HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR
FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH HISTORY: 1836-1997
By Dr. Wallace P. Rusterholz
Updated by Dr. Margaret H. Huyck, June, 1997
- Joseph Harrington, Jr | William Adam | Rush Rhees Shippen
- George Noyes | Robert Collyer | Charles Thomas | Robert Laird Collier
- Brooke Herford | William Wallace Fenn | William Hansen Pulsford
- Von Ogden Vogt | Leslie Pennington | Christopher Moore | Jack Kent | Jack Mendelsohn
- Duke Gray | Peter Samson | Tom Chulak | Michelle Bentley | Terasa Cooley | John Gilmore
Our church is one of the oldest in Chicago, founded in 1836, only three years after Chicago was incorporated as a town. It began when a few young men invited a visiting Unitarian minister from Boston to talk to them and their friends in a hotel. As a result, they started our Society by adopting by-laws and planning a church building.
Itinerant ministers and missionaries served us in temporary quarters for three years until we called our first minister, Joseph Harrington, Jr. He was so devoted that he himself, on trips to the East, raised two-thirds of the cost of the building ($3,750). It was built in 1841 on the site of the Picasso figure in Daley Plaza.
But even though the American Unitarian Association helped our congregation by providing nearly one-third of Harrington's salary of $1,040, we could not pay him what we had promised. So he left us in our new building after five years.
We were two years without a minister, and then called William Adam, a former Baptist missionary in India for twenty years. He filled the church, and the Society informed the American Unitarian Association that we could now be self-supporting. However, within three years the congregation had financial difficulties again, and Adam departed our Eden in 1849.
We soon called our third minister, Rush Rhees Shippen, age 21 and the first student who had enrolled in the new Unitarian seminary in his native Meadville, Pennsylvania. This is the institution which later relocated in Chicago across the corner from our church. Shippen was an outstanding minister for eight years, during which the church building was enlarged twice, his salary was almost trebled, and the Music Committee spent a thousand dollars a year. Part of the reason for this prosperity was that the Society went from voluntary contributions to the renting of pews for support of the church, a system used in most denominations in those days. With this growth, the church decided to divide, and so it sponsored the Second Unitarian Church on the North Side.
Shippen resigned for reasons unclear, and George F. Noyes began his brief but fruitful pastorate in 1857. He saw the need to expand the social services which the Society had begun to offer the community. So in 1859 he got the congregation to establish a Ministry-at-Large, in addition to the regular ministry, as a social service agency supported by the church and manned by volunteers. It is said to have been "the only private agency for general relief in the city at that time," and that was when the government did little for the poor and needy.
After this Ministry-at-Large was under way, we hired as its director a man whose pioneer leadership in social work with us makes him noteworthy in the history not only of our Society and of Chicago but also of nineteenth-century America. He was Robert Collyer, an English blacksmith living in Pennsylvania, a Methodist lay preacher who had been refused a preaching license because of his heretical Unitarian and Abolitionist views.
Under Collyer's inspired leadership, this Ministry established an outside Sunday School "distinctively for the poor" which had 200 pupils, an evening school for all ages with an enrollment of 180, sewing classes, an employment service which found 150 jobs for the unemployed, a bureau for the placement of children and the elderly in foster homes. (We should note the segregation of the poor in an outside Sunday School instead of their integration into the regular one. These poor were white, not black. Segregation then was a class, not racial, matter, as indeed it still is to a great extent.)...
Collyer graphically described his work in a letter to a friend:
"The Ministry-at-Large is devoted to the poor--to their help in every possible way...All the publicans and harlots are members of my parish (the Ministry-at-Large, not the church itself) --when all the churches turn them out and they are lost to society, I am here to help them to themselves and to God. I visit prisons and get the deserving, or those that desire to do well, into good places when they come out, or if it is better, get them out. No doubt, I am busy--just as I sit down to write this I have been out (nine at night) to get a poor woman an extension on two pawn tickets--to read and pray with a young man in consumption...and to buy meat, bread and sugar for a woman quite sick and destitute, with a drunken husband. I am kept going by the Unitarian Church...I need not be other than a Methodist to be their Minister-at-Large, but I am from conviction on the liberal side."
Surely Collyer is one of our uncanonized Unitarian saints!
Eventually, Collyer was called away for other projects such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission in the Civil War, started by Unitarians and Universalists to care for the Northern armies. It was the precursor of the American Red Cross. Then Collyer was drafted by the new Second Unitarian Church of Chicago to be its first minister. So the Ministry-at-Large gradually faded away.
Meanwhile, Noyes suddenly resigned his pulpit in 1859 because, as he wrote to the congregation, he felt that he did not have "a free church, wherein I should be entirely untrammeled by the usual conditions of society-organization and enabled to follow, without reserve, the guidance of my own convictions of truth and duty." What were the pressures which he felt limited his freedom? Did our Society censor his sermons or curb his self-expression? We would like to know more about this disquieting event, but the record states only that the congregation accepted his resignation with regret and appreciation for his pastorate.
Our next minister, Charles B. Thomas, arrived in 1861 from New Orleans when the Civil War began. An Abolitionist and opponent of secession, he fled to the North. He soon took the lead in planning a larger church on South Wabash Avenue near Balbo Street. It was an impressive stone Romanesque structure, but its tower promptly leaned, sank two feet, and had to be taken down. Chicago lost its chance to have a tourist attraction and its own leaning tower. The new edifice was named the Church of the Messiah, although the Society retained its original legal name which we continue to use today.
Meanwhile, despite his leadership in reviving the Society and building a new building, Thomas was dismissed for "having violated the laws of God and society and thereby become unworthy in the name of a Christian man." Again, as in the case of Noyes' departure, we wonder what happened behind the scenes.
Thomas was followed in 1866 by Robert Laird Collier, not to be confused with his contemporary Minister-at-Large Robert Collyer, previously mentioned. He, too, was outstanding in his pastorate. He became the active head of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society.
During the great Chicago fire of 1871 the church served as a refuge for the homeless. Pews were converted into beds, and food was provided in the basement Lecture Room. English Unitarians came to the aid of Chicago Unitarians, sending nearly $12,000. When we Americans feel that we always are the givers in international transactions, we should remember the astonishingly generous English of 1871.
Although the building survived the fire, the Society moved south again, building an impressive Victorian Gothic stone structure seating 1,000 people, at Michigan Avenue and 23rd Street. It was completed in 1873 at a cost of $80,000.
A year later, Collier resigned for health reasons. Two years after that, Brooke Herford of Manchester, England, became our minister. He was a popular and powerful speaker, and he stipulated that we end pew rent in favor of voluntary contributions to support the church. The women's organization of the congregation started a free kindergarten in 1881, probably the first free one in Chicago. They gradually expanded it and even erected a building for it -- certainly one of the outstanding social services in our parish history.
William Wallace Fenn became our minister in 1891. He saw the church's neighborhood declining, and soon recommended that a chapel for a mission be built near the new University of Chicago. He was encouraged to do this by William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University and a Baptist. Fenn led Morton Denison Hull, long-time trustee and treasurer of the church, to build the chapel as a memorial to his parents. This was dedicated in 1897-- and it is this anniversary we recently celebrated. In 1909 we sold the downtown building and moved to Hull chapel.
Fenn resigned in 1901 to become Busey Professor of Theology and eventually dean of the Harvard Divinity School. He was followed in the pulpit by William Hansen Pulsford, a Scotsman who had studied in Glasgow and Oxford Universities. He was an impressive speaker, but a poor organizer. He drew large crowds, but the congregation did not grow during his 22 years -- the longest ministry in our history.
After an interval of two years, the modern era of our Society began in 1925 with the pastorate of Von Ogden Vogt. He was a Congregational minister in Chicago when he got the attention of Morton Denison Hull who had him invited to our ministry.
Vogt was greatly concerned with liturgy and art in religion. He was a recognized authority in this field, publishing several books, and he soon made our church what some called "high church Unitarian." Moreover, he inspired Morton D. Hull to give us the princely gift of our magnificent stone English Perpendicular Gothic edifice. It incorporated Hull Chapel as a transept. Completed in 1931, it is our pride and joy. It was planned and designed by Hull's son, Denison Bingham Hull, a young architect, in close and constant collaboration with Vogt who had great knowledge and interest in church art and architecture...
When Vogt retired in 1944 after nearly 20 years with us, we quickly called Leslie T. Pennington. While with us, he was a member of the Universalist-Unitarian Commission which prepared the way for the union of the two churches into one national body in 1961. At the same time, he led us in several big projects which made us leaders in our community.
The first of these was the racial integration of our Society. Blacks occasionally attended our services during Vogt's as well as Pennington's pastorate, and we had no formal bar to membership. But there was considerable opposition to a resolution passed at a congregational meeting in 1948 stating that we "take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities." Despite this clear position, a decade later we had only a dozen Black members. The number increased substantially during the next decade and later. We became an outstanding integrated congregation.
Having put our own house in order, Pennington then joined with a few others in founding the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. He was its first president. "Its purpose," wrote Pennington later, "was reckoning directly with the issues of racial integration, community conservation and renewal, and the development here of a genuinely interracial community of high standards." This organization led in saving the University community from becoming part of the Black ghetto all around it, although the University did not cooperate at first. This made our community an integrated model for the city and nation. But we need to remember that integration is a never-ending process...
A third big development during Pennington's pastorate was the founding and growth of what has become the Chicago Children's Choir under Christopher Moore. He came to us as assistant minister in 1956, with the mandate to start a children's choir to supplement our Sunday School and attract children and families to church. He gradually built this into a huge, city-wide organization far transcending our parish and even our Hyde Park community. In addition to our Society's support, he soon got federal money through Urban Gateways for a while, and later grants from corporations and foundations... Over the years thousands of children of all races, creeds, and social statuses were drawn into the various units of the Choir. Thus our church had an enormous outreach into the entire metropolitan area. Indeed, the Choir regularly tours various parts of the nation, and in 1970 made it's first tour of Europe.
Chris Moore played an important role in our church, in addition to the CCC, for over thirty years until his untimely death in 1987. Whatever his title, which varied, he provided continuity and responsibility in church leadership while senior ministers came and went. His long and great service gives him a unique place in our history.
During Pennington's pastorate, the church membership more than doubled, the Church School enrollment increased over 1,000%, the church bought the vacant lot next door and the Georgian mansion beyond that, and built the Church School building, called the Pennington Center. So in many ways Pennington's 18-year ministry led us into great growth and direct involvement on a large scale in the community and city.
Pennington decided to retire in 1962 to a parish in suburban Boston, and we called Jack Kent the next year. During his five-year pastorate, our Society continued to concern itself with social issues and outreach to the community. We rented space to a nursery school in order to help meet a community need and utilize more fully our greatly enlarged physical plant. We made substantial contributions to the civil rights movement, housed a Head Start program, guaranteed large loans to organizations helping the poor to buy and rehabilitate slum housing, and supported our Black members' efforts to create the Black Affairs Council in our parish and in the Unitarian Universalist denomination.
Kent resigned to take another pastorate in 1968, and Jack Mendelsohn came to us a year later with a record as a social activist as minister of historic Arlington Street Church in Boston. His ministry with us of nearly ten years was unusually successful. His social concerns reinforced ours as these had developed under the leadership of Pennington and Kent. So we proceeded to establish two large social projects, the first being the Unitarian Preschool Center which developed full day care for the children of working parents. This continued until 1979, until it had become a financial burden to us.
The second big project was The Depot. This also began in 1970 as a counseling service for runaway youth, and gradually expanded into a family counseling service with a substantial professional staff. It was headed by ministers who also were on our ministerial staff. The Depot, later named the Center for Family Development, not only got strong financial backing from the church, like the Chicago Children's Choir, but also procured grants, donations, and contracts for counseling from government agencies. It served over four hundred families per year.
Late in his pastorate, Mendelsohn became a candidate for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This took much of his time and energy for more than a year, but he lost a very close race.
During his ministry, we continued our concern for civil rights, especially as these are violated by law enforcement agencies during and since the so-called "Police riot" at the Democratic National Convention here in 1968. We helped to organize the Alliance to End Repression, and Mendelsohn became its president. It is a coalition of civil rights organizations which eventually won a civil suit against the Chicago police for illegal repression of voluntary organizations and protest demonstrations. The Chicago police placed Mendelsohn and our Society under surveillance for years at a cost of many thousands of dollars to the taxpayers with no results except harassment. But we should be proud that our church is not considered a "harmless" institution.
Mendelsohn departed to a Boston suburban parish for semi-retirement in 1978. Two years later, we called Duke T. Gray from Toronto. During his six-year pastorate, we completed the legal separation from the church of the Chicago Children's Choir and the Center for Family Development. These projects had become too heavy financial obligations. Besides, they could receive more outside funding if not church-affiliated. But the Center had to close in 1989 because of inadequate financing. The church continues close relations with the Chicago Children's Choir.
Although many members wished Duke Gray to remain our minister because of his excellent preaching and management, a majority of the congregation voted in 1986 to discharge him. Two years later, after an interim ministry by Peter Samson, we called Thomas Chulak from the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters to become our next minister. He greatly revived our congregation, even to the extent of our undertaking the long delayed repair of the church steeple at a cost of a quarter of a million dollars. So we were sad when he was called away from us by the North Shore Unitarian Church of Plandome, Long Island, New York, after only three and a half years with us.
Our associate minister Michelle Bentley, a black woman, became our interim minister. This was appropriate because women have played a large role in the life our church, and blacks have done so for the last twenty years. In recent years, four chairpersons of our Board of Trustees have been black, and two of these were women. This chairpersonship of our Board is the most responsible and important position in our church. The trustees are our governing board, responsible to no hierarchy or clergy but only to our congregation, which always has the last word. Our church is truly democratic, both in theory and practice.
We called Terasa Cooley to be our minister in 1993. She came to us from Detroit, but was born in Texas. She graduated from the University of Texas and the Harvard Divinity School.
During her ministry with us, the church has gained numerous younger members, enjoys increasing participation by more members, and even a larger financial commitment to the church. We are astonished that we have fully paid for the steeple repair in only four years, and we have made a substantial start toward making the church accessible to the physically handicapped. We broaden our appeal in another way by voting to welcome to our church homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people. We believe it only right that the church should welcome all who share our serious concerns. An extraordinary event was the congregation's ordination to the ministry of a Meadville Theological School senior shortly before he died of AIDS.
In 1995 we called as our associate minister John Gilmore, an African American current graduate of Meadville/Lombard, in order to extend our outreach to the community. A year later he accepted a call elsewhere.
In 1997, Access First installed a ramp into the main sanctuary, and a wheelchair lift from the Sanctuary into Hull Chapel. These actions are part of a larger plan to make the building physically accessible to all.
The Congregation voted to participate in the Grove Parc project, working with other congregations to create and support a child care center at the housing development in Woodlawn. This is an initiative of the Social Justice Council, designed to continue the spirit of social activism so evident throughout our history.
* * * * * * * *
Epilogue (June, 1997)
At this point in our history, our Society can look back over more than a century and a half of service to our community and city. We have established and long maintained a tradition of religious and social liberalism and commitment to human values. Let us remember with gratitude and appreciation the great services to our Society and community made by our predecessors like Collyer so long ago, and of the Hull family, Vogt, Pennington, Moore, Mendelsohn and others more recently. They have led us forward and pointed the way. Now the challenge and opportunity are for us to continue the course.
First Unitarians Celebrate Our Long-Time Members of 40 to 56 Years
First Unitarians Celebrate
Our Long-Time Members of 40 to 56 Years
Sunday, May 31, 1998
The First Unitarian Society of Chicago
This whole affair got started when Pauline (Polly) McCoo informed the membership committee that she had joined the First Unitarian Society of Chicago 50 years ago and expected a celebration!
Co-chair Joan Bernstein started looking up membership records and discovered there were others who had joined 50 or more years ago, who also should be recognized. And there were others who joined in the 50's we felt should be honored too.
Julie Neuman (congregation president), Cindy Carroll (president-elect), and Joan Staples (program council co-chair) took up the idea with enthusiasm. Soon Madeiria Myrieckes volunteered to plan the luncheon.
Our list kept growing; so we decided to stop with 1958 and make it a celebration of all members of 40 years or longer. This could be the start of a new tradition. Perhaps we might honor our members by the decade or even every five years! Also, by interviewing them and eliciting their memories, we are contributing to the history of our church.
If any of the names or events mentioned in these recollections are unfamiliar to the reader, why not go directly to these venerable sources for further information?
Interviews were conducted by the membership committee, including Joan Bernstein, Phiefer L. Browne, Betty Holcomb, Kay Mann, Barbara Thomas, and Jennifer Williams, and written primarily by Joan Bernstein. Olivia Nichols prepared the publication.
Jane and R. James Stevens (1942)
Jim and Jane Stevens were married at First Unitarian 60 years ago by Von Ogden Vogt. Vogt's son Ogden, one of Jim's best friends and a one-time boyfriend of Jane, was their best man. Four years later the Stevens joined the church.
They were present when the church passed the l947 resolution to actively welcome black members. They were present when minister Leslie Pennington, together with Rabbi Jacob Weinstein, helped organize the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference which, combined with the effort of the University of Chicago, helped preserve this community as one of the first successfully integrated communities in the United States. Jim, an attorney, represented the church in the purchase of Fenn House. He also helped organize the Chicago Memorial Association, another spin-off from our church.
The parents of five sons, Jim taught eight years in the church school, and Jane, an artist, served as church school art teacher for several years. Jim also has been president of the congregation and chair of the investment committee. He also helped organize square dances and a poetry seminar and wrote The Unitarian Fling. <top>
Nancy Harlan (1945)
Nancy came to First Unitarian in the mid-40's, when her husband was attending the University of Chicago. The church's Channing lecture series, aimed at U of C students, got them interested in Unitarianism. Leslie Pennington was highly respected in the pulpit and the community, and the church seemed like a good place for their three children. And when Chris Moore arrived about 1955 to set up a children's choir, there was a strong reason to stay involved. As their children reached high school, the Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) program was attracting dozens and dozens of teenagers. Nancy and her late husband "Duke" helped the LRY and the children's choir develop.
A trained home economist and local nursery school teacher, Nancy has been a staunch contributor to all the hospitality aspects of church life, particularly the dinner committee (monthly church dinners were once the norm), the Seder dinners, and coffee hour. She originated the Sunday soup luncheons. Out of the recipes for these she compiled the popular Simply Soup cookbook as a church fundraiser. She was also church manager for a few years. <top>
Corinne and Robert Borja (1947)
When she was 16, Connie often walked by First Unitarian Church. One day she went inside. She found the architecture so inspiring, she often came in to sit quietly and think. She introduced Bob to the church when they started going together. She met Bob at the American Academy of Art while both were students. Native Chicagoans, coming from Lutheran (Bob) and Catholic (Connie) backgrounds, they were married by Leslie Pennington in 1947 and joined the church.
Connie has been a fashion designer and a children's book illustrator, and is a ceramic sculptor. Bob is a graphics designer, specializing in book design, but now concentrates full-time on calligraphy.
Bob has served on the board, the worship, interiors, and pulpit search committees, and chaired the art committee for five years. Connie was on the worship and art committees, and chaired the interiors and the renewal committees. The renewal committee was formed after the dismissal of minister Duke Gray, and worked to heal the membership during the 18-month interim of Peter Samson. But mostly what Bob and Connie gave the church were their own very unique talents.
All the signs, plaques, and directional maps, inside and outside the buildings, were done by Bob in his beautiful calligraphy. The orders of service, the newsletter, the church stationery (different for each minister) were designed by him. One of his paintings hangs over the crypt altar.
Connie arranged the Christopher Moore parlor, donating some of the chairs, tables, and lamps. She turned the VOV room into a gallery and mounted exhibits for five years. She created the designs for the chancel hangings and the crypt chapel, and designed seasonal antependia, and donated the Javan batik which has hung in the sanctuary. She designed and made the chalice which we light before every service.
Bob and Connie have traveled widely, visiting more than 40 countries. After negotiating with China for four years, Bob was able in 1978 to persuade Chinese officials to allow the first group of designers to enter China for a month-long tour. <top>
Albert Hayes (1947)
Al Hayes thought of himself as a Unitarian long before he became one. But circumstances conspired to keep him a Presbyterian for many years: a Presbyterian father; a mother remarried in the Presbyterian church; friendship with a Presbyterian minister; and marrying the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.
It was when he came to Chicago in 1943 to teach humanities in the University of Chicago college, and he was looking about Hyde Park for a home for his family, that he discovered the Unitarian Church on Woodlawn Avenue. The solo music for the Sunday service was George Gershwin's "Summertime." Al was impressed; he decided that he liked that kind of church.
First Unitarian had no Sunday school at the time. When Leslie Pennington became minister, in 1944, he enlisted Al to help him set up a church school, and Al became chair of the first religious education committee. The new school shared an R.E. director, Sally Story, with Chicago Theological School. We used every room we could find, he recalls: Meadville, Robie House; religious services were held at Thorndike Hilton Chapel. The Channing Club was started for the university students.
Al loved Dr. Pennington dearly. He remembers that sometimes Leslie wouldn't have quite finished his sermon, so he had to speak extemporaneously for the last five or ten minutes -- Al liked this even better.
As the church school continued to grow, the church decided it needed more space. Al helped negotiate the purchase of the house at 5638 South Woodlawn. It was named Fenn House in honor of William Wallace Fenn, dean of the Harvard Divinity School and a former First Unitarian minister.
Al's religious education activities continued into the 50's, when he became president of the congregation. In the early 60's, he chaired the committee to plan the construction of Pennington Center, as the church school continued to expand.
When Leslie Pennington left in 1962, the church did not need to hire an interim minister as there were so many ministers in the congregation: Jack Hayward, John Godbey, and other Meadville faculty; Chris Moore; Randall Hilton, dean of Abraham Lincoln Center; and Ellsworth Smith, later district director of the new UU Central Midwest District. All of them took turns at Sunday services.
Also in the early 60's, Al served on the board and as treasurer of the Unitarian Western Conference at the time when the Unitarian and Universalist denominations were merging.
In 1981 he and Alice Judson Ryerson were married. Since then, they spend their winters in Hyde Park and their summers in Lake Forest. Incidentally, Alice's grandfather Shaw was the architect of Fenn House, Quaker House, the Quadrangle Club, and the Church of the Disciples. <top>
Pauline McCoo (1948)
Pauline (Polly) McCoo's involvement with First Unitarian reaches far back into our history to the 1940s. A native Chicagoan, she was born into a Congregational family in west Woodlawn, not too far from First Unitarian. Her parents were actively involved in church matters. At age 18 at a summer camp, Polly first heard of Unitarianism and was asked to be substitute kindergarten teacher at First Unitarian that fall, 1946. Parents of her pupils encouraged her to join First Unitarian, and she did so the following spring. Thus began 20 years of service in our Sunday school, where she taught, provided music, and was content. (She learned much later that her joining had been the subject of hot disagreement and argument at a board meeting about interracial membership. If you want a candid history of First Unitarian's struggle to become interracial, see Polly. She has tales to tell.)
In the late 60's Polly became a member of the Chicago Area Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus, which gathered black members together to share insights and help create better understanding of the concerns of the black community. She has been a member of our board three times and chair of the religious education and program councils several times. And if there's a celebration, installation, special service, potluck, or luncheon -- any special occasion or feast of any kind -- Polly will be there, inspiring, directing, helping, and making sure that things go right.
Polly was married in our church to Arthur McCoo in 1951 by the Reverend Leslie Pennington, Mack Evans providing the music. The McCoos designed their own wedding service. Polly's two children grew up in our church program. Her son Paul lives in Lakewood, Colorado, with his wife and children. Her daughter Lia lives in Chicago and performs music for four congregations. After 40 years of teaching in Chicago's public schools, Polly retired five years ago.
Polly's health problems have been taking their toll recently, obliging her to cut back on her activities; but she is still full of plans for the future. <top>
Betty and Frank Wagner (1948)
Both from Milwaukee, Frank and Betty Wagner were looking for a church school for their nursery school-age son and a church for themselves. Frank had studied physics at the University of Chicago and knew Hyde Park was the place where he wanted to live. He had fallen away from Catholicism, and Betty came from a Congregational background. They found what they were looking for at First Unitarian.
Shortly after they joined, Frank signed up for the building committee (now the property committee) and soon became chair. Betty helped out with the kindergarten class. Their church activities often reflected the growth of their three sons. Frank became scoutmaster of the new Boy Scout troop. He chaired the committee that formed the Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) group. Our church became the center of youth activities in the community.
Later Frank chaired the search committee that produced Jack Mendelsohn. He worked on the Seder dinner committee. And for years and years ("it seems forever"), he headed the church canvass. In the meantime, Betty headed the membership committee and, with Leslie Pennington's help, started the twice-yearly orientation series aimed at introducing potential members to Unitarianism and First Unitarian Church. Later she chaired the landscaping committee, which succeeded in obtaining church funding to hire professionals to cut the shrubs and prune the trees. "The grounds have looked much better after that."
The culmination of their church activities was Jazz at the First. Three jazz lovers: Duke Gray, then minister; Gene Reeves, then head of Meadville/Lombard; and member Gordon McClendon, conceived of the idea of holding Friday night jazz sessions in the Garden Room. Jazz was not popular at the time and good musicians were willing to work for modest fees. Duke, Gene, and Gordon engaged the musicians. Frank attended to organizational matters, and Betty made the tablecloths and aprons for the servers, and washed them afterwards. For nine years the once-a-month sessions took place -- until jazz again became popular, there were other venues, the musicians increased their fees, and the audiences dwindled.
The Wagners were among the first Unitarians to retire to Montgomery Place. Betty is feeling fine after last year's surgery, and is having a wonderful time working in the garden. <top>
Linnea Anderson (1950)
Three Andersons joined the church at the same time, Linnea, Douglas B. (now deceased), and their 16-year-old son Douglas C. Their religious odyssey had taken them from the Methodist church (Doug was an ordained minister) through Doug's growing interest in humanism and his involvement beginning during the Depression in the labor movement. It was Doug's selection as the assistant to Illinois Senator Paul Douglas that brought them to Hyde Park and First Unitarian. A long talk with Carl Wennerstrom, an active Unitarian at the time, contributed to their decision.
Soon Linnea became Polly McCoo's piano-playing assistant in the church school. She also played organ and piano for the church as needed, and was the first organist for the Chicago Children's Choir. She also chaired the crypt committee for many years. She is most known in the community as the outstanding education director for the Hyde Park Cooperative Society. <top>
Douglas C. Anderson (1950)
Doug remembers helping music director Mack Evans tune the church organ in his teens. After college he was an advisor for the LRY, an assistant scoutmaster (under Frank Wagner), and later scoutmaster for the church's Boy Scout troop. He also accompanied early children's-choir concerts on his violin.
His active church attendance was cut short by his becoming a Sunday morning docent at Lincoln Park Zoo in 1972, which still continues. A social worker, Doug worked for 37 years as a probation officer for the Cook County Juvenile Court. Since his 1995 retirement, he has been a full-time tour guide for the Chicago Architectural Foundation.
For 25 years he has conducted bird walks at the Wooded Island. His popular Bird Walk with Birder's Breakfast has been offered through the church's talent auction for many years. <top>
Margaret Walters (1950)
Margaret was the daughter of a Congregational minister. Though his theology was liberal, she recalls a rigid upbringing: "Everything was a sin." She ended up in the Unitarian Church because she couldn't "get any further to the left."
After only eight years of marriage, Margaret was widowed by World War II machine guns. She still grieves that she never received her husband's body; but in the First Unitarian crypt there is a compartment reserved for "Wife and Clarence Walters." A psychiatric social worker, her special interest is the American Ortho-Psychiatric Association.
Heart and hip problems pretty much confine her to her apartment in Montgomery Place. <top>
Elizabeth and Robert Wissler (1951)
We regret that Betty and Bob both have been ill lately and did not feel up to being interviewed. <top>
Winston Kennedy (1952)
Win and his first wife chose Unitarianism because, coming from different religious backgrounds (Methodist and Catholicism), they both found this an acceptable compromise. They tried First Unitarian and looked no further. Win found it intellectually stimulating. He liked the liturgy and Leslie Pennington's sermons, and he was attracted to the "openness of the search for truth." In 1955 he was president of the congregation.
Win worked in public housing then. The department had rented to a black family in the all-white Trumbull Park Homes, without, Win says, proper preparation, and the community was very tense. Win was reassigned to it as on-site manager. Though he speaks deprecatingly of his role, others credit him with successfully defusing the situation and achieving an orderly transition.
Through his work, Win and his wife became friends with Mr. and Mrs. David Cole, and in 1956 transferred their membership to the Universalist Church at 83rd and Ingleside, where Cole was minister.
In the 60's Win became very active in the denomination, a trustee for the new Unitarian Universalist Association, on the UU Service Committee, and on the board of Starr King Theological School. In 1967 he founded his own real estate firm, which he recently sold to spare himself the administrative duties. He and wife Margaret will continue to sell real estate.
In 1988 he rejoined First Unitarian and serves on the property committee, handling real estate transactions for the church. <top>
Eleanor P. Petersen (1953)
She was raised a Methodist, but her husband Carl, a musician, fell in love with the Unitarian church choir under Mack Evans, and so they joined First Unitarian. Mack, Eleanor recalls, used to make great broccoli omelets for the choir.
Some of her memories: Danny Pennington, Leslie Pennington's wife, felt she (Danny) couldn't sing, and so she would sit at the back of the church and whistle through the hymns. One Easter ("which is always a problem for Unitarians"), the church school children, including Eleanor's three little boys, were taken to the Museum of Science and Industry to see the chicken eggs being hatched!
Under Pennington the church was a real leader in the community's struggles for integration. In the 50's very few people in Hyde Park-Kenwood were able to obtain mortgages from existing banking institutions. Eleanor, the late Paul Berger (then also a First Unitarian member), and two others were instrumental in setting up the Hyde Park Federal Savings and Loan.
She counts George Reed and his late wife Selina as special friends from those days. <top>
Charles Staples (1954)
Except for a few Sundays driving a cab while he was in school, Charles Staples has faithfully and continuously attended Sunday services. If he is in town, he is at our church.
Charles was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, and sent to a Christian Scientist Church school by his mother. His father was a "nominal" Unitarian. After attending Marlboro College in Vermont (Leslie Pennington was a board member), he came to Chicago to enroll in the Art Institute and found a room in Hyde Park. He began attending First Unitarian in the fall of 1951 and joined the church in 1954. He has many fond memories of the range of talents and admirable skills that Dr. Pennington offered.
While working for the Chicago welfare department, Charles was able to avail himself of employee scholarships and trained to become a professional social worker. For 27 years he was a public school social worker, retiring in 1993. He married Joan Hobbs in 1963. The Reverend Jack Hayward performed the ceremony.
Charles can well remember how in the 50's, real estate brokers were encouraging white flight, and he credits Dr. Pennington, the local Quakers, and Rabbi Weinstein with "saving Hyde Park" as a viable neighborhood. In 1957 he made the bus trip to Washington D.C. to join 30,000 civil rights demonstrators in the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.
Charles has participated in the annual pledge drive for most of his years in the church. He and Joan travel extensively, and he loves to share their travel adventures with friends through his excellent color photographs. <top>
Harriet Swanson (1954)
Harriet comes from a long Unitarian tradition. Her grandparents were members of the first Unitarian church in Chicago in the late 1800s. It was located in the downtown vicinity and it was still customary at that time to purchase your pew. Her grandmother had a tea to which she invited both African-American and white ladies to discuss how race relations in the city could be improved.
Her parents regularly attended First Unitarian on Woodlawn and as a child she was introduced to Unitarian principles and beliefs. Von Ogden Vogt was the minister then, and as she grew older and could absorb his sermons, they are among her special memories. She especially remembers how charming Mrs. Vogt was and how cordial she was to everyone. Very important to her are the friendships she has made over the years at First Unitarian.
Born and raised in Chicago, it was during her studies at the University of Chicago that she met Fred Swanson, whom she married in 1946. They were married by the Reverend Wallace Robbins, then president of Meadville/Lombard Theological School. They raised two children: Abigail lives in Iowa and has three children; and Daniel, a writer, lives in New York.
Husband Fred, who died 14 years ago, was an enthusiastic Unitarian and rarely missed a Sunday service. Harriet taught church school for five years during Jack Kent's ministry. Over the years she has been a church member known to be a willing helper where needed on parties, luncheons, bazaars and flea markets, and providing transportation to and from church. She currently assists the membership committee at the welcoming table once a month.
Harriet was a library teacher in the Chicago public schools for 20 years. At this point in life her interests are going to plays and concerts, travel, and attending university lectures on a variety of subjects. <top>
Roberta MacGowan (1955)
Roberta grew up near Brookfield Zoo hearing "the elephants trumpet and the lions roar." A member of the Hinsdale Unitarian Church, she worked for the League of Women Voters for some time. Then she and a girlfriend quit their jobs and traveled all around Europe for three months. When she got back, Carol Saphir of our church, whom she knew through the League, called to tell her that First Unitarian was looking for a church manager. Pennington and the board hired her and she moved to Hyde Park.
Jack Kent fired her in 1963 -- "probably he didn't want ties to the past." Rather understandably, Roberta disappeared from the church. She came back in Duke Gray's time. In the meantime she helped an anthropological association prepare high school curricula; then assisted U of C anthropologist Sol Tax organize the International Anthropological Ethnological Conference in Chicago. Until her fairly recent retirement, she was an administrative assistant in the university's social science collegiate division. <top>
Wallace Rusterholz (1955)
Wallace had his first experience at First Unitarian as a 1934 visitor to the Chicago World's Fair. He walked into the famous new Unitarian "cathedral" and was astoundedby the odor of incense, which Von Ogden Vogt, a "high church" Unitarian, incorporated into his services. Had he walked into an Episcopal church by mistake?
A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Wallace grew up in the Presbyterian church, but in 1933 -- now "an unreconstructed humanist and logical positivist" -- he became a Unitarian.
His second visit, which has lasted to the present, was in l955, when he came to Hyde Park to pursue a library science degree at the University of Chicago. He and his late wife found people very friendly, and Ella Mae Jones ("Mrs. Unitarian") "latched onto us right away." The Rusterholtzes soon signed the membership book.
Mainly an adult education teacher of social studies at a Chicago City College, Wallace has spoken from many UU pulpits, including our own, and in 1996 published My Not So Gay Life -- a fascinating account that includes his career struggles during the Depression, his World War II experiences in (then) Persia, his life as a bisexual, and how he lives out his humanist rationalist principles in the real world.
He also has written a history of First Unitarian, and has served on the board and on the search committees that brought us Duke Gray and Tom Chulak. For years he has spent his summers at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York, where he helped organize the UU Fellowship. <top>
Bette Hanna Sikes (1955)
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Bette was born in the Shenandoah Valley in rural Virginia, where she spent the years of her early childhood. Later she lived in Louisville, Kentucky.
How did she come to Chicago? She laughs. Two of her college friends had moved here and they invited her to join them, with the promise to find her a place to live. She did; and (more laughter) soon they all found boyfriends!
Bette joined the Channing Club and started attending church; she found herself preaching one of the sermons for the Youth Day service. A young adult's group developed from the Channing Club (Charles Staples was also a member), and there she met George Sikes. Leslie Pennington married them in June l956; her father also officiated.
Bette and George were caught up in the civil rights struggles of the 60's and 70's. During the summer of l966, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago, various church members participated in some of the marches King led. Betty and George went on every single weekend march. In l969, just before he came to First Unitarian, Jack Mendelsohn led a walkout at the UU General Assembly, in support of black empowerment. Soon George became actively involved. Bette gave him her support. She sees her role as one of making it possible for others to do things. Being treasurer of the church falls into that category, she says. She was treasurer from 1970-77, and again from 1991 on.
She also has chaired the program council twice, taught in the religious education program, sung in the choir, and preached from time to time. Since the 60's she also has been active in denominational affairs and currently is treasurer of the UU Central Midwest District. She is self-employed in the production and editing of scholarly journals. <top>
Timuel Black (1956)
Timuel Black came to First Unitarian in 1953 to help answer his young daughter's question: "Where's God?" Because there was no church school at the nearby church of his parents, Timuel and his two children, Ermetra born in 1947, and the late Timuel Kerrigan born in 1953, became members of First Unitarian in 1956. His daughter was probably the first child of color to join the Chicago Children's Choir, an activity in which his son continued. Both children attended our church throughout high school, along with their father, who taught in the Gary, Indiana, and Chicago public schools while studying in the University of Chicago doctoral program.
Of particular significance to Timuel are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Chicago visit during Leslie Pennington's tenure, and the Kenwood-Oakland community organizing, which probably led to the first use of the phrase"plantation politics."
Although he was born in Birmingham, Alabama, Chicago has been Timuel's home since he was a few months old. The Burke Elementary School across from Washington Park, along with Englewood, Phillips, and DuSable high schools, have produced this"so-called retired" consultant to education and community development. Currently, Timuel is writing a book using the working title, Bridges of Memory: Three Generations of African Americans in Chicago. <top>
Greta and John Godbey (1956)
When John returned to the United States, with his new wife Greta, he was turning more and more to Unitarianism. He was raised a Methodist, but she said no to that. They tried out the First Unitarian Church. Greta thought it was"very, very nice."
The two met in Casablanca in Morocco. John was part of a civilian construction company building a United States air base; Greta was working for a French dry cleaning firm. Greta grew up on a plantation in Indonesia. During World War II the Dutch, including Greta's whole family, were interned in Java under Japanese occupation. When she returned to Holland after the war, she found it"too narrow, too Dutch Reform Christian." She tried England, then France. Wanting to learn French, she answered an ad for an au pair girl for a family (who spoke impeccable French) who were going to Morocco.
John and Greta married in 1954; in August 1955 they came to the United States, specifically to Hyde Park where John had enrolled at the University of Chicago Divinity School for a Ph.D. in church history. He also planned to get a Unitarian ministerial degree in case he couldn't get a teaching position; he was hired by Meadville/Lombard Theological School as soon as he received his degree.
John has served on the board and the nominating committee; he has conducted weddings and memorial services, led adult education classes, and preached sermons. Greta has taught various church school classes, been on the board twice, on the nominating committee and other committees. She sang in the choir from 1974 until recently, "when her throat gave out." A high school and college math teacher, she recently retired.
John is a member of the International Association for Religious Freedom and has made a special study of liberal churches in Eastern Europe. Together they have participated in fundraising affairs for the UU Central Midwest District. Greta has written several plays performed in church sanctuaries, and is famous for her Indonesian Rijstaffel dinners, offered through the church talent auction. <top>
Margaret Matchett (1956)
Margaret grew up in Indianapolis "more or less a Unitarian." She and her late husband Gerald came to Chicago when he took an economist position at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They lived in Woodlawn and Hyde Park for four years before they joined First Unitarian, motivated by the desire to give their children, Andrew and Susan, a Unitarian education. Both children grew up to be active Unitarians.
Hyde Park-Kenwood was a ferment of activity in those years and our church played a leading role. It was a new idea to create an interracial community, Margaret points out, and she reveres Leslie Pennington for his work in the community. "He really brought his beliefs to life." In the hour before church began, when the children were in church school, a group of us used to sit in the church office and talk, Margaret recalls. She particularly remembers Selina and George Reed.
Margaret retired as a Lab School teacher a few years ago, but she remains an active church and community participant. <top>
Harold Moody (1957)
Harold Moody had a religious awakening after college; traditional religion no longer satisfied him. He wanted the freedom to form his own beliefs. While he was a Ray School teacher, the quality of the music and Pennington's sermons attracted him to First Unitarian.
He is proudest of his daughter Michelle who attended Hyde Park schools, our church school, Wellesley College, and Oxford and Harvard universities. Now retired, Harold was principal of Dineen Grade School for 19 years, served on Tom Chulak's search committee, and is a passionate motorcyclist and amateur photographer. <top>
Norma and Alex Poinsett (1958)
When the Poinsetts visited our church for the first time, Leslie Pennington was preaching on Alfred North Whitehead. This was almost too much for Alex; Whitehead is one of his favorite philosophers!
Alex had been attracted to Unitarianism as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Champaign. He and Norma, also a graduate student, had attended the Unitarian church there a few times and found it much more thoughtful than the "holy roller" approach to spirituality of Alex's Baptist background.
He and Norma joined First Unitarian a few weeks later. Alex served on the board in the 60's and Norma in the 70's. Norma also taught in the church school. Their two children attended the church school and sang in the Chicago Children's Choir. Daughter Pierette, a California pediatrician, is now a Buddhist, but son Pierre is a member of our church. Both parents became seriously involved in the struggles for racial justice.
Norma vividly remembers the church's all-day workshop in the early 70's organized by Jack Mendelsohn, and led by university psychologist Eugene Gendlin. Most black members of the church wanted to form a Black Caucus and most white members were dismayed by their wish to draw apart -- until then an integrated church had been seen as the common goal. Ella May Jones, the oldest member of the church and a greatly respected retired school teacher, had come in opposition. All day long people explored and expressed their feelings and concerns about racial issues. At the end of the day, right about when the sun was setting, Ella May stood up and announced, as Norma recalls it, "I came this morning against the idea of a Black Caucus meeting in our church, because I thought it was wrong and not necessary. Now I realize I was wrong and I want it to be here." With that bestowal of her blessing, the whole tone of the meeting changed, and the vote was in favor.
Alex tells how, about 1973, the Chicago chapter of the Black Caucus pressed the UUA board for funding to help black programs grow. The board promised one million dollars, to be paid in four installments; but only the first $250,000 was paid. The board said they did not have the money; but the Black Caucus regarded them as reneging on their promise. In anger, many blacks dropped out of their churches. Alex was one of them. He says he will always be grateful for Jack Mendelsohn's support of the Black Caucus, and believes that support cost Mendelsohn the election as president of the UUA.
Norma stayed. She transferred her efforts primarily to the denominational level, serving from the 70's on in various capacities: work on the racial justice curriculum for church schools, as a UUA board member, as a liaison with the UU Service Committee, and on the UUA committee on committees. Most importantly she helped originate the UU black concerns committee, now the Jubilee World, which conducts racial justice workshops in UU churches around the country. These workshops, Norma says, are what feeds her.
Alex came back to First Unitarian about 1990. He chaired the Decisions for Growth workshop and drafted a three-year program for future church development. He was president of the congregation in 1996-97.
A writer, Alex has contributed to Ebony magazine for 30 years and written five books. The most recent came out last year and is entitled Walking with the Presidents: Louis Martin and the Rise of Political Power. <top>
Mary Sidney (1958)
Mary's husband had just received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago when he died suddenly from a heart ailment. Married only nine years, with a five-month-old daughter, and knowing only her husband's colleagues, Mary had to make a beginning somewhere. A non-practicing Jew (she was an atheist), her husband had remarked that the Unitarian church would be good for their daughter, and so she came to First Unitarian.
She was "scooped up" by J. B. Allin, and the Dorlaques and Eisendraths. Jim Stevens invited her to join the adult discussion group and a local book club. Soon her whole social life opened up.
Mary liked Jack Kent very much; he was "a very personable, warm, thoughtful man." At a time when she was hospitalized for pneumonia and very nearly broke, he quietly paid some of her hospital expenses from his discretionary fund.
Some years of "backsliding" followed. She returned in earnest when Tom Chulak asked her to edit the church newsletter.
A University of Illinois English instructor for 33 years, Mary is now retired, a bird watcher and a bookworm. She remembers with nostalgia the all-church weekends in Michigan and Wisconsin and her week spent at the Mountain UU camp in North Carolina. <top>