St. Mark Lutheran Church on St. Paul’s West Seventh Street to close after 126 years

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Historical papers describe her only by her husband’s title — Mrs. Mathias Pitra — but the Austrian immigrant whose first name appears lost in time gathered with a like-minded Colborne Street neighbor, Augusta Raschick, on a mission of prayer and fellowship.

They were two church ladies with no church, so they started their own, alternating services between their homes in St. Paul’s West Seventh Street neighborhood.

By 1894, they had petitioned the German Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul for mission work, likely from seminary students. By 1898, they had called their first minister. And by the early 1900s the congregation of St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church — originally dubbed the St. Marcus German Lutheran Church — had bought their first chapel and had it moved to St. Clair Avenue and Duke Street.

Then, in the decades following World War II, the church truly came into its own, with more than 900 members filling out the modern church building at 550 West Seventh St. during its peak years in the 1950s and ’60s.

‘Holy closure service’

That’s no longer the case. The Ash Wednesday suppers and festive church rummage sales have come to a close at St. Mark Lutheran Church, where a final sermon on Sunday — a “holy closure service” — will mark the end of an era at least 126 years in the making.

“We probably have 20 people on a busy Sunday. We probably have 35 active members,” said Dianne Testa, vice president of the church council, who has been involved with St. Mark’s for 47 years. Some fellow members of the council, also of a certain age, were baptized there.

“We did it until we just realized we can’t anymore,” Testa said. “We’re all in our 70s.”

Constructed in 1956, the long, sloping walls of the sanctuary have opened onto St. Paul’s West Seventh Street — and Mancini’s Char House across the street — for 68 years. The mid-century architecture holds court at Seventh, Ann and Goodhue streets, spanning two levels and 12,000 square feet of worship space, which has been put up for sale. Conversations with at least one potential buyer are underway.

“We hope another church buys it,” said Nancy Larson, 76, who has been attending services at St. Mark since she was 5 years old. “We’ve got prospectives, but nothing has been finalized yet. We have a saying on the front of the church, ‘In the city for good.’ I’ve been going all my life. I’d hate to see something else take over. I want it to stay a church.”

Regular gatherings

In recent years, at least four other congregations, two Alcoholics Anonymous groups and a square dancing class have rented the church for their regular gatherings. In the 1960s, said Testa, the church hosted a Head Start children’s program. Membership, which launched in the late 1890s with a German-speaking congregation, has evolved with time to reflect the various cultures of the neighborhood. Larson recalled summer Bible school programs for kids that drew non-Lutherans looking for something to do.

An arson fire in 2014 displaced services for a year, but the congregation returned.

“We were strong with the West Seventh Street community,” Testa said.

For the past two months, a guest pastor has been winding down services. “She gets it, how we’re feeling,” Testa said.

The holy closure service will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday.

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