When Gary, Indiana was founded by U.S. Steel in 1906, the steelworker was often not American. However the history of immigrants in Gary is often overlooked by the frequent black–white dichotomy in the narrative of the city’s more recent history.
Perhaps not as well known is the history of Gary’s foreign workers and the assimilation attempts they faced coming to town. The Gary-Alerding Settlement House was founded by the Catholic Church in 1923 with the purpose of “Americanizing” Gary’s workforce. The building would alter direction several times over the following decades, adjusting to changing balance sheets and social climate.
The final days were far from glamorous, however, and it was eventually shut down in 1971. Over forty years later, it’s still there.
Steel Money for the Church
The labor demands of the steel industry in the early twentieth century resulted in a high number of foreign workers migrating to Gary. Deeply religious and rich in cultural history, the immigrant workforce had no community center or place of worship in town.
As the bishop of nearby Ft. Wayne Indiana, Herman J. Alerding announced the need for a facility “to care for the social needs of foreign-born Catholics” in Gary.
Top: Judge Elbert H. Gary, Bottom: Bishop Herman J. Alerding
In 1920 Bishop Alerding appealed to Judge Elbert H. Gary, chairman of U.S. Steel, to provide financial support for the new immigrant labor force. Bishop Alerding wrote:
“A Catholic settlement house would result in more and more amicable relations between employer and employee.”
Perhaps highlighting the bishop’s other motives, he added:
“Americanization would be a good investment, an insurance not only against atheism, but against communism.”
Elbert Gary would agree. In February of 1921, U.S. Steel sent Bishop Alerding a contribution of $100,000. Alerding would earmark $30,000 of the donation for St. Anthony’s Chapel, the first church for the immigrant community.
The rest of the donation would go toward a settlement house to support the Mexican, Italian, and Spanish families of Gary.
Jean Baptiste de Ville
Originally from Italy, Father Jean Baptiste de Ville emigrated to Pennsylvania around the turn of the century. There he ran a flourishing parish before he came to the Holy Angels School of Gary in 1910.
Bishop Alerding was a fan of de Ville’s and arranged for the reverend to be the director of the planned settlement house. Directors were offered a generous residence attached to the structure, and as the first director, de Ville would be involved in the design and scope of the residence.
Jean Baptiste would relish the opportunity and did not waste time espousing propaganda befitting an organization financed by steel. He began to publish his “Good Samaritan” newsletter, released monthly by the Gary-Alerding Settlement House with pro-steel and Americanization undertones thinly veiled as positive religious messages.
By March of 1923 Bishop Alerding and Father de Ville had raised enough money to begin construction. The men announced plans to build the JudgeGary-Bishop Alerding Settlement House, named for its two largest benefactors. Located on the corner of W 15th Ave and Van Buren Street, the original building cost $75,000 and was opened to much fanfare nine months later.
Bishop Alerding & Father de Ville held a week-long celebration in December of 1923 to commemorate the grand opening; residents of all denominations in Gary were invited to join. A circus was brought to town, and the Settlement House’s assembly room was full every night with residents eager to win daily prizes of gold or even a Rickenbacker automobile.
When the official dedication took place on May 18, 1924, the celebration was even greater. A massive parade was organized featuring a police platoon, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Order of Foresters, steel workers of all ethnicities, and the Salvation Army Band.
By the time the parade ended at the Settlement House, there were a reported 25,000 participants and spectators.
The structure was the largest of its kind in town. It was built next to the Froebel School in an attempt to establish and foster a comfortable minority community within Gary. The house had forty boarding rooms, a bowling alley, billiard tables, an ice cream parlor, and multiple classrooms.
The building also offered a pool with boys and girls showers. A large auditorium, which doubled as a gym, would feature concerts and events for the entire city of Gary. The second floor contained a clinic staffed by doctors and nurses from Mercy Hospital. Also upstairs were the living quarters for the Sisters of the church and paid settlement workers.
Every year, the Gary-Alerding Settlement House would have a Mexican fiesta. The stage in the main hall was set up to honor the Virgin Mary complete with statue, flowers, and yards of blue fabric draped around the display.
Financial Support Wavering
Fundraising was a key part of the Gary-Alerding Settlement House director’s responsibilities, and in 1925 de Ville again asked U.S. Steel for a donation; this time he requested $30,000 to finish the chapel.
The steel company was weary of their immense investment already, but reluctantly agreed. They sent de Ville a check for $30,000 with an attached note stating this donation would be the last.
By this time the Settlement House was quickly losing its support in the community. Injuries from a car accident claimed the life of Herman Alerding in December of 1924, and succeeding Bishop John Noll was far from enthusiastic about the Alerding house, calling it “an immense burden on the diocese.”
When last remaining benefactor Elbert Gary died in 1927, so too did financial support for the House.
Father de Ville enjoyed near-celebrity status in Gary, but the Mexicans never embraced him. The reverend might not have been the best person for the job – if not for his controversial pro-industry views than for the fact the clergyman spoke four languages, but not Spanish.
Tensions would grow in 1927 when de Ville gave a speech to the rotary club in Gary. The reverent proclaimed:
“We have shut out the European immigrants and have accepted the uncivilized Mexican immigrant in his place.“
In an unbridled display of racism, de Ville also asserted:
“You can Americanize a man from southeastern and southern Europe, but you can’t Americanize a Mexican.”
The Father’s poorly-chosen words seemed to admit defeat in his failure to “Americanize” the workers.
After the rotary club speech, the immigrants realized the goal had not been to preserve their cultural heritage and identity. In 1929 the Mexican population of Gary was larger than ever, but attendance at the Gary-Alerding Settlement House had fallen dramatically as de Ville alienated his congregation.
By 1930 Father de Ville was in declining health. He was forced to step down from his post as director of the Settlement House after seven years. He returned to his boyhood home near the Dolomite Mountains in Italy where he later died in 1932.
Relief Center Under Costello
After the departure of Jean Baptiste de Ville, Bishop Noll asked Reverend John A. Costello (right) to assume the role of director. The bishop announced the change on February 6th, 1930. Costello was an Indiana native and had been ordained by former bishop Alerding in 1913.
John Costello faced a difficult task. De Ville had inflicted irreparable damage to the Alerding House within the immigrant community and corporate funding was scarce. The Great Depression left many broke, and the Gary-Alerding Settlement House was no exception.
Father Costello and Bishop Noll decided to transition the settlement house from a cultural center to a relief station; this allowed them to cut spending on events and programs while still providing a much-needed service to the community.
By 1931 Father Costello had the facility serving its new function: the soup kitchen of the Alerding House was feeding hundreds daily. In addition to acting as a shelter, the house offered job placement services and distributed clothes to the needy.
Costello would serve as director of the settlement house until June of 1935 when his mission duties took him elsewhere.
Youth Center Under Cis
After Costello left, the mission of the settlement house would change again. A recovering economy after the Great Depression had brought renewed donations to the church, and a growing demand for youth centers made the decision for Bishop Noll easy.
In 1935 Noll pegged Reverend Frederick J. Westendorf to succeed Father Costello. Westendorf helped Noll revive Gary-Alerding by restoring the classes and recreational programs for youth that had been dropped during the Great Depression.
But the House wouldn’t hit full stride until Reverend James I. Cis took over as director in 1943. During this time the building underwent a renaissance.
By 1944 the transformation into a youth center was complete. Father Cis was an enigmatic leader who connected well with the youth of the time. He brought back such luxuries as billiards, bowling, dances, and ice cream. The House became a popular destination for neighborhood kids who affectionately called themselves the G.A.S. House Gang (Gary-Alerding Settlement).
By 1947 over 53,000 people were coming through the Alerding House’s doors annually. Over 4,300 children enrolled in the various camps that summer. Under Father Cis, the Alerding House enjoyed its most prosperous era.
When James Cis left his post as director in 1953, the Gary-Alerding Settlement House lost the most popular reverend in Gary.
Strained Financial Resources
Over the next two decades the role of the settlement house would change. Partially due to the changing social climate, and partially due to the reduced financing by the church. As the rest of Gary started to experience decline, so too did the diocese, and houses of worship around town began to close.
After the James Cis era, the budget for the Alerding House was scaled down. Purse strings were tightened across the district; the settlement house was one of the first to have the budget reduced after Bishop Noll revealed in 1956 that Gary-Alerding had already received $242,210 in subsidies over the last thirty years.
By the 1960s the Gary-Alerding Settlement House had become little more than a bare-bones community center. Occasional donations would allow directors to focus on feeding programs. In November of 1968 Gary-Alerding was recognized as having “the nation’s first non-school feeding program.” Another article announced the Alerding program had fed 5,476 students in one month.
Unfortunately there would be more negative press reporting crimes committed by the youth that sought cover at Gary-Alerding. By then, the House was little more than a refuge for gang members. Troubled youth would take advantage of the religious protection offered by the building and used it as a safehouse.
Reverend Francis M. Lazar was the final director of Gary-Alerding Settlement House, serving in the position from 1967 until 1970. He made efforts to clean up the House but without funding or staff, his options were limited.
Further, the building had fallen into disrepair and the church had been unable to keep up with the maintenance over the years. The diocese left the center open without an independent director for another year, but the condition of the building was deteriorating and gang activity was becoming worse.
The Gary-Alerding Settlement House had become a black-eye for the financially-strapped diocese. Bishop Andrew Grutka was forced to close it in the summer of 1971.
(Click thumbnails to enlarge)
Financially speaking, “white flight” was a contributing nail in the coffin for Gary-Alerding Settlement House. With much of the parish vacated, the diocese lost donation income and could no longer afford many of the church-funded operations in Gary; cathedrals and rescue missions were closed throughout the 1960s and 70s.
When the church could no longer afford property taxes on the abandoned property, the city of Gary assumed control.
It has been 42 years since the building was last open, and now it is beyond repair. In addition to the decades of structural neglect, the building has been exposed to destruction wrought by drug users, prostitutes, squatters, and vandals.
The city would like to demolish the decrepit building, but that costs money and the waiting list for razing in Gary is long.
It seems a shame there isn’t more of an outcry to protect a ninety year-old building that rose and fell with Gary. Of course given how colorful that history is, few with the means to save it probably want to remember.
Some had great memories as children at Alerding House camps and events, but most remember it as the assimilation building or the run-down community center taken over by gangs.
Sometimes Interesting has teamed up with the Idiot Photographer to bring the reader a rare and unique insight to the history of Gary, Indiana. Over the course of this month we will feature various structures and tell their history.