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The 145-Year Old Lutheran School

Education RSO

Early 1870s America was a noteworthy time: The 15th Amendment was adopted; Rockefeller had become quite rich and mail-order catalogs were forever changing the way Americans shopped. Generations would be irrevocably changed – for better or for worse. 

Adding to the “better” end of the spectrum, St. John’s Lutheran School in Topeka, Kan., was founded in 1874, and by the grace of God, this school, too, would go on to impact generations to come.

Merging outreach with church planting, the school was founded around the same time that St. John’s Lutheran Church was established in Topeka. The church and school even shared a space in the basement of an old stone building downtown.

In 1889, St. John’s called Wilhelm Heinrich Steinkamp to be the school’s first principal and called teacher. The school grew, and then grew some more, requiring two relocations between 1874 and 1951. At that point, other area Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod churches joined St. John’s and created an association that would support the school. It became Topeka Lutheran School (TLS) Association – a legacy of strong Lutheran education in the Topeka area.

And what a legacy the school has had.

Making great-great-great grandpa proud

“TLS continues to be blessed with faithful Lutheran-trained teachers who provide creative learning opportunities to ensure their students’ success,” explained Marlene Shellenberger, director of the TLS Foundation. “Many current members of the association churches have had family who attended and graduated from TLS (or St. John’s Lutheran School in earlier years) or they have grandchildren now attending TLS.”

This is precisely the story of the Pierce family, descendants of Steinkamp.

“Principal Steinkamp’s calling is significant because, 129 years later, six [of his] great-great-great grandchildren now attend Topeka Lutheran School,” said Dr. Mark and Linda Pierce. “They are the sixth generation [in our family] to be associated with TLS. Topeka Lutheran School has been a very important part of teaching the Word of God to our family.”

“Having our grandchildren attend TLS has definitely been an honor for us,” added Linda Pierce. “Mark and I were so pleased that our three children chose to educate our grandchildren at TLS. Family traditions along with a strong belief in Lutheran Christian education is something all our children have determined to be very important in today’s world. We know that Mark’s great-grandfather would be so happy to know that our family and many other Lutheran families have continued educating their children at TLS, [and] we pray that our grandchildren will continue sending their children to TLS.”

A tradition of sharing the Gospel

Today, the Lutheran School Association of Topeka, which includes Topeka Lutheran School, comprises of two early learning centers and a kindergarten through eighth grade school. The school’s current principal, Chris Francik, has a great appreciation for the legacy of the school, at which “over one-fourth of the student body is second or more generation TLS students.” He sees TLS as a place where the Gospel continues to be freely shared with every student and family, just as it was in 1874.

“Topeka Lutheran School remains a school that nurtures students in faith in [God], while preparing students to successfully live their lives as responsible, productive citizens,” said Francik. “The staff of TLS work in partnership with each student’s parents and congregation to help each child come to a knowledge of salvation and then share Jesus’ love with our Topeka community.”

But carrying on the work of TLS into 2019 and beyond required some introspection and a fresh plan for moving forward – so TLS reached out to Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) for guidance in bringing the mission of the school into the future.

Resetting for the future

“In February 2018, I had my first phone call with Marlene [Shellenberger] to focus on some clarity work for the school,” recalled Tim Kurth, LCEF ministry support agency vice president. “Part of what we offer to ministries is guidance in clarifying their mission andhelping rid them of what prevents them from being as effective as they’d like to be.”

“There were issues that were keeping them from clearly articulating a compelling vision for the future, so we came in and asked some good clarifying questions and heard their heart for the school,” he added. “It was an exciting shift into what is possible, what a capital campaign and new message to the community can do to reset for the future.”

Together with LCEF, the school set to work on a capital campaign that would strengthen resources to provide additional scholarships, increase enrollment and marketing efforts and make needed renovations to the building.

“LCEF and its consultants provided invaluable guidance not only on how to formulate TLS’s capital campaign, but how to best direct the overall ministry of Topeka Lutheran School,” Francik explained. “Our LCEF loan helped TLS make the necessary improvements to provide an excellent environment for our students to learn in. Receiving the support of LCEF means that TLS has a partner within the LCMS community for our capital and financial efforts.”

More vital to our culture than ever

It’s safe to say that the partnership between TLS and LCEF is in itself now part of the legacy that began back in 1874, and one that makes an impact not only in this life, but the life to come. That is the nature of Lutheran education, especially in a time such as this.

“Lutheran education is more vital to our culture than ever,” said Kurth, “a school that can look at six generations of a family speaks to how hearty and strong Lutheran education can be in a community. One hundred and forty-five years; that’s a lot of influence over a long time. We look at schools like TLS and celebrate and ask the question, ‘Who is going to start a Lutheran school today that will influence lives 145 years from now?’”

Indeed, the Pierce family knows firsthand how vital Lutheran education, as part of Christian formation, is to future generations.

“We pray that this generation and future generations will understand the importance of a strong Lutheran education along with regular church attendance, Sunday school, Bible classes, catechesis for confirmands plus home devotions,” said the Pierce family. “In the world that our children and grandchildren live in, we believe that daily living and learning in a Christian environment like that found right here at Topeka Lutheran School will prepare our children to live in such a world.”

Do you know of a Recognized Service Organization like Topeka Lutheran School LCEF can support? Connect us! Call 800-843-5233 or email MinistrySupport@lcef.org.


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TLS Principal Chris Francik
Dr. Mark and Linda Pierce
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