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Much attention is paid to the German immigrants of Indianapolis in 1848 and onward, but the history and context of St. Mark's Lutheran Church reveals that the German community in Indianapolis has never been one-dimensional. Following in the traditions of the earliest Lutheran missionaries to reach Indianapolis in the 1830s, St. Mark's was established in 1891 as Second English Lutheran Church. Rev. Reiner H. Benting, who served as the church's pastor from 1919-1944, oversaw the completion of the current church structure in 1927. The church was designed by architect Alfred Grindle and is home to an original Alois Lang oak carving depicting the Lord's Supper. Over nearly 130 years of presence in Fountain Square, this church has watched the neighborhood change vastly, and has struggled to evolve along with it.

  • St. Mark's Lutheran church from Prospect Street in March 2020.
  • St. Mark's Lutheran church from Linden Street in March 2020.
  • The contemporary structure of St. Mark's Lutheran church as it debuted in 1927. The 1,300 person capacity building forms the shape of a cruciform when seen from above.
  • Lillian Hall, where church meetings took place from it's 1891 founding to 1893. Lillian Hall was a building used for meetings by many groups, and in 1895 Spiritualists regularly met there. Today, a newer building at this address houses Calvin Fletcher Coffee.
  • The first church building constructed for the St. Mark's congregation, services were held here from 1893 to 1921.
  • The first unit of the current structure was dedicated in 1922, and could seat 425 adults and their children. In the background, the newly-constructed church parsonage is visible.
  • Cover of the pamphlet handed out to celebration-goers at the 1922 dedication of the current church building's first unit.
  • Rev. Reiner H. Benting's portrait was printed in the 1927 Dedication Souvenir pamphlet, handed out to guests of the celebration. Benting and a member of the congregation wrote a hymn for organ, which was performed at the Dedication Services on the church's new pipe organ.
  • Rev. Reiner H. Benting and his wife Olga in 1941.

In 1836, a sickly and financially-troubled Lutheran missionary named Rev. Abraham Reck rode his horse into the new city of Indianapolis with the goal of establishing a church. Born of German heritage in York County, Pennsylvania, Reck was licensed to preach in 1812 by the Pennsylvania Ministerium; founded in 1748, this was the first regional Lutheran church body established in America. In 1820, the Pennsylvania Ministerium joined with three other American Lutheran church bodies to form the General Synod, the first national Lutheran church body in America. Reck began his career serving as a pastor in Virginia and Maryland, and spent years traveling as a missionary to the Allegheny Mountains. This missionary spirit eventually carried him over the mountains and across Ohio to Indianapolis, at the time a town of less than 3,000 people where the Lutheran church was still an unknown denomination. As an American-born missionary educated by his hometown pastor, rather than at a seminary, Reck claimed to be the first to break from Lutheran tradition and adopt Methodist-style revival meetings as a means of gaining church communicants. He also saw a need to establish English-speaking Lutheran churches on the frontier, perhaps to make the faith accessible to new generations of Americans who had grown up speaking English. By the time he left for Cincinnati in 1841, Reck had founded nine Lutheran congregations in the area, including Ebenezer Lutheran Church (1836), Salem Lutheran Church (1836), and First English Lutheran Church (1837), which originally stood on the northeast block of Monument Circle. Begun by twenty families brought together by Reck, this was the first Lutheran church in Indianapolis Center Township.

In 1848, First English Lutheran Church founded the Olive Branch Synod, an association of Lutheran churches in Indiana and Kentucky. Regional synods like this one were formed by Lutheran ministers called to serve Americans who had immigrated to the Midwest in search of land and work. They functioned as smaller governing bodies under the larger umbrella of the General Synod, whose leadership remained on the East Coast. This same year, 4,500 miles away, a failed revolution caused many Germans to turn their sights to America in search of greater political freedom. In the decades following, thousands of these German immigrants settled in Indianapolis. Rather than assimilating to American customs, they sought to establish German culture and language in Indianapolis for generations to come. Some of them were Lutheran, and found they had differences with the theology and administration of churches affiliated with the General Synod, like First English Lutheran Church. Some of these Lutherans refused to join the General Synod over what they saw as an inexcusable omission from their organizing constitution of mention of the Bible or the Augsburg Confession (an important Lutheran doctrine). Locally, some Germans felt alienated by the Olive Branch Synod’s advocacy for alcohol prohibition and religious revivals. Others wanted their church to be more like the German state church they had attended before immigrating, which blended Lutheran and Reformed denominations. Many demanded that their church services be held in the German language. These newly-arrived Lutherans built churches to suit their needs, while membership of First English Lutheran Church remained steady. 

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century the population of Indianapolis grew significantly, and about 25% of residents counted themselves German. In contrast to the 1850s and 60s, which saw an influx of German immigrants, by the end of the century many of the people making up the “German element” in Indianapolis were native born. Of the 105,436 total 1890 Indianapolis population, 7,893 people were born in Germany, 18,113 people had two German parents, and 29,616 people had German grandparents. This growth of English speakers with American customs in the German community may have been a reason why members of the First English Lutheran Church determined a need for a new church like their own in Indianapolis. In June, 1891, Rev. Isaac D. Worman, newly graduated from seminary, went door-to-door in the German-dense Fountain Square area to identify members to form a new congregation for whom he would serve as pastor. The first church service was attended by 25 people on June 28 in Lillian Hall, a mixed-use building at 647 Virginia Avenue which saw religious meetings of many faiths, including Baptist and Spiritualist meetings. On August 28, the congregation was officially organized as Second English Lutheran Church, and in October of 1891 accepted as a church member into the Olive Branch Synod. 

Under Pastor Worman’s guidance, the church paid $1,900 for a lot at 1075 Hosbrook Street near the intersection of Shelby Street and Woodlawn Avenue, which was to be the site of their first church structure. A white frame church building was constructed and furnished for $6,400, and the dedication services took place on May 21, 1893. In attendance were representatives of the Olive Branch Synod and the General Synod, as well as the President of Wittenberg College, one of the first seminaries of the General Synod in the Midwest. Worman left the congregation in 1900, and in the nearly two decades that followed they were served by a succession of 6 pastors, none of whom stayed longer than 5 years. From 1909 to 1913 the congregation was served by Rev. William B. Sigmund, D.D., under whose guidance the name of the church was changed in 1910 to St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. As the congregation was already growing too large for their Hosbrook Street church, Sigmund also directed them to purchase two large lots at the corner of Prospect Street and Linden Street for $4,600. In May 1913, Sigmund died unexpectedly, and plans to build a larger church structure and parsonage on the Prospect Street lots were halted until the arrival of Rev. Reiner H. Benting, D.D. in 1919. 

Partaking in the “mission emphasis of Indianapolis Lutheranism” established in the nineteenth century by Reck and newly-arrived German immigrants, Benting and his wife canvassed door-to-door in the Mars Hill area, raising funds and enthusiasm for a church, and were successful in establishing St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in 1920. In 1921, St. Mark’s Hosbrook Street church was sold to the Salvation Army, and on January 22, 1922 dedication services were held at the first unit of their new, Gothic-style brick church on Prospect Street, which could accommodate 425 adults and their children. The church was designed by architect Alfred Grindle, who also designed the Glossbrenner Mansion in the now historic 3000 block of North Meridian Street, as well as University Lutheran Church in Bloomington. It was built by Indianapolis contractors Brandt Brothers & Company. In the years before the Depression, money was flowing, and the second unit of the design was completed in 1927, resulting in a towering cruciform structure that could seat 1,300 worshippers, though attendance likely never swelled beyond several hundred. Carved above the front entrance in Gothic script is the name “St. Mark’s English Lutheran,” a compromise between the congregation’s first and second names. In addition to the large worship area, the completed church structure provided space for Sunday School rooms, a boiler room, a 40 ton capacity coal room, a Men’s Club, a Ladies Lounge, and a large kitchen. The church is adorned with many stained and art glass windows, purchased from the Indianapolis-based Stewart Carey Glass Company by congregation members as memorials. Furnishings were purchased from the American Seating Company of Chicago, and the jewel of the church’s interior is indisputably a wood carving from a solid piece of white oak depicting a three-dimensional version of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” This piece was carved by Alois Lang, Master Woodcarver of American Seating; it is believed to be one the the relatively few original Lord’s Supper carvings by Lang, which was then copied dozens of times. 

Continuing in the missionary goals of the church, Bethany Lutheran Church was founded in 1923 by a canvass of men from St. Mark’s, and St. Mark’s supplied fifty of their charter members. Benting also organized for funds to be raised and sent toward the establishment of Gethsemane (1921), Bethlehem (1923), Holy Trinity (1925), and St. Andrew’s (1942) Lutheran churches. In 1928, one year after the fully completed St. Mark’s church building was dedicated, Benting was elected president of the Indiana Synod (the regional synod of the United Lutheran Church in America, which the General Synod had merged into in 1918), and he served in that office until 1931, his departure allowing him to attend to increased pastoral duties at home due to congregational members left needing in the stress of the Great Depression. In 1944, St. Mark’s congregation was shocked as Benting’s twenty-five year long pastorate ended when in October he suddenly became ill and died. 

In 1962, the United Lutheran Church in America joined with three other church bodies to form the Lutheran Church in America. In the late 1970s, St. Mark’s pastor Rev. Dean Olson began to lead the congregation in questioning their own existence in Fountain Square, offering them what he saw as their three future options:

“Stay and die, disband, or relocate.” (5)

The congregation ultimately decided to move forward in the same location without Olson. In the 1980s the congregation regularly collected food and money to be sent to Fletcher Place Community Center. In 1988 the Lutheran Church in America merged with several other church bodies to become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, now the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. This same year, St. Mark’s pastor since 1982 left the congregation, and the newly organized ELCA sent a Bishop-appointed interim pastor to serve the church. St. Mark’s congregation not only found this pastor to be dissatisfactory, but felt that they were not allowed to make recommendations to the ELCA concerning what they needed from a pastor, nor to appoint their own temporary pastor while the ELCA found a suitable replacement. 

In response to these issues, the congregation left the ELCA and appointed Rev. Roger Lauren Tappert to pastor in February 1990, and on May 6th of that year voted to apply for affiliation with the Association of Free Lutheran Churches. The church was officially received by the AFLC on June 14, 1990, and Tappert was installed as pastor by the AFLC on August 26, 1990. The name was changed to St. Mark’s Free Lutheran Church. Of the synodical break, Tappert wrote:

“Suffice it to say that if the congregation had been allowed to suggest that the Bishop-appointed interim pastor was not satisfactory, to make recommendations concerning what the congregation needed, and to utilize an unrostered minister until a rostered minister could be identified, the separation from the ELCA would not have occurred.” (5)

Over his 21 years of service, Tappert’s pastorate was marked by a sense of the importance of freedom in more ways than the one. His ministry specialized on welcoming the LGBT community into the fold of religious life, helping hundreds of clients to understand their sexuality. He performed a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple in the years before legalization, though it is unclear if this ceremony took place at St. Mark’s. 

Despite these efforts to remain relevant in a changing world, in the decades since World War II St. Mark’s has faced a steady decline in membership that reflects a larger national decline in memberships of the ELCA and the AFLC, and a decline in membership among theologically liberal denominations in general. During Tappert’s time as pastor in the 1990s, the congregation heard news that developers planned to revitalize the Fountain Square area, and believed that this revitalization may breathe new life into the church, too. However, in the decades of gentrification that were to follow, the people drawn to live in the newly made-over neighborhood of Fountain Square were likely to be college educated, somewhat wealthy, and unlikely to be converted to Lutheranism. From 1980-2010, attendance in liberal Lutheran churches in Marion County declined by 56.2%. St. Mark’s impact on the neighborhood can still be witnessed in small details; Indianapolis Fire Station 3, for example, standing across the street from St. Mark’s and completed in 2019, has three small pointed apexes above the engine gates and wide keystones reminiscent of the Gothic points and keystones boasted by St. Mark’s. Today, the congregation grapples to find their place in a Fountain Square that is socially, politically, economically and religiously worlds apart from the place where it was founded in 1891.

1. “Alfred Grindle.” In Wikipedia, January 20, 2020.

2. “Alois Lang.” In Wikipedia, November 7, 2019.

3. The Association of Religion Data Archives | Maps & Reports. “Marion County Membership Report, 1980-2010 Change.” Accessed March 28, 2020.

4. Bente, Friedrich. American Lutheranism: The United Lutheran Church (General Synod, General Council, United Synod in the South). Concordia Publishing House, 1919.

5. Corne, Audrey. Tappert, Roger Lauren. St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church 1891-1991 Centennial Souvenir Booklet: An Interpretive History. Indianapolis, IN. 1991. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

6. Holloway, William Robeson. Indianapolis, A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City, a Chronicle of Its Social, Municipal, Commercial and Manufacturing Progress, with Full Statistical Tables. Indianapolis, Indianapolis Journal Print, 1870.

7. Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection. “Indianapolis Baist Atlas Plan # 15, 1941."

8. Lagerquist, L. Deane. The Lutherans. Edition First. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press, 1999.

9. Lauck & Veldhof Funeral and Cremation. “Obituary for Rev. Roger Lauren Tappert.” Accessed March 31, 2020.

10. “Lutheran Family Tree.” Accessed March 26, 2020.

11. Morris, John G. Fifty Years in the Lutheran Ministry. Baltimore :, 1878.

12. Probst, George Theodore. Reichmann, Eberhard. The Germans in Indianapolis 1840-1918. Revised and Illustrated Edition. Volume 1. Nashville, Indiana. NCSA LITERATUR, 1989.

13. Rehmer, Rudolph F., and Robert Wauzzinski. “Lutherans.” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, 938–40. Indiana University Press, 1994.

14. St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Dedication Souvenir 1891-1927. Indianapolis, IN. 1927. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

15. St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Programme of Dedicatory Services and Exercises. Indianapolis, IN. 1922. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

16. St. Mark’s United Lutheran Church. Fiftieth Anniversary Souvenir, 1891-1941. Indianapolis, IN, 1941.

17. "Spiritualism." Indianapolis News (Indianapolis) February 16th 1895. , Sunday Services sec, 2.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

H. R. Parry

H. R. Parry

St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Dedication Souvenir 1891-1927. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Dedication Souvenir 1891-1927. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Dedication Souvenir 1891-1927. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Dedication Souvenir 1891-1927. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Programme of Dedicatory Services and Exercises. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Dedication Souvenir 1891-1927. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.

St. Mark’s United Lutheran Church. Fiftieth Anniversary Souvenir, 1891-1941.

St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church. Dedication Souvenir 1891-1927. From the private collection of St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church, with permission from St. Mark's Free Lutheran Church.