St. Stephen Lutheran Church was founded on November 26, 1881
St Stephen Congregational History
St. Stephen Lutheran Church was founded on November 26, 1881, when a group of 25 people left St. Paul German Reformed Church (now St. Paul United Church of Christ located at 5th and Washington) to establish a new congregation with the Lutheran orientation. There was a disagreement over the issue of the presence of Christ in Holy Communion. The Reformed view held that the bread and wine were symbolic representations of Jesus. The Lutheran position was that Jesus is really present in, with, and under the bread and wine.
The group bought the old Universalist Church building that stood at this location. The Rev. Frederick Reinicke became our first Pastor and led us to alignment with the Ohio Synod branch of the Lutheran Church.
In the 135 years since, St. Stephen Congregation has transitioned through three denominational mergers, built and maintained this church structure, transitioned from German to English services, has been served by 14 Pastors, and those early days of doctrinal disagreement with the St. Paul German Reformed Church have long since given way to friendship and cooperation between the two congregations both serving downtown Wausau.
1881 – 1898 Rev. Frederick Reinicke became our first Pastor
1898 – 1910 Rev. Frederick Werhahn
1910 – 1945 Rev. William Spiegel
1945 – 1973 Rev. Ervin Seidel (remained as an active clergy until death in 1999)
1959 – 1979 Rev. Gilbert Meyer
1973 – 1980 Rev. Bill Metter
1979 – 1992 Rev. Steve Larson; Associate Pastor
1980 – 1998 Rev. John Swenson
1992 – 1997 Rev. Jeff Nelson; Associate Pastor
1997 – 2000 Rev. Ted Johanson; Interim Associate Pastor
2000 – 2007 Rev. Dr. Michael Meranda
2004 – 2006 Rev. Carol Christianson; Associate Pastor
2008 – 2013 Rev. Gary Froseth
2015 – 2021 Rev. Jennifer Dahle/Hoffman
2022 – present Rev. Karoline Schwantes
1885—St. Stephen demonstrated its commitment to education by establishing a parochial school. This would serve families until its closure in 1954.
1888—St. Stephen affirmed its commitment to Lutheranism by introducing Luther’s Small Catechism as the primary tool for instruction. We still use the catechism for youth and adults today (though in English).
1902—Pr. Werhahn established a mission congregation in Schofield that was initially known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Stephanus. That congregation has since become St. Peter Lutheran Church and is a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
1914—For the first time we confirmed children in English. Otherwise German remained the language used in our Sunday school until 1919.
1918—The Ohio Synod Mission Board met in Columbus, Ohio and authorized the establishment of an English speaking Lutheran church on Wausau’s west side. That project became First English Lutheran Church; their founding group first met for worship in the basement of St. Stephen.
1925—We erected a parochial school on the west side.
1930—The Old ALC (American Lutheran Church) was formed. This was a merger of three Lutheran Synods: the Ohio Synod, the Iowa Synod, and the Buffalo Synod. These three groups formed a natural merger of bodies committed to Lutheran doctrine and worship. Our location in Wausau put us in the Northern Wisconsin District of the old ALC.
1939—The Lutheran Standard, the official publication of the old ALC, featured St. Stephen on its cover.
1941—The Sunday school curriculum featured Lesson Helps form Michael Reu. He taught theology at Wartburg Seminary and is well known as a teacher of Lutheran systematic theology and ethics.
1941—The 60th Anniversary bulletin notes 1750 members at St. Stephen. This was typical for Lutheran parishes the first half of the 20th Century; to grow from 25 members to 1700 members, as the families of German immigrants increased in size.
1946—We published our first issue of The Visitor. This is our parish newsletter. The name changed to The Deacon’s Spirit in April 2008, when the look of our newsletter was updated and full color was added to the cover both on the outside and inside.
1950—The “old” ALC establishes Pilgrim Lutheran as a new mission parish on Wausau’s south side. St. Stephen helped that mission start by transferring families to that new congregation.
1954—We discontinued the parochial school. Many members recall having been educated there and remember how the children’s choir was brought upstairs to sing for funerals.
1955—The annual meeting of the congregation made the decision to embark upon the next significant building project; construction of a parish house. We contracted with Donald Schoepke. We needed a building large enough to hold fellowship events and a Sunday school averaging weekly attendance of over 200.
1960—St. Stephen participated in its second denominational merger. The old ALC of 1930 merged with other upper Midwestern Lutheran groups to the new ALC. Wausau became the new district headquarters for the new ALC so St. Stephen hosted many denominational events the next 20 years.
1965—The “new” ALC establishes Good Shepherd Lutheran Church as its mission parish on Wausau’s north side. This is the 4th mission start that St. Stephen participated in either directly or indirectly.
1969—Dan Litzer, a son of the congregation, is ordained by Pr. Seidel and Pr. Meyer.
1974—The Rev. Karen Bloomquist is ordained at St. Stephen, the 4th woman to be ordained in the ALC and the first woman to serve a pastorate west of the Mississippi. Her grandfather was Frederick Reinicke, the first Pastor at St. Stephen.
1980—St. Stephen worked with ten other Wausau congregations to establish Greater Wausau Christian Services; a ministry to those in jail and nursing homes that continues today.
1988—On January 1 the current Lutheran merger took shape. The new ALC (which St. Stephen became part of in 1960) joined with the LCA and the AELC to form the ELCA—Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Members recall the closing of the new ALC at a citywide service held at Wausau High School in 1988.
1988—We established the Trust Fund; a permanent endowment whose interest monies will generate funds to ensure the ongoing maintenance of this historic building.
2001—St. Stephen affirmed its commitment to serving Wausau’s downtown area by leasing our ample education space to Little Scholars Pre-School.
2005—St. Stephen spearheads a pilot program with Greater Wausau Christian Services to provide a spiritual care giver at juvenile detention sites.
2006-We celebrate our 125th Anniversary as a congregation.
Church Building History
The new congregation of St. Stephen purchased the old Universalist Church Building at this site. They remodeled the church in 1882 and moved in that year. As the church grew the need for a new building became obvious.
The church hired architect Anton Dohmen of Milwaukee for the project. Dohmen was also the architect of St. James Catholic church two blocks west and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Marathon City. The Neo-Victorian style combines majesty and formality with warmth and welcome. The rounded dome replaces the interior peak of the gothic style, and its interior width equaling length gives it a sense of horizontality.
On December 30, 1908, we signed a contract with Anton Zwack to build the structure that we still use today.
On July 4th 1909 the cornerstone was set. For the dedication, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany sent a German Bible inscribed in his own hand; “God is love; and he that abides in love abides in God and God in him.”
Pr. Werhahn had been a personal friend of the Kaiser in Germany. The Kaiser had sent other such bibles to other Lutheran churches built at the turn of the century.
On May 15, 1910 (106 years ago) the church and new organ were dedicated. Dr. E. Pfeiffer of Capital University Columbus, Ohio spoke at the dedication. Capital University was associated with the Ohio Synod and has since evolved into Trinity Seminary of the ELCA.
The structure cost $29,960.00 and the total cost including the organ, decorations and furnishings was $65,000.
The altar was made in Kaukauna. German words on alter translated “I am the bread of life”.
Pews originally continued further back and the isles were angled to the center front.
Glass partition was installed in the late 1970’s.
The large bell in the tower weighs 2,600 pounds.
Stained glass windows are original with the addition of outside layer of glass to improve thermal efficiency.
In 2001 the church was within minutes of being lost due to a fire that started in the space above the sanctuary. Thankfully, a downtown business noticed smoke pouring from the upper cupola and the fire department was called in time.
1882—We remodeled and moved in to the Universalist Church we had purchased on 5th and McClellan Streets.
1898—St. Stephen built a parsonage on 515 McClellan Street; our pastors would live in that home until 1944. Members recall going to the pastor’s study there to announce for Holy Communion the next Sunday. This Victorian structure with its front porch on a tree lined street cost $2,400.
1906—We appointed a committee to study the need for building a new church on our corner at 5th and McClellan Streets.
1908—On December 30 we signed a contract with Anton Zwack to build the structure that we still use today.
1909—On July 4 we set the corner stone on our current church building.
1910—On May 15 we dedicated the new two manual Hausmann organs and church building.
1949—We completed the current parsonage at 516 McClellan Street. This beautiful home provided a quiet study area for the pastor and ample bedroom space for clergy families. It is currently leased to an AirB&B.
1953—In July we dedicated a 3 manual 34 rank Schantz organ. This instrument still serves as our primary worship leader. It was re-voiced in the 1970’s.
1956—On April 29 we dedicated the newly completed parish house. Members still recall the severe late season storm that dropped 30 inches of snow that weekend. The Rev. Waldemar Schlachtenhaufen spoke at the dedication.
1955—We re-decorated the church interior, the first remodeling since its construction in 1910.
1971—We completed the balcony entrance from Parish House to the original church.
1975—We re-voiced the Schantz pipe organ according to specifications suggested by Paul Bunjes.
1983—We installed the elevator that provides access to all levels of the structure.
2001—St. Stephen made the front pages of the Wausau Daily Herald when a light fixture overheated and caused a fire that, if undetected, would have done significant damage to this historic structure. The congregation responded by installing a state of the art smoke detection system.
2002—The St. Stephen church building received Historic Landmark status from the Wausau City Council. We held an open house for Wausau’s annual Art in the Park at which our church led the downtown community in a “911 Remembered” ecumenical liturgy.