A History of St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish

Parish History – Beginnings

For much of the 1800’s, the area of Northwest Indiana now known as Whiting was a vast wilderness of sloughs, swamps and sand ridges. It was sparsely populated by only about 40 families, mostly German immigrant settlers who worked for the growing railroad industry. The undeveloped terrain, access to Lake Michigan and excellent railway service attracted officials of Standard Oil to the area. In 1889, Standard Oil purchased hundreds of acres through Henry Schrage, leading to the development of a vast refinery which eventually became BP/Amoco.

SJBHistory_wolf_lake_01The photo at right is an aerial view of the Wolf Lake area from as late as 1950. It is swampier and far less developed than the area we know today. Calumet Avenue/George Lake are at the upper left of the photo.

Trainloads of lumber, steel and other building materials poured into Whiting along with a growing pool of laborers engaged in the building of the refinery. Among the influx of settlers were Slovaks who came from Joliet, Streator, Blue Island and Chicago in 1892 and 1893. Eventually, immigrants of Slavic origin made up over ninety percent of Whiting’s population.

As the social structure took shape, organizations formed, including church, lodge and recreational groups. Among those groups was Branch 113 of the National Slovak lodge, organized in 1893 and including both catholic and non-catholics alike. Eventually, Catholic members of Branch 113 sought something more expressive of their faith and formed Branch #130 of the First Catholic Slovak Union.

At that time, catholics of the area were shepherded by the Church of the Sacred Heart, an Irish Church. Rev. Michael Byrne, a doughty priest who had been ordained in Fort Wayne, ministered to Whiting’s catholic flock at Sacred Heart. The spiritual needs of the Slovaks in his flock did not go uncared for by Rev. Byrne. Occasionally, Rev. Valentine Kohlbeck of the Benedictine Fathers in Chicago would come to Whiting to hear confessions and preach in Slovak.

Sensing the need for a more permanent spiritual guide, Father Byrne, working with a committee from Branch 130, twice petitioned Bishop Joseph Rademacher in Fort Wayne for a Slavic priest. Demonstrating a showing of 50 prospective parishioners (twelve families and single persons) and having purchased property on which they built a social center (a little meeting hall for Branch #130), the Bishop gave a favorable response to the committee and agreed to write to Austria-Hungary for a Slovak priest.