 5885 Harrison, Merrillville Indiana and the name was changed from St. John the Baptist to SS Peter & Paul. The cemetery continued to exist in its original and present location.
The first burial at SS Peter and Paul Cemetery dates back to April 23, 1852. The cemetery continued to be used throughout the early years but due to circumstance was used less and began to deteriorate. In 2010 the director of diocesan cemeteries took the cemetery over and began an extensive renovation, trees cut down, roads repaved, grass reseeded, fence taken down, etc. SS Peter and Paul is a cemetery of the diocese any Catholic and/or their family members are able to be buried on sacred ground. The first person to be buried after becoming a diocesan cemetery was laid to rest on November 2, 2010.
Since our renovation, a number of families have returned and new families have purchased graves and monuments at SS Peter & Paul. In 2011 we erected a columbarium for the cemetery and entitled it "Our Lady of the Apostles". About half of the niches have been sold and we are contemplating construction of an additional Columbarium in the near future.