St. Michael’s – Whiting’s First Catholic School
by Gayle Faulkner Kosalko July 2019
As Sacred Heart Parish celebrated its 130th anniversary on June 28, it’s interesting to note that its first school, the first Catholic parochial school in Whiting, was not named Sacred Heart.
Most of us consider Sacred Heart Whiting’s “Irish” church even though there were actually more German Catholics in Whiting in 1890. That was when the Fort Wayne Bishop (Gary becoming its own diocese was way off in the future) asked Monsignor H. F. Joseph Kroll, who was pastor of St. Patrick’s in Chesterton, to say mass in other northwest Indiana areas.
Fr. Kroll would celebrate mass every other Sunday in this new “territorial” parish on the Lake.
First they prayed in an old school building in the “wild” Oklahoma section of town which was full of taverns, single men and heaven knows what else. Later the small but faithful Catholics continued services in the upstairs of Green’s Saloon.
In January 1891, Fr. Michael Byrne arrived to become the pastor of this small band of 19 Catholic families and around 100 young unmarried men who had come to work at the refinery.
Seeking a permanent home, lots were soon bought on Center Street thanks to Fr. Byrne’s campaign to raise funds. Soon a frame church, that they named Sacred Heart, was built complete with a 1000 pound tolling bell, which the parishioners named St. Mathias.
In 1895, Orient Hall, a building that had been built previously as a gathering place for various social activities in town, would become the first Catholic school in Whiting. There is nothing in old newspaper files that explains why, but Sacred Heart’s school was named St. Michael’s. Fr. Byrne brought in two Sisters of Providence from St. Mary’s of the Woods, a Sister St. Josephine and a Sister Urbana.
Originally, the teaching nuns lived in a little storefront in Hammond. But in 1895, a frame convent would be built on the land.
This new parochial school opened on September 9, 1895, and began with an impressive enrollment of 137 children. Because there were only two classrooms, many students had to be turned away. The two classrooms were full. One classroom was for girls, the other for boys.
Later, when it came time for the children to graduate, there were even two separate graduations, one for the boys and one for the girls.
Besides the usual reading, writing, and arithmetic, St. Michael’s taught a very new program in penmanship called the Palmer Method. The Palmer Method of penmanship instruction was developed in 1888 by Austin Palmer and would continue to be taught until the late 1950s. If one was good enough, he could receive a
diploma from the Palmer Method School. In fact, at the boys’ graduation ceremonies, students Daniel McNamara, Walter Kreuger, and George Johnson received these additional diplomas.
Years later, Catherine O’Rourke, who graduated from St. Michael’s, would write about her own experiences. She wrote that it was a wonderful school and that she received an “excellent education.” She noted that back then the washrooms themselves were stand alones outside and not in the school building. She can also remember a boy who rode his horse to school!
The church continued to grow as did its active parish life with its organizations, lectures, and musical programs put on by its members as well as its students. A newspaper story of 1895 wrote how the Children's Sodality of the Sacred Heart went to Holy Communion in a body, dressed in their regalia. The choir for the occasion consisted of the scholars from St. Michael's school as “their singing did credit to the parish.” Miss Josephine Humphrey presided at the organ very creditably.
The students’ parents were invited for the many programs the sisters and the children put on to celebrate the holidays and to show their progress in music and elocution.
In 1896, a short story appeared in the paper about the students’ program to celebrate Washington's Birthday. It was written that the “little ones wore a boutonniere of three small paper hatches, red, white and blue.”
The children sang with Will Hickey at the organ and performed memorized recitations such as “I’ll be a Man.”
And since most of the families now at the parish were Irish, St. Patrick’s Day always called for programs and events for not only the students but for the entire parish.
Christmas of 1896 the boys of St. Michael's school will sing Christmas carols at the church and the girls would perform the Mass of the Angels.
On April 1, 1887, Orient Hall burned down. This gave Sacred Heart the opportunity to build a bigger and larger school. A new two story brick school building now had three large classrooms on the first floor as well as an auditorium on the second. This is when they christened their new school Sacred Heart School and its auditorium was considered the biggest in Whiting.
Originally Center Street was literally at the “center” of Whiting, but as the town got bigger, new residents and stores moved farther west from Center Street. Noting that his parish needed to be where “the people” were, pastor Rev. Charles Theile decided to buy lots on LaPorte Avenue and rebuild Sacred Heart.
In 1910, they began constructing the large brick school building whose third floor would also serve as Sacred Heart Church. The beautiful church we know today as Sacred Heart wouldn’t be built until 1926.
Sacred Heart School, originally St. Michael’s School, would continue educating young Catholics until its final closing in 1999 with its 104th graduating class.