St. Mark's Lutheran Church

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
Church History


“Open now thy gates of beauty
Zion, let me enter there,
Where my soul in joyful duty
Waits for God who answers prayer.
Oh, how blessed is this place,
Filled with solace, light and grace!” 

With this hymn of triumph and joy, the congregation of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church processed into the nave of its brand new sanctuary on a cool Sunday, February 28, 1960 and so entered a new phase of a proud history which saw its beginnings over a century before in 1852.

Williamsport of 1852 was little more than a country town. Third Street, beginning at Penn and ending at Hepburn Street, was the main business center. Along this street there were many general stores where anything might be purchased and where the primary custom of the day was bartering. Fourth Street was a dirt road with one- and two-story buildings and Market Street, with a predominance of log houses, became a sea of mud with the slightest shower.

The only way to reach the town was by canal or stagecoach. The canal boats were drawn by four mules walking the towpath and, in addition to passengers, carried mail and package express. The canal was crossed at Market Street by a swinging bridge. The Susquehanna was spanned by a covered, wooden bridge and a few houses lined the south side of the river.

Williamsport’s greatest natural resource was its wealth of virgin timber. The demand for this timber led to the growth of the community as a lumber center and its later distinction as lumber capital of the world. At the height of the industry, the lumber boom extended from Williamsport to Linden and could hold 300 million feet of logs at one time. Many German and Swedish families came into the area to work in the forests as lumbermen.

Little is recorded about the first Lutheran services because they were in German. The German Lutherans and German Reformed came into existence in Lycoming County in 1827 and worshipped together for more than twenty years in a church on Third Street near the Peter Koch building (the site of the former county prison).

However, the desire on the part of a small group to have their service in English led them to organize the first English Lutheran Congregation under the leadership of Dr. Herman Ziegler with a membership of 27 on March 7, 1852.

They purchased the first of two lots for $425.00. It is at this point that the power of the women of the church was demonstrated when the Female Industrial Society, later to be known as Cotta Society, contributed $286 of that amount.

With the departure of Herman Ziegler, the Rev. Joseph Walker became pastor. He brought his wife, children and household possessions in a covered wagon and began the task of construction of the sanctuary. The financing of the infant church and its development occupied much of the energy of its early pastors: Pastor Welker, 1853-56; the Rev. J. F. Fahs, 1858-1863; and the Rev. F. C. Lampe, 1863-64.

As the church grew, so did the community. By 1864, it was no longer a little country town but rather a thriving community. The Civil War was now in progress and Williamsport had been transformed from a single industry center to one of diversified industries. It had become the county seat. During this time, Williamsport was noted as a station on the Underground Railroad, helping former black slaves to freedom via the Hollow, now Freedom Road,

On April 15, 1865, the Rev. A. R. Horne of Turbotville was called to Williamsport to become pastor of the “Market Street Lutheran Church.” President Lincoln had died, a victim of assassination, the day before and the atmosphere was sad and gloomy. The St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1865 had demolished the first Market Street Bridge and soaked both the church and the parsonage.

During the term of service of Pastor Horne, members of St. Mark’s left the mother church to begin three infant churches: the German Immanuel Church, on Basin Street; Messiah’s in South Williamsport; and St. Paul’s, then on William Street. (In 1889, the Church of the Redeemer began with some of our members as its founders.)

In 1871, Pastor Horne resigned to become president of the Kutztown Normal School and was replaced by the Rev. William H. Rickert. His fifteen-year tenure was the longest at the church to that point. He was followed by the Rev. A. L. Yount, a native of Nova Scotia. Pastor Yount was met at the railroad station by the entire Church Council and introduced to a newly remodeled church and parsonage.

Before the city constructed dikes to protect it from the Susquehanna, St. Mark’s, so close to the river banks, was highly vulnerable to flood damage. On June 1, 1889, a very destructive flood inundated the greater part of the city, causing great loss of property and some loss of life. The church had 7 feet, 10 inches of water in the basement. The pastor’s family was moved from their home through the upstairs windows into rowboats. In September, Pastor Yount resigned and, after a period without a pastor, the Rev. George Kunkle served from 1891 to 1892.

In 1893, the Rev. William F Rick, a new graduate of Mt. Airy Lutheran Theological Seminary, was called as pastor. Under his leadership and guidance, the church became a thriving and enlivened institution. The need for a new building led to the laying of a cornerstone September, 1895, and the dedication of our former church building October 14, 1896. This highly charismatic leader increased church membership to more than 700, making St. Mark’s Church one of the largest in the community.

At the age of 29, he accepted appointment as Chaplain of the 12th Regiment, prior to the Spanish-American War. When war broke out on the night of April 27th, the regiment marched up Fourth Street, observed by some 10,000 cheering residents. The congregation of St. Mark’s marched in the parade, singing again and again “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Pastor Rick ministered to the soldiers at Camp Alger until a typhoid epidemic spread through the camp killing 24 men of the regiment, among them Pastor Rick himself. More than 4,000 persons paid tribute to this young leader while his body lay in state before the pulpit of St. Mark’s Church.

On August 21, 1948 — 50 years later — St. Mark’s and the Camp Rick Post of Spanish-American War Veterans remembered Pastor Rick with the placing of a special memorial and a graveside service in Wildwood Cemetery, and his name is still remembered with great respect and affection.

The Rev. Edwin Lunn Miller became the next pastor in 1898 and was succeeded by the Rev. Stephen Paulson, a native of Iceland, who served until 1911. Pastor Paulson added 419 new members to the roll and began the Dorcas Society, an organization for the younger women of the church.

When Pastor Paulson accepted a call to St. Michael’s in Germantown, the Rev. Henry Douglas Spaeth, son of the nationally known Lutheran theologian and teacher of Lutheran pastors, became pastor.

The expanding programs of the congregation prompted Pastor Spaeth to propose the purchase of the property just north of the church, to be converted to a parish house. The congregation agreed and was able to finance the project entirely during his administration. This building provided the home for the pastor on the second and third floors, together with his office and meeting rooms on the first floor.

The name of the church was changed for the third time: this time from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. After the death of Pastor Spaeth in 1920, the Rev. Paul L. Yount, son of the former pastor of that name, was called and ministered to St. Mark’s for eight years. The Diamond Jubilee was celebrated during this time.

On July 1, 1928, the reins of the parish were taken over by the Rev. Dr. J. Ray Houser. He was the 14th pastor of the 100-year-old church and served for 26 years. Shortly after his arrival, he organized an elaborate youth and religious education program. With the increased activities, a deaconess, Sister Mildred Winter, was called to work with the parish youth and education in October, 1930.

The increase in attendance and membership plus the institutions of Daily Vacation Bible School and Weekday Church School made it imperative to provide more adequate quarters, and in 1929 the congregation embarked upon a “Greater St. Mark’s Expansion Program.” This was to be a five-year expansion plan, but the congregation was confronted by one misfortune after another: the bank crash and the Depression of 1929 and, in 1936, another destructive flood, ironically again on St. Patrick’s Day, which filled the church with some 20 feet of water above the cellar level. This necessitated repairs and refurnishings to the extent of $5,000, and brought a temporary halt to the expansion program.

St. Mark’s has been a pioneer in the field of church music as well as religious education. The Ministry of Music program was begun in September, 1937, when Frederick A. Snell was called from Boyertown, PA to organize a system of choirs in the parish.

The Senior Choir made its first appearance the first Sunday in October, 1937.  Among that group of charter members were Helen Clokey, Eleanor Starr, Eleanor Sobers, Carol Fulmer, Annabelle Smith, Helen Troxell, Dorothy Welker, and Burrell Troxell.

In October of that same year a Youth Choir was organized which included Jean Welker, Sis Chrisman, Doris Buzzerd and Chauncey Tepel.

At this time, very few churches had a multiple choir program — none in our area — so St. Mark’s was truly an innovation. But interest continued and in 1938, a Children’s Choir was organized whose ranks included Shirley Vogner and Gladys Knauss, both of whom still sing in the Senior Choir. A month later the choir program was complete with the initiation of a Carol Choir.

The choirs had a fine reputation and were invited to participate in many festivals and concerts. In 1939, a group was invited to participate in a massed choir at the New York World’s Fair.

At the 85th anniversary celebration, the pastor proposed the relaunching of the “Greater St. Mark’s Expansion Program” and the proposal was enthusiastically received. The membership of the Sunday School had grown from 224 to nearly 700, with an average attendance of 450, resulting in overcrowded conditions.

A $56,500 building was instituted as an extensive addition to the present parish house to house classrooms, social rooms and to replace the twenty-three-year-old pipe organ which had been irreparably damaged during a severe rainstorm in the summer of 1938.

The fine new Moeller organ of 27 ranks of 1,896 pipes, along with the transformation of the choir chancel, were dedicated Sunday, September 1, 1939. October was groundbreaking for the new building. The building was dedicated in 1940, providing classrooms, church office, a modern kitchen and a large “Fellowship Hall.”

St. Mark’s has had a tradition of fine deaconesses, beginning with Sister Mildred’s thirteen years of dedicated service in religious education. She was recognized for her special abilities by being named promotional field secretary of the Board of Deaconesses. Sister Elaine Dunlap was her replacement and served for four years before being reassigned to Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1948. Sister Esther Mae Shepperdson, a native of Danville, worked with our parish for one year and was followed by Sister Elizabeth Hess, who was called in 1950.

One of the highest priorities of our congregation has been the ministry of education to every age group. To this end, an assistant pastor was added to the staff whose responsibility would be to supervise the religious education of the church. The Rev. Robert E. Neumeyer (Pastor Bob, as he was affectionately called) came to St. Mark’s in November, 1946.

A native of Allentown, he graduated from Muhlenberg College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. For two years he served as a Navy chaplain during World War II and held a reserve commission.

Under his influence and supervision, more and more youth activities were carried on and our youth membership increased. Some of these young men and women went on to serve the church as pastors or deaconesses including Ronald Mease, Raymond Best, Harvey Hartman, James Shipman, William Martin, Ray Houser, Jr., and Sister Betty Swinehart. (Later sons of St. Mark’s who entered the ministry included the Rev, Rollin G. Shafer, the Rev. Kester T. Sobers, III, the Rev. Mark L. Foucart, the Rev, Father Edward Hughes, the Rev. Frederick Foltz, and the Rev. Neil Hively.)

Pastor Bob served for five years, teaching and advising young and old alike before accepting a call to become senior pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Wilmington, Delaware.

The spring of 1950 brought a change in the physical appearance of Market Street and the 98-year-old church. The construction of the Greater Williamsport Market Street Bridge was started. At first there was concern that this would cause great problems. But happily, the fears were unfounded: attendance improved and the spirit of the members was inspired by the challenging circumstances. August, 1951, saw the completion of the bridge and the demolition of the old bridge. After the completion of this project, the congregation endeavored to clean up and beautify the areas around the church and the interior was redecorated. The Rev. Franklyn Lambert served as assistant pastor at this time.

Nineteen hundred and fifty-two (1952) marked the centennial of the birth of St. Mark’s. The actual birthday was March 7, 1852 but since this would be the Lenten season, it was decided to observe the event with special services in May. The week of May 4 was full of activity. Former pastors and deaconesses and other dignitaries in the Lutheran Church were present to address the congregation. The centennial pageant, “Ye Shall Be My Witnesses,” was presented at Steven’s Junior High School on May 13 and 14.

After 25 years as pastor, Doctor Houser announced his resignation to become president of the Lutheran Seminary at Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in 1954. On September 14 the choirs and congregation assembled to say farewell to this pastor who had been responsible for the dynamic growth of the church.

Shortly after the first of the year, a call was extended to the Rev. Frederick G. Hasskarl to become our new pastor — our 15th. He was installed on February 6, 1955 and so began another 26-year pastorate for St. Mark’s.

As part of the ongoing plan of expansion, Pastor Hasskarl and the Church Council began to plan for the construction of a new church on property to the north of the church, acquired some years before. A decision was made to continue to be a downtown church rather than move to another location. During 1957, an intensive building fund campaign was conducted and after receiving pledges of some $400,000 and the actual cash receipt of one-half of those funds, ground for the new St. Mark’s was broken on July 20, 1958 and actual construction was begun shortly thereafter. Groundbreaking Sunday was a joyous occasion. A large crowd watched as Pastor Hasskarl turned the first spade of earth from the spot marked with a cross where our present altar stands. Assistant Pastor Paul Bosch and Doctor Houser also participated.

During 1959 the construction continued and in that year the pipe organ was carefully removed from the old church and returned to the Moeller factory at Hagerstown to be rebuilt to fit the new church. October 25 was the laying of the cornerstone. Pastor Hasskarl and Pastor Bosch placed the historical items in a copper box and set it in place.

On February 21, the last service in the old church was conducted with much sadness; at the same time, there was anticipation for the next week’s move to the beautiful new church. A week of celebration followed the dedication and featured the return of both Doctor Houser and Paul Bosch, who had since accepted an assignment at Syracuse University.

The design of the new church was a radical departure from the former church, and presented many unusual features to those who entered. The first impression is given by its outside structure. The tall tower houses the 10 bells which ring through an aluminum grill. Attached to this grill on the north and south sides are 16 plaques representing symbols of the church. Rising above these symbols is a 30-foot spire in aluminum, capped by a cross of gold.

As one enters the church, five mosaics can be seen embedded in the concrete walk which depict five forms of the cross. These mosaics were designed by Pastor Bosch in 1959.

The narthex features glass screens which represent six functions or services of the Christian church, in order, from left to right: baptism, confirmation, preaching the word, Lord’s Supper, marriage, and funeral.

The chancel is dominated by the suspended cross, calling upon the worshipper to glance upward to its height. The other highlight is the altar of yellow sienna marble with the words “and the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Below this is the symbol of the Phoenix.

The pulpit consists of a concrete base supporting the stainless steel and oak design. The face of the pulpit is carved with a figure conceived to represent a composite prophet, whose uplifted finger conveys “Thus saith the Lord,” On the face of the lectern are carved the four evangelists in modern design.

The organ is contained in the chancel wall and resonates through a grill of Philippine mahogany and aluminum screen. In each space created by the grillwork are symbols of the Christian faith. These symbols are duplicated on each side of the 33-foot red dossal. The bottom row of symbols — Tau cross and serpent, the Ten Commandments, dove and ark, depict the roots of Christian faith. The second row of God’s hand over a caliper, the lamb and the dove depict the Trinity. The third row of a lamb, star and a fish are symbols of Jesus. The fourth row of the cock, the chalice and host and the cross and crown of thorns show the Passion. The fifth row of the Chi Rho, the dove and the chalice and host remind us of what Jesus left us upon his ascension,

The stained glass windows in the nave are particularly notable, both for their unusual beauty and their significance. The south windows show the Lenten preparation for the joy of the Resurrection. The themes are We Prepare, We Praise, We Proclaim, We Present, and We Receive. The stories of Adam and Eve, David, the birth of Christ, Abraham and Isaac, and the Last Supper among others, are represented in addition to the sacraments of the church.

The north windows illustrate the overall theme of the risen Christ as found in the life of his followers. Topics include The Family, Creative Expression, Education, Work, and Service,

The years of the 60’s and 70’s saw an increasing emphasis on the outreach mission of the church. In February of 1974, approval was given to the Lycoming Day Care Center to use several rooms in our parish house for the day care program. Nancy Nesbitt, who had served as director of Christian education, was in charge of this community agency and for several years St. Mark’s shared their facilities with them.

Church Council elected to become a part of the Center City Cluster of churches and so began a program of bulk buying of fuel oil, some supplies and a sharing of Good Friday services, workshops and the like. Several assistant pastors served during these years: the Rev. William E. Hershey Rev. Robert A, Miller and the Rev, Jesse G. Houck.

In July of 1976, Fred Snell announced his retirement and so ended an era at St. Mark’s. His continuous service from 1937 spanning almost 40 years was high lighted by outstanding music, both choral and instrumental. St. Mark’s reputation for its program of music was known throughout the area and Mr. Snell’s contributions to the larger community and the church, both in the Synod and in the Lutheran Church in America, were well respected.

A search for a replacement was begun and in October of 1976, Richard J. Lakey was invited to become the organist and choir director at St. Mark’s. Dick began his service on January 9, 1977, bringing his own unique skills as organist, director and composer and his special personality. Shortly after his arrival, a new dimension was added to the choir roster with the memorial purchase of handbells and the formation of two handbell choirs. Dick’s musical performances of his own musical stories with the young people are a highlight of the year.

When the new bridge at Market Street was built, the access to the front of the church was somewhat limited and there was a need to acquire the properties at the rear of the church to provide additional access and parking. In the late 70’s, the congregation gave their permission to begin to purchase the properties as they became available. This process took several years but finally the last property was acquired and the demolition and construction of the parking lot and new entrance to the church was completed. The back of the parish house was painted and landscaped. The entire area surrounding the church has been improved and the approaches, both front and rear, are much more attractive. The courtyard has been landscaped recently and a beautiful fountain installed, making a lovely garden in the midst of the parish house area.

The congregation adopted a family from Vietnam during this period and were able to house them in one of the houses it had purchased. This family moved to Louisiana and a second family was adopted.

The 125th anniversary of the church was celebrated in 1977, and the following year the Rev. Dale Johnson was called as associate pastor. New hymnals and a new liturgy challenged the congregation to learn a new service and BLaST IU 17 rented a room for some of its students.

Pastor Hasskarl completed his 25th year, an occasion marked by a testimonial dinner. Shortly after that time the pastor announced that he would be retiring after serving 26 years — a term equal to that of the congregation’s other long pastorate, that of Doctor Houser.

With the retirement of Pastor Hasskarl, the council and congregation decided to implement a team ministry with Pastor Johnson and a new pastor to be called. The Rev. Stephen F. Yelovich was called in 1982 to be the second pastor and for a time the struggle to make this concept work was carried on. Strains in the relationship developed and Pastor Johnson resigned and became pastor of the Lutheran Church in Muncy. Pastor Yelovich continued until 1984, when a listening committee was requested from the Synod. Part of the recommendations of that committee were that the present pastor leave and that the congregation be placed under the terms of synodical administration. For the interim period the church was fortunate to have the Rev. Francis Bell, retired pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church, to begin the healing process.

Shortly thereafter, the Rev. Walter L. Brandau was assigned by the Synod as pastor and after the period of synodical administration ended, Pastor Brandau was called to be the pastor of St. Mark’s. The efforts of Pastor Bell, Pastor Brandau and countless others in the congregation have helped heal the wounds that are inevitable when a congregation suffers such divisions and pain.

Since Pastor Brandau’s arrival, much work has been done to improve a diminishing Sunday School enrollment, to add more young families to the membership, to update our facilities including the area around the church, and to keep pace with the challenges of operating a church in today’s world. The council and congregation have become involved in using the intern program with Gettysburg Seminary and we have had two Vicars on our staff — Glenn Beard and, more recently, Sandra Carlson Alexis.

This year we observe the 30th anniversary of our new sanctuary — another mile stone among many in our l38-year history. It is the history of a church growing, changing, suffering and overcoming along with the community in which it is located.

It is a history of faith — from the commitment of that early band of German immigrants struggling to build a church where English would be spoken, through those early developmental years to the decision to remain in the downtown area.

And it is a history of very special individuals — some living, some who have died, both in the far distant past and in the fond memories of many of us today — some who have had a large impact and many who have worked in small ways, often unseen — but all of whom have created a proud heritage of faith and commitment for us to continue. At a time of celebration it is most appropriate that all of us rededicate ourselves to carry on and expand upon that legacy so that those who trace the history many years hence will point to our achievements with pride and appreciation and who will themselves be challenged.

The last verse of the hymn we sang as we began this 30-year trip of faith says it well:

“Speak, O God, and I will hear thee,
Let thy will be done indeed;
May I undisturbed draw near thee
While thou dost thy people feed.
Here of life the fountain flows;
Here is balm for all our woes.”

With God’s help, so may it always be.

Joyce S. Hershberger, April 6, 1990