St. Mark's Lutheran Church

These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation...
Esther 9:28

1852 - 1902 The Founding: Fires, Floods and the Flames of War

In 1852, Williamsport was a small country town with dirt roads and a few log houses scattered here and there. Two bridges were the only access to the town. The early Lutherans from the “Fatherland” worshipped with the German Reformed members in a little, square, one-story stone church on West Third Street near Hepburn Street. On March 7, 1852, twenty-seven members became the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church under the leadership of the Reverend Henry Ziegler. Soon, a lot for a new church was purchased on Market Street for $425.00, with $286.00 of this amount paid by the Female Industrial Society, the first women’s organization of the new church. By year’s end, a charter was granted but a pastor was lost - Reverend Ziegler had resigned.

On July 5th, 1853, Pastor Joseph Welker and his family arrived by covered wagon. Talk of building a new church began and soon Pastor Welker was making contract arrangements, paying bills and helping with construction. The cornerstone was laid on October 27th, and the new church was finally dedicated on January 22, 1856, after three years and $4,000. The church membership had grown to 70 souls.

Soon the United States was embroiled in a devastating Civil War. Williamsport was a station on the Underground Railroad, helping former slaves to freedom via the Hollow, later called Freedom Road. The City became the Lycoming County seat, the Susquehanna River bank was crowded with saw mills, and millionaires were building elaborate mansions along West Fourth Street. By the 1870’s, parishioners coming to church from the south side of Williamsport crossed the Market Street Bridge, a toll bridge at that time. Pedestrians were charged two cents, a horse and buggy required a 15-cent toll, and a two-horse rig could cross for 25 cents. If the toll keeper was certain that the travelers were going to church, he would allow them to cross for free.

On January 23, 1887, a fire broke out over one of the heaters and the church narrowly escaped destruction. Damage was more than $200, but was covered by insurance. The church’s name was changed to St. Mark’s, and a committee was appointed to discuss the remodeling of the church building. A decision was made on June 1 to remodel at a cost of $4,000, the same day a disastrous flood devastated the city. The floodwaters caused much damage to the church buildings, along with the loss of the pastor’s libraries and church records. St. Mark’s had over seven feet of water in the church and the pastor’s family had to be removed from the second floor of the parsonage by boat.

The need for a new building became certain after another devastating flood in 1894. The cornerstone was laid in September 1895, and the church was dedicated on October 14, 1896. Pastor William F. Rick wrote a brief history of St. Mark’s, which included photos of the first church; interior drawings; a listing of church council members, Sunday School officers and teachers; and a listing of all members showing their residences. The booklet also contained advertisements, some of which included A.E. Deane (photographer); A.D. Lundy Company (wholesale and retail); L.D. Rank (dentist); Spence Hill (insurance); David Stuempfle (coal and brickyards); Heilman & Co. (furniture); and Bowman (fine shoes).

During the five years of Reverend Rick’s pastorate, 700 new members were accepted and St. Mark’s became one of the most substantial churches in Williamsport. According to the 1900 census, St. Mark’s was the mother of all Lutheran churches in the city and the largest Protestant congregation.

1902 - 1952 Growth and Expansion: Ministry to Youth, Ministry of Music

The Reverend Stephen Paulson began his pastorate on May 13, 1903 and, with five and a half years of service, became the second longest-serving pastor in the history of the church to date. 419 new members were added to the congregational roster. In 1905, Pastor Paulson began writing weekly sermons that appeared in the “Grit”. The Dorcas Society was organized in 1905 with a group of 12 younger women of the church to sew for the poor and to help the needy. They also prepared the altar for services each Sunday. By 1927, they had a membership of 106.

The Reverend Paul Yount became the church pastor on July 3rd, 1920, following the death of the Reverend Henry Douglas Spaeth. Reverend Yount was a son of the Reverend A.L. Yount who had served as pastor in 1886. During Pastor Yount’s eight years of service, the church sanctuary and Parish House were remodeled and dedicated for approximately $12,000. The total expenditure was completely paid on Easter Sunday, 1922. In 1927, the church’s Diamond Jubilee (75 years) was celebrated and Pastor Yount authored a brief history of St. Mark’s from 1852 - 1927. St. Mark’s achieved a financial milestone during the years from 1920 - 1927, when the church was able to finance itself without negotiating any loans and by paying all obligations from member offerings. Records from that time showed that 95 percent of the members paid their financial pledges. St. Mark’s was placed on the honor roll of the Synod for this feat. This time period was also the first time that mention was made of an organized music program at St. Mark’s.

The Reverend J. Ray Houser became the 14th pastor of St. Mark’s on July 1, 1928. He would serve for twenty-six years until his retirement in 1954. Under Pastor Houser’s leadership, a comprehensive youth and religious education program was organized and a deaconess, Sister Mildred Winter, was called in October 1930. Rapid program and membership growth led to a five-year fund drive for the “Greater St. Mark’s Church Expansion Program”. The beginning of the Great Depression in 1929 and the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936, which filled the church with 20 feet of water and caused damage of $5,000, brought a temporary halt to the expansion program, but there was in 15 no stopping the forward motion of the church.

In 1937, the expansion program was relaunched and the Ministry of Music was begun, when Frederick A. Snell was called to organize a system of choirs in the parish. On October 1, 1939, groundbreaking took place for a new education building. The cornerstone was laid on November 26, and on Sunday, June 2, 1940, the new building was dedicated. Additional classrooms, a church office, a modern kitchen and a large Fellowship Hall were included in the two-story building. A garden altar and shrine of mountain stone was built at the rear of the church by Robert R. Vickers. It was dedicated on May 31, 1942 in honor of all St. Mark’s youth who had served their country in previous wars and who were then serving in World War II.

From 1930 to 1950, four deaconesses were called to assist with religious education for the youth of St. Mark’s. These included Sister Mildred Winter, Sister Elaine Dunlap, Sister Rev. Ester Mae Shepperdson, and Sister Elizabeth Hess. The Reverend Robert E. Neumeyer was added to the staff in 1949 as assistant pastor - loved by everyone, he was affectionately called Pastor Bob. The Reverend Franklyn Lambert replaced Pastor Bob from 1951 to 1954.

In February 1949, the second floor of the Parish Hall was completed. It contained the new “Chapel of the Upper Room” with new furnishings and additional classrooms. Organist Fred Snell wrote a special hymn for the dedication. Further renovations to the first floor of the church building included a downstairs room to accommodate an overflow congregation, along with space for a choir rehearsal room and a choir robing room.

The Greater Williamsport Market Street Bridge project was begun in 1950, alarming the St. Mark’s congregation, which feared that their ministry would be diminished. However, their fears were unfounded, and the congregation became inspired by the challenging circumstances.

1952 - 2002 The Future Beckons: On Our Way Rejoicing

On January 7, 1952, the congregation voted unanimously for council to make legal arrangements to transfer from the Ministerium of Pennsylvania, of which St. Mark’s was a member for 100 years, to the Central Pennsylvania Synod of the United Lutheran Church. This was the beginning of an era of change, ushered in by the arrival of the Reverend Fred Hasskarl, St. Mark’s 15th pastor. Pastor Hasskarl served 26 years and led the Chapel congregation through many milestones. Serving with Pastor Hasskarl were Reverend Paul Bosch, Reverend William Hershey, Reverend Robert Miller, Reverend Jesse Houck, and Reverend Dale R. Johnson as assistant ministers. Plans for the new church building were begun in 1956. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held as in 1958, and the new modern building was occupied and dedicated on Sunday, February 28th, 1960. During that same year, the old church building was demolished and the former liturgy and service book were replaced by the new “red” liturgy, service book and hymnal. St. Mark’s was the first Lutheran church in the area to adopt the new service book.

In 1973, St. Mark’s began to share facilities with a daycare program, sometimes affiliated with Head Start, and since 1997 known as Little Lambs. Two Vietnamese refugee families were sponsored. In 1977, Richard Lakey began his service as leader of the church musical programs. Two new choirs were formed and handbells became part of the worship service. The first Lunch “N” Fellowship program was held for senior members of the church this same year.

In 1982, the team ministry concept was implemented with Pastors Stephen E. Yelovich and Reverend Dale Johnson. In 1983, Pastor Francis M. Bell, retired from St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, became the interim pastor until the arrival of Reverend Dr. Walter Brandau in 1985. Pastor Brandau served for ten years, arriving during a time of turmoil and bringing healing to the congregation. He developed innovative approaches to his ministry for children, including using hand puppets and dramatics to illustrate Bible stories. He held a strong concern for social ministry and participated in flood relief efforts in stricken communities in Florida and other areas.

In 1996, the current Pastor, Kenneth R. Elkin, arrived to lead St. Mark’s into the 21st century. During the years Pastor Elkin has served the parish, he has greatly enhanced the effective use of music during the worship services. Volunteer committees have increased their membership and scope of duties, involving more of the congregation in planning and implementing church programs and services. The Stephen Ministry was inaugurated as a means of training interested congregation members to minister to those in spiritual need.

Pastor Elkin has also developed the adult catecheumenate program, The Way, and has adapted St. Mark’s worship space to make it more accessible to all parishioners. While the world stood still in shock and dismay on September 11, 2001, helpless to look away from horrific images of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Pastor Elkin, like other religious leaders all over the world, led a service of comfort and hope at St. Mark’s. The service was open to all who sought a place of refuge and prayer during that terrible day of chaos.

St. Mark’s has stood for 150 years, witnessing births and deaths, wars and weddings, fires and floods, horror and hope. Whether its members arrived here in covered wagons or through internet computer dating, the church has provided a place of worship that transcends cultural trends and offers time-tested answers to eternal questions.

Summary taken from the 2002 St. Mark's Church Directory.

Review a somewhat more detailed 1990 historical narrative.