St. Marcus began as a one-room branch school of St. John's Lutheran School.
St. John’s was located at 4th & Kilbourn Streets in Milwaukee and later moved to 8th & Vliet.
In the fall of 1873 St. John's purchased a 50-foot corner lot at Short and Beaubian St. (now called Palmer & Garfield), along with its two-story frame house in which school classes were held. They opened a one-room school on January 1, 1874. In 1875 St. John's agreed to sell the house and lot to 13 families who wished to form a church, under the condition that the new congregation would join the Wisconsin Synod. The new group agreed, taking its name from the second of the four evangelists. Since the little group served German immigrants, they used the spelling in their German Bibles: St. Marcus.
The little flock could afford only one worker, so when they obtained a pastor, they had to let Teacher Denninger go. But they still wanted their school to continue, so the first pastor, Joseph Westenberger, taught the one-room school during the week.
For six years the congregation held worship services in the upper floor of the house and conducted its school downstairs. In 1881, leaders and congregation members decided to move the school building to the rear of the lot and build a large frame church on the corner. The interior was decorated in the German Gothic style, with an ornately carved pedestal pulpit, canopy and altar. All were painted white and gilded. The altar's centerpiece was a large oil painting of Christ in Gethsemane, copied from the famous work by German artist Heinrich Hofmann (the original still hangs in Riverside Church, New York City).
The school’s rapid growth soon outgrew the converted home and a second wooden structure was built. That too was filled and so the congregation resolved to build a larger brick building. The two wooden structures were sold and moved. The new school was dedicated in 1894.
The congregation also grew rapidly in the next three decades and soon resolved to build a larger worship space. The present red brick church was designed by Leiser & Holst and built in 1913-14. Its exterior was designed in the English Gothic style, with large square towers, limestone trim, wide windows with a flatter arch and castle-like crenellations at the tops of the two towers. The interior still utilized the German Gothic style with its dark, richly carved oak woodwork, curving balcony railing and elaborate hymn board surrounds.
Although the first generation of immigrants used the German language exclusively, English worship services and Sunday School began in 1914. All of the school’s instruction was in English by 1926, and the last German worship service was held in 1963. In the late 1950s the four bowling alleys in the school basement were closed and the large room converted into meeting and fellowship space.
In 1950, as the 75th anniversary approached, the congregation chose to renovate and change the interior of the church. New carpeting and chandeliers were added, replacing the rows of electric light bulbs on the ceiling. The decision was made to remove the altar, pulpit, canopy, modest communion rail, baptismal font and lectern. No one knows what happened to any of those items. All that survived is the Gethsemane oil painting, which hangs today in the school’s central vestibule, a plaque commemorating the untimely death of Rev. Ernst F. Dornfeld in 1911, the stained glass window donated by the confirmation class of 1900, and the gilded dove from the old canopy (symbolizing the Holy Spirit), which now hangs from the new canopy above the pulpit.
In its place, the committee chose to install blond oak chancel furniture in the Modern Gothic style, very fashionable in the 1950's. The elaborate stenciling on the walls was painted over and tall wainscot paneling was installed on either side of the altar. During the centennial year of 1975 artist Jerome Harders, a son of the congregation, was commissioned to carve a large blond oak cross, which was then mounted in the center of the altar in front of the red velvet dossal curtains. In 1983, St. Marcus was given the historic chancel furniture from the demolished St. Jacobi Lutheran Church on 13th & Mitchell on the south side, but the time for installation had not yet arrived and these items were placed into storage.
In 1997, the church was ready for renovation. The old greenish carpet was replaced and the wood floors were sanded and given four coats of water-based varnish. The pews were moved a little farther apart to give an additional two inches of leg-room. The stained glass windows on the sun-sides of the church (east and south) were disassembled one by one, releaded, re-braced, and re-installed.
The blond oak chancel furniture with its tall wainscot paneling was removed and donated to other ministries. Ritchie Brothers of Sun Prairie was retained to assemble the historic St. Jacobi altar, pulpit, and lectern. They painted it in cream, two grays, dark red accents, and gold leaf. The Janesville Furniture Company designed and built a pulpit canopy and curving Communion rail. In 2000 the rest of the church interior was completely resurfaced with fiberglass mesh and repainted.
In 1998 the church’s pipe organ was completely overhauled and three new ranks of pipes were added. Also in 1998 the congregation decided to enter the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which provided voucher monies for City of Milwaukee families. After a cautious two-year experiment, the church and school leadership dramatically expanded available seats. In 2001 Kristyn Greenfield designed and organized the first gala benefit dinner; these annual black tie events are now a huge part of St. Marcus Ministries resource generation for the school and the largest St. Marcus-driven social event of the year.
For years the congregation had been acquiring vacant properties, distressed old houses, and the funeral home on the block, as well as the city-owned alley. By 2010 the full city block was acquired and a master plan was developed for expansion. After years of having no off-street parking the campus today can offer guests five different off-street lots.
Recent years have seen significant additions to our ministry space:
2002 - Demolition of the 1894 school; acquisition of the funeral home on 1st & North; now the Time of Grace offices
2003 - Construction of a new school and gym; now the Middle School
2011 - Construction of the primary school and church offices
2013 - Construction of a second gym; the B. Bruce Krier Center and lower level business and mission advancement offices
2014 - Acquisition and opening of Early Childhood Center (Richards & Center). April Richter was called as principal.
2020 - Purchase of the Harambee campus on 1st & Burleigh.
2021 - St. Marcus Harambee opened in the fall after a frantic summer of preparatory work. Tracy Eastburn was called as principal.
In 2000 a group of current and former regents of Wisconsin Lutheran College formed an exploratory task force to investigate the feasibility of launching a Lutheran television program. They proposed recording St. Marcus’ Sunday morning service, and the congregation agreed. The sanctuary was outfitted with special lighting, recording equipment was installed in the south belfry, and office space was rented on King Drive. Time of Grace was born. The first broadcast was in November of 2001. When the church office moved into its new quarters in the new 2003 building, the congregation offered the parish house as office space for the Time of Grace staff. They eagerly accepted and ended up staying there until 2022.
The congregation celebrated the centennial of the beautiful sanctuary in 2014 with the Al!ve Campaign which included new dark red carpeting, refinishing of the exterior doors and pews, building of a new oak chancel floor, restoration and preservation of the stained glass windows, and a new roof for the church.
Pastors who have served at St. Marcus:
Joseph Westenberger: 1875-1878
Eugen Notz: 1878-1880
Georg Reinsch: 1880-1890
August Pieper: 1890-1901
Ernst F. Dornfeld: 1901-1911
Ernst Ph. Dornfeld: 1911-1955
Adolf Zeisler: 1921-1923
Walter Gieschen: 1923-1926
John Jeske: 1949-1953
Paul Knickelbein: 1955-1967
Richard Seeger: 1967-1979
Mark Jeske: 1980-2022
Roger Plath (part-time): 1998-present
James Skorzewski: 2002-2008
Paul Steinberg: 2008-2017
Kurt Grunewald (part-time): 2009-2015
Kelly Huet: 2009-2015
William Schaefer: 2011-2015
James Kleist (part-time): -present
David Beckman (part-time): 2015-2016
James Hein: 2016-present
Daniel Leyrer: 2016-present
Joel Krieger 2021-present