Steeped in history: St. Marks Lutheran Church in Oregon reminisces on 150 years

From left: Marie Brewer laughs along with Rosann Murray, Lois Heminger, Carol Cook, and Michael Seery while talking about the history of First St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Oregon.
From left: Marie Brewer laughs along with Rosann Murray, Lois Heminger, Carol Cook, and Michael Seery while talking about the history of First St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Oregon.

Though not keen on learning how to pronounce the word sesquicentennial, members of the congregation at First St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Oregon are celebrating the church's 150th anniversary. The official milestone was April 25, but the big celebration is planned for Sunday, Sept. 15, at First St. Mark's, 1121 Grasser St. The worship will take place at 10 a.m.—an hour later than usual—and a special lunch, open to all who register by August 4, is at 11:30 a.m.

The church's regular Thursday morning Bible study group recently set aside a discussion of II Timothy, “right in the middle of where [Paul] is going on about needless controversies and idle words,” First St. Mark's pastor, the Rev. Beth Huener, said, to share stories that included a few controversies and idle words about the church.

The nine participants, many of them long-time members, included Michael Seery, 91, who had the longest tenure of those around the table because as a child, “I remember walking to school on a cinder path and just as I walked past Grasser Road one morning, an arm reached out and got me,” he said, and took him to First St. Mark's. Delores Damschroder was also at the Bible study; she is the 150th anniversary chair. Possibly the newest member of the Bible study is Marie Brewer, the church treasurer, because “I came when Pastor [Huener] did" in 2002, she said. “I was looking for a church. I came for a rummage sale because they had a sign out, but I was a week early. I came here the next Sunday, and I've been here ever since.”

Pastor Beth Huener in the church.
Pastor Beth Huener in the church.

“We've always been proud that this church was started by the community,” Pastor Huener said. “There was really no synodical involvement,” no input from the larger Lutheran Church. “Farmers literally started it in a corn crib, and this was right in the middle of the [Civil] War” in 1863. Members who have followed First St. Mark's history think the first minister was from Germany; the second minister, the Rev. John Klag, started about 1869, and “his family is still involved in this congregation,” Pastor Huener said.

In the 150 years of St. Mark's, congregants have suffered through the 1888 sanctuary burning down, and then some challenges rebuilding and adding new structures. When the basement was added in 1947 or '48, Mr. Seery said, the architect made a mistake, and the basement needed to be 18 inches deeper—more digging. The equipment broke, and horses might have been used to try to dig until replacement parts arrived.

Mr. Seely knows a lot about the structure, as he put a lot of labor into it. Over the years, he rehung the original bell that now starts every service, and his brothers, his father, and Mr. Seery dug a furnace basement by hand, which included moving a smokestack without losing a brick.

The church's monthly newsletter, “The Maple Leaf,” started more than 50 years ago in the basement of Carol Cook, who was at the Bible study. “We got a big desk and this machine. What a mess--we had black ink all over,” she said.

The church's past includes a long-term organist. Virgina, or Ginny, Keller started playing at St. Mark's when she was 16, in 1935. She retired from the job 70 years later, in 2004, and died in 2005.

And Boy Scout Troop 112 started in 1926, and it still meets at First St. Mark's.

Among those milestones, there was some friction. In 1897, financial difficultues caused the church to partner with St. Luke's in Curtice, a relationship that lasted for 40 years and included sharing a minister. In 1939, First St. Mark's went back on its own, calling a full-time pastor and paying him with some help from the Mission Board (now called the synod).

Oregon resident Bonnie Lutzmann joins in the laughter while talking about the church’s history.
Oregon resident Bonnie Lutzmann joins in the laughter while talking about the church’s history.

The present of the church is Pastor Huener's time. When she asked the Bible study group what the church has been doing since she came, Mr. Seery joked, “Goin' downhill.” She graciously took the joke, but also said, “It's pretty much the truth." From a membership high of about 400 in the 1950s and '60s, it now has 167 members. "It's been a heartache, so we have turned our view outside. We started, about eight years ago, an after-school program and this year we're working on doing a summer program which has proven to be very successful, and we're trying to get involved in the community through the kids, because you [she points to the Bible study group] came here as a kid.”

The calling of the church now, Pastor Huener says, is to be the neighborhood church—the community once known as Brandville, now called Cresceus Hieghts or Sun Oil neighborhood in Oregon. She wants the church to be a presence in its place, and to build the congregation from the people who live nearby. “Our neighborhood is full of kids, full of young families, and I think that some of them have begun to see a church as a place that is not scary, that is not out to get their money, that is not out to make judgments.”

The bell outside First St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.
The bell outside First St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.

The future of St. Mark's is not assured. There have been moves in the past to have the church yoked with another, much as it did in 1897, or for the synod to combine all Oregon churches into one larger congregation (which wouldn't be housed on Grasser Street), and those possibilities continue. “More than likely, that's a bridge we haven't quite got over,” Pastor Hueber said. “They've tried to close us up several times, and we're still here after 150 years,” said Greg Koeser. Pastor Hueber said that St. Mark's will continue its calling, in its immediate community.

The registration deadline for the Sept. 4 150th anniversary lunch is Sunday, Aug. 4, and the cost is $12.50 per person. Contact the church at 419-693-7128 for more information.

Contact TK Barger @, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.