Time and place shape the formation of all institutions. This is certainly true of Atchison, Kansas and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Atchison is located on a “grand detour” of the Missouri River at which the river loops dramatically to the west and abuts a valley in which the land rises gradually to the west providing easy wagon access to the grass lands of the prairie and traditional wagon routes to the west. With the opening of the American West, riverboat traffic on the Missouri River became a major transporter of people and materials. This, and its location, made Atchison a departure point for the nation’s westward migration.
In 1854, in anticipation of their 1855 migration, an advance team from the Mormon Church arrived in Atchison to assure its suitability as a starting point for their trek. They found it deficient in warehouse space and similar infrastructure required to equip and provision their large group. With the help of 250 locals they set about constructing the needed facilities. In 1855, 2500 souls assembled at Mormon Grove, immediately west of the city, to begin their journey to Salt Lake City. The infrastructure remained. In 1855 several overland freighters such as Livingston, Kincade & Co. and Hooper & Williams were induced to select Atchison as their outfitting point. This, and riverboat traffic that peaked at 120 arrivals per week in 1858, established Atchison as a commercial center. Population exploded from 350 in 1858 to 2616 in 1860 and to 7054 by 1870. Atchison was a boom town with population growth out running the required housing and support facilities.
In 1859 Abraham Lincoln came to Atchison to speak on the issues of the day. While Atchison had been founded as a pro-slavery area, it had rapidly evolved into a free state strong hold. It escaped the ravages of the Civil War and border brutality associated with “bloody Kansas” by establishing a position of strength. It founded three militia companies and a “home guard” force.
With the end of the Civil War, westward migration resumed and Atchison continued to grow. The era of transcontinental railroads was underway with rail eroding the previous dominance of riverboats and wagon cartage. And while Atchison had numerous rail lines and terminals, it did not have direct access to the east. Kansas City’s direct connection to Chicago was to make it the regional center for transport, commerce and industry.
In 1867 J.H. Talbot, a devout Lutheran, began efforts to organize a Lutheran presence. He wanted to establish a mission for the locals and provide transients with more then just equipment and provisions. He called attention to Atchison through columns in the Lutheran Observer and encouraged approximately thirty other locals to subscribe. He also corresponded with Rev. Morris Officer, Secretary of the Home Mission Society. In 1868, at a meeting of the General Synod in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Rev. Officer persuaded Rev. R.G. Boyer of Marklesburg, Pa. to accept a mission to Atchison. Rev. Boyer and his wife arrived in July, and were taken back by Atchison’s boom-town appearance, describing it as “presenting a rough and uninviting appearance.”
Price’s Hall, located on South Fourth Street between Main and Commercial, was rented and furnished. Services began and a Sunday School organized. On the 20th of September, 1868 a congregation of twenty-three members was formed. Congregational officers were Messrs. C. Webber, H. Gehrett, J.H. Talbott, J. Beamer, H. Snyder, and F. Brendt. In November the congregation, represented by Rev. Boyer, participated in the formation of the Kansas Synod. Consideration of building a chapel began. The Board of Church Extension granted the mission a $500 loan for the purchase of property, but because of a poor national economy and a small number of worshipers, construction was delayed. Additionally, in late 1869 Rev. Boyer resigned so that he could return to Pennsylvania to continue his theological studies.
Rev. A.W. Wagnalls, who was engaged in the real estate business at the time, was a member of the congregation and would take the pulpit from time to time during his short stay in Atchison. He returned east, and in 1876 became a partner in the publishing firm of Funk & Wagnalls. For eleven years the church was dependent upon Rev. Wagnalls, Rev. David Earhart (grandfather of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart) and a succession of traveling missionaries including Reverends J.B. McAfee, F.R. Sherer, J. Goldlin, S.F. Harrington, T.F. Dornblaster and F.C. Schultz.
In 1880, Mrs. H.E. Monroe, daughter of Rev. Earhart, moved to Atchison and established her school, The Atchison Institute. Father and daughter worked together to reestablish the Atchison congregation; their letters to the General Synod Headquarters resulted in Rev. W.I. Cutter, a retured missionary to India, accepting the Atchison mission. On the evening of August 8, 1880 a group of twenty-three met at the home of Henry Snell for the reorganization of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Officers of the congregation were J.H. Berlin, W.H. Kuhns, N.D. Kistler, J.L. Heisey, W.D. Kistler, John Tusselmann, J.H. Talbott, W.D. Smith and S.J. Clarke. The Atchison Institute became their temporary worship site. The work of the church could progress.
From is re-founding in 1880, St. Mark’s embarked on a journey of spiritual and numeric growth. In chronicling events one tends to assign an accomplishment to the individual in charge at the moment of completion, but St. Mark’s was blessed to have pastors who would embrace the work of their predecessors and help bring the dream to reality. St. Mark’s was similarly blessed to have a congregation and lay leaders who demonstrated a constancy of purpose.
Rev. Cutter enjoyed working with struggling congregations and moved on westward when the services of Rev. George Diven were secured in 1884. From there, a strong Sunday School was established, catechism classes began, and a church college was contemplated. In 1865 the President of Synod reported that this field was “growing in membership and influence.” The pastor reported sixty members.
In May of 1887, St. Mark’s formal constitution was adopted. In the same church register is an alphabetical list, all written in the same hand, of the church members. We think it is safe to assume that this represents St. Mark’s charter members, seventy in number.
Later that year, Rev. Diven resigned and was replaced by Rev. William B. Glanding, a Midland professor, for a short period until replaced by Rev. W.F. Rentz in April of 1888. Rev. Rentz confirmed St. Mark’s first catechism class. The growing congregation now sought a place of worship adequate to their needs. Contractors A.S. Zimmerman and B.D. Zimmerman, members of St. Mark’s, undertook construction of an edifice sited at 400 S. 6th Street. The building and equipment cost $4,010 and was dedicated on December 16, 1888 as St. Mark’s Lutheran Chapel. The congregation had established a home. In addition to Worship, there were Confirmation Classes, Sunday School, Choirs and groups for the men, women, and youth of the congregation.
The settling of the lower Missouri River valley had prompted discussion about the need for institutions of higher education. Additionally, the scarcity of men trained for the ministry in the opening west was of concern to the church. At a meeting of the General Synod at Omaha in 1887, formal proposals for starting a college were presented by a large number of Kansas and Nebraska cities. Based upon a wide variety of factors, including the City of Atchison’s promise of financial support and gifting of land, in addition to the pledges of private citizens, Atchison was selected to be the home of Midland College. Both the clergy and laity of St. Mark’s were instrumental in the outcome. The College began at Mrs. Monroe’s Atchison Institute and subsequently developed its campus on donated land. In 1895, training for the ministry was added at Midland with the formation of the Western Theological Seminary. In 1897, a German Department was added to the Seminary in cooperation with the Breklum Seminary in Germany to allow their students to study and live in America. The goal of these young men was to minister to the many German Lutherans who had settled on the northern plains. The College and Seminary both contributed to the numbers worshiping at St. Mark’s and provided a pool of talent an leadership.
Rev. Rentz served St. Mark’s faithfully until May of 1897. He was followed by Rev. L.S. Keyser, from September of 1897 to April of 1903; Rev. R. W. Hufford from January of 1904 to November of 1904; Rev. A.E. Renn from August of 1905 to September of 1911; and Rev. Howard C. Garvic from 1912 to 1915.
With the completion of the Chapel, dedicated leadership in the pulpit and in the congregation, and support of the students and faculty of Midland College and Western Theological Seminary, St. Mark’s experienced both physical and spiritual growth. By 1902 membership had grown to 160. By 1907, another 317 members were added through confirmation or affirmation. At the Annual Meeting of 1906 it was moved and agreed upon that consideration should be given to building expansion. Fundraising and the preparation of building plans began. The early 1900’s were an era of movement and transition. To access the congregation’s true size, the Council formalized a revised membership list in December of 1887. The list included 246 members. The growth was real.
In 1908, just twenty years after the dedication of the Chapel, the cornerstone was laid for a new sanctuary. A.B. Zimmerman, who had partnered with his cousin D.B. Zimmerman to build the original Chapel, became contractor for the project. $10,000 was required for the construction of the building while another $4,000 was spent on equipment and furnishing. The new sanctuary was dedicated May 23, 1909.
Notable in the sanctuary is the profusion of beautiful stained glass windows, all of which acknowledge a specific benefactor. Of particular interest are the two center piece windows on the west wall inscribed “Midland College” and “Faculty and Alumni of the Western Theological Seminary.” These windows speak eloquently of St. Mark’s importance to the college and the college’s importance to St. Mark’s.
The sanctuary’s new organ drew considerable attention with notable organists coming to Atchison to perform in concert. St. Mark’s has been blessed with wonderful organists, but two who served in the early years while they were students at Midland deserve special mention. Karl Krueger (1910-1913) went on to become director of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra while Rob Roy Peery (1913-1914) became an internationally recognized composer.
Rev. Garvic, who had come to St. Mark’s in 1912, fell ill and passed in 1915. Rev. Robert L. Patterson arrived in October of 1915. During his tenure, a parsonage at 901 South Fifth Street was purchased.
In 1919, St. Mark’s held Jubilee Services celebrating the retirement of the last of its debt. In the same year the city of Atchison and St. Mark’s suffered a loss when Midland College and the Western Theological Seminary were relocated to Fremont, Nebraska. St. Mark’s and the City of Atchison lost two institutions that they had helped to birth and nurture, who’s students and faculty were part of the fabric of the congregation and community, that offered the promise of higher education for its youth, who were friends and neighbors. In special meeting on July 18, 1920 the council unanimously endorsed the resolution: “I move that the church council of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church of Atchison, Kansas, notify the proper authorities that the council is not inclined to devote any part of regular church hours to propaganda or solicitation for Midland College or the Western Theological Seminary, but if the College or Seminary authorities with to canvas individuals who happen to belong to St. Mark’s, the council will not hinder such canvas, this being a free country.”
After Easter in 1921 Rev. Patterson suffered heart problems. He was granted vacation, and eventually retired in September of that year. Rev. A.B. Schrader began occasional pulpit supply work in January of 1921 until April of 1922 when Rev. William E. Wheeler accepted a call to pastor St. Mark’s. Rev. Wheeler was installed on May 1, 1922 and served until 1938; his sixteen years were the longest service period of any of St. Mark’s pastors.
With the building of the original chapel, St. Mark’s had begun a period of vibrancy and growth; with renewed spirituality, service, and fellowship. Though complete historical details for the period no longer exist, reliable membership rolls show 70 in 1884, 246 in 1897, 322 in 1922 and 526 in 1938. At its peak, Sunday worshipers often exceeded three hundred, while the combined adult and children classes could reach a like total. Confirmation classes flourished and adult and children choirs enhanced services and celebrations. Missionary, service and social organizations existed for families, men, women, and children.
In May of 1938, Rev. Wheeler resigned, announcing his intention to retire. In November of 1938, Rev. Sam A. Hamrick assumed the pastorate. During his tenure the Vacation Bible School was renewed and a Children’s Choir began. He also initiated what has become the traditional Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. In 1943 Rev. Hamrick passed away suddenly while waiting to be called-up for active service as a navy Chaplain.
Rev. H. Vance Baird joined St. Mark’s in June of 1943 and resigned in 1953. He helped create a strong Lutheran Brotherhood. Perhaps the best benevolence record in the history of the church was accomplished during his ministry.
In 1954 Rev. George Search began service at St. Mark’s. During Rev. Search’s tenure, St. Mark’s became part of the 1962 organizing convention of the Central States Synod and the Lutheran Church in America. The Synod and the Lutheran Church of America were created by the merger of four different Lutheran bodies. Rev. Search accepted a call to Axtell, Kansas and resigned in 1964.
Average Sunday attendance seemed to begin to drop in the 1950’s, and on a percentage basis the number of funerals grew in proportion to the number of marriages and baptisms. In his 1964 Pastor’s Report, Rev. Search addressed this question directly. “Our community – and our congregation – continue to lose young families as they move to other communities for work.”
This malady was not unique to St. Mark’s, it was Atchison wide. As the railroads became the vehicles of westward expansion, Minneapolis, Omaha, and Kansas City became the transportation hubs and commercial centers. Local commerce was lost to St. Joseph and Leavenworth because they were first to bridge the Missouri River. From 1910 to 1920 the city’s population dropped from 16,429 to 12,630. It stayed close to that level until 1980 when the census showed another loss of approximately 1,000.
Rev. Charles L. Hansen replaced Rev. Search in June of 1964. St. Mark’s joined with other LCA congregations in a sweeping reform of its educational agenda, known as the “New Curriculum.” Through the generous gift of a St. Mark’s family a newer, more modern, parsonage was purchased in 1967. In 1968, St. Mark’s accomplished a landmark event. Mrs. Katherine Nestler Zoschke, a lifelong member of the congregation, became the first woman elected to serve on council. Later in the year, Mrs. Elizabeth Saggs Mason was appointed to council to fill a vacancy.
Rev. Ronald MacLennan came to St. Mark’s in 1970. A generous bequest from Miss Dora Weinman made it possible to renovate the original Chapel building. The original basement is equipped with a kitchen and provides a place for sharing meals and virtually any other fellowship activity. The upper level, titled the Weinman Room, has become the church’s living room, providing comfortable space for meetings, classes, receptions, etc. Miss Weinman’s niece, Helen Harris contributed a number of antique pieces that went into the furnishing of the room.
The 1971 and 1972 Annual Reports show a continuing decline in attendance with the Sunday average standing at 131 and 125. While attendance was on the decline, ministries within the congregation did not. Opportunities for worship, service, mission and fellowship were maintained at high levels.
Rev. MacLennan relinquished office in January of 1976. His successor, Rev. Albert W. Lindberg Jr., was installed in June of 1976 and served until 1992. He officiated at St Mark’s Bicentennial Celebration, and during his tenure the sanctuary received a much needed redecoration. The Evangelism Committee initiated a member visitation program with a special emphasis given to encouraging inactive members to return to the pews. Nevertheless, by 1978 average worship attendance was less than 100. In 1981, St. Mark’s sponsored the evacuation and resettling of the Her family, refugees from Thailand. The family was six in number, mother and father and four children. The family eventually settled in Kansas City.
Rev. George Beard served from 1987 to 1992. It was during his stay that the Lutheran Church in America merged with other Lutheran bodies to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This also resulted in St. Mark’s adopting a new Constitution in 1991. Pastor George Candea-Kromm then served as in interim pastor from November 1992 through 1993. His efforts to revitalize the church were much appreciated.
Rev. Valerian Ahles joined St. Mark’s just in time to be part of the September 19, 1993 125th Anniversary Celebration. He shared the pulpit with visiting ministers Rev. Charles Hanson and Dr. Ronald MacLennan, alumni of St. Mark’s, and Rev. Ernesrt Tonsing, a longtime friend of the congregation. While membership continued to decline, St. Mark’s continued a very active ministry. Grandfather Earhart’s Community Ice Cream Social became an annual event, and St. Mark’s joined with other churches and organizations in sustaining the Loaves and Fishes program, a weekend meal-on-wheels program.
In 2008 St. Mark’s celebrated the Ordination of Benjamin Ahles-Iverson, the son of Rev. Ahles and wife Rev. Christine Iverson. During Rev. Ahles’s tenure it became obvious that the congregation could not maintain its current level of financial commitments. This forced the congregation to ask Rev. Ahles to assume a part-time ministry. He served patiently in that capacity for several years, a period that allowed the congregation to adjust to this new reality, and resigned in May of 2009 to return to a full time ministry. We will always be grateful to Rev. Ahles for his ministry during this difficult transition.
In June of 2009 Rev. David Ebersole came to St. Mark’s in an interim role. A retired minister, with boundless energy and enthusiasm, Rev. Ebersole began a program to help us prepare for our future by reviewing our past history and present circumstances. His good humor was contagious, reestablishing a positive view of our future. Unfortunately Rev. Ebersole passed away while fulfilling a dream, snorkeling off of the Hawaiian coast. Rev. Fred Schmidt assumed the interim role until February of 2010.
Dinah Dutta came to St. Mark’s as an Intern Pastor in March of 2010. Her personal call to the ministry is compelling. A native of India, with a doctorate in chemistry, Dr. Dutta held a research position at the University of Kansas when she was called to pursue the ministry. Through the TEEM program of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, she obtained academic credentials required for ordination and became Rev. Dr. Dutta in 2011. During her tenure at St. Mark’s, Rev. Dutta also officiated at St. Paul’s in Valley Falls, Kansas. Rev. Dinah was the first woman and ethnic minority to serve as pastor at St. Mark's. During her absence the Rev. Doug Williams, a local retired Methodist minister, often took the pulpit and also served as organist on a regular basis. We are grateful for his service. Rev. Dutta resigned in October of 2014 to seek a full time position. Rev. Russ Cooper (Disciples of Christ) provided continuity of Worship leadership through the 2014 Advent and Christmas seasons.
In January of 2015 Chaplain Christyn Koschmann was called to St. Mark’s as an Intern Pastor, which also served as her internship for ordination. Chaplain Koschmann received her Masters of Divinity from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and has worked as a Chaplain for the past four years at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City. Chaplain Koschmann fulfilled her intern assignment in January of 2016.
Since its beginning in 1868, St. Mark’s has Baptized 1207, performed 693 weddings, and laid 923 souls to rest. The history of St. Mark’s has been one of continually adapting to change, yet within these one hundred and forty seven years of change there has been a constancy of purpose. Our founders were seeking a nurturing place to worship, a home for outreach and service, and a place to offer spiritual refreshment to those undertaking a westward migration. While “pioneers” are a thing of the past, our mission remains. We seek to be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, a Faith family celebrating and sharing the message of God’s Grace.