Living Our Values through the Years
History of the First Unitarian
Church of Rochester
The congregation of the first Unitarian Church of Rochester has always taken seriously its role as a religious community with a civic circumference. As former city Historian Blake McKelvey put it as he addressed the 125th anniversary of this congregation in 1954, the First Unitarian Church has been "Rochester's Alert Conscience and Hospitable Roof."
This church was founded in 1829 as a small, struggling fellowship without a minister in a frontier town of 10,000 people with seven other churches. Its lay leader, Myron Holley, welcomed poor day laborers and even drunkards into membership. He was often approached by “families too degraded by intemperance and vice to venture to ask a clergyman to conduct funeral services for their loved ones.” Holley was a founder of the Liberty Party, one of the first Northern abolitionist groups. He embodied the motto from a hymn by William Channing Gannett that graces the lobby, “Here let no one be a stranger.”
The congregation ran into problems immediately after its formal creation. It had been founded in a burst of enthusiasm after preaching by James Green. But Green declined the congregation’s call and continued on his preaching tour. Nevertheless, the society attempted to go on. It met first in the court House, and then purchased a wood frame structure being vacated by an Episcopalian group that was building a new church. It was not long before the society found itself in debt, and the building was sold in 1831.
In 1841 the group was able to reorganize under the former name, and the Society built a church on the west side of North Fitzhugh and dedicated it in 1843. For sixteen years services were held there, until in 1859 the building was destroyed in an incendiary fire.
In 1865 the Rev. Frederick Holland offered two months’ free service to his Unitarian friends in Rochester. He was persuaded to stay longer, and he preached at first in the old Corinthian Hall. Services have been held continuously ever since then. With great effort and enthusiasm the congregation raised funds for another church to be built on Fitzhugh Street, and when completed it housed the congregation until 1883.
Frederick Holland was an enthusiastic leader who built the congregation. Mann wrote of him: “He set the society on its feet and kept it stirring.” Unfortunately for our church, Holland resigned in January of 1848 to become General Secretary of the American Unitarian Association, and our church had another series of short ministries.
The history of the period leaves one feeling that the pulpit had a revolving door; through it swirled not only dissension over internal problems, but also the great social questions of the day: Woman suffrage and slavery.
In 1870 Dr. Newton Mann answered our call. William Channing Gannett wrote of Mann’s eighteen-year ministry:
"For the first time the church had a chance to establish itself firmly in the city’s intellectual and moral life, and it did so, harmonious within and respected outside, though never at all a popular church. Dr. Mann preached a highly rationalized scientific type of Unitarianism, welcoming progressive ideas and rather combative of orthodoxy."
Dr. Mann is acknowledged as the first American clergyman to accept and to proclaim from his pulpit the doctrine of evolution.
During Mann's ministry, an unusually warm relationship developed between our congregation and Temple B'rith Kodesh, Rochester's first and, at that time, by far the largest synagogue. Peter Eisenstadt's history of B'rith Kodesh describes the relationship as "extremely close." Rev. Mann and Rabbi Landsberg delighted in trading pulpits, delivering sermons for the other congregation. Mann provided assistance to Landsberg when he translated a prayer book from Hebrew to English. Their translation of "Yigdal," a Hebrew song, has been used in hymnals of several denominations. Both men were members of the Fortnightly Club, a group of young Rochesterians who met every two weeks to discuss the great works of literature and philosophy. In 1884, when Mann developed a lengthy illness, Rabbi Landsberg delivered sermons at First Unitarian for seven Sundays. After B'rith Kodesh's building was destroyed by fire in 1909, that congregation used our church as a temporary home.
This close relationship led First Unitarian and B'rith Kodesh to join with the First Universalist Church in 1874 to conduct a joint Thanksgiving service, beginning a tradition that continues to this day. The number of congregations that participate in this service has expanded in recent years to embrace a wide variety of faith traditions, including the First Baptist Church, the Catholic Diocese and the Islamic Center.
In 1881 Mann expressed his opinion that things had become too placid! He said, “We have been, perhaps, even too much of one mind for our spiritual health.”
It appears that William Channing Gannett had the same concern about our congregation when he and his wife, Mary T.L. Gannett, came here in response to our call in 1889. He wrote to friends that the Unitarian Church was a “very ‘respectable’ looking people, many gray heads among them,” and that the church school was “small and sleepy and not in good condition.”
The Gannett activities were seemingly endless. The church bustled with cultural and social-betterment projects, and the Gannetts themselves were personally active in the major social causes of the day, such as woman suffrage and the opening of the University of Rochester to coeducation.
Dr. Gannett had the rare distinction - and challenge - of being Susan B. Anthony's minister. The biography of Susan B. Anthony that she herself commissioned says, "Mr. Gannett often laughingly remarked that he always expected her after the services to tell him whether his sermons were good or bad, but her family knew that she counted the Sunday lost when she did not hear one of them." She began attending services at our church with her family in the late 1840s and made it her church home until her death in 1906. Susan B. Anthony was listed as a member of First Unitarian in a church history written in 1881. She formally signed the membership book in 1893 after a church anniversary celebration and rededication.
On July 19, 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, reconvening at Rochester’s First Unitarian Church on July 30, where Susan B. Anthony’s father, mother and sister Mary signed the Declaration for Sentiments for women’s Rights. Susan was teaching school in Canajoharie at the time.
She was the central figure in the Woman’s Rights and Woman Suffrage Movement. When the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution was passed, it was called the Susan B. Anthony amendment. Her life and work are recognized with two U.S. stamps, the Anthony dollar, the Susan B. Anthony House, Park and statue on Madison Street and numerous biographies.
In 1883 the United States government offered our congregation twenty thousand dollars for our property, which it wanted as a site for a new post office. At the same time, the Third Presbyterian Church wished to move to a new location on East Avenue.
The Presbyterians made us a flat offer: We were to give them the twenty thousand dollars we had received from the government, and they would give us their two buildings “in an out-of-the-way nook” on Temple and Cortland Streets. At a hurried meeting, our trustees accepted the deal, not realizing until the following morning that they had purchased a chapel as well as the church itself – the chapel or parish house we came to know as Gannett House.
Through the years an amazing number of activities have centered around Gannett House. Anyone who reviews them even superficially is sure to be impressed by two things: the remarkable receptivity to new ideas shown by the congregation of this church, and its willingness to champion worthwhile movements before they become popular. In the words of one of the trustees, “Our tradition is to make traditions.”
The most well-known of the Gannett projects was the Boys’ Evening Home, opened in January 1890. On evenings, local boys could come to the parish house. Games, magazines, refreshments, and “wholesome” companionship were available – and the boys were thus removed from the streets of this rough neighborhood. Over the years, the Home expanded to provide schooling and workshops for arts and handcrafts, and the boys even put out their own little newspaper.
Our church played a key role in the long struggle to open the University of Rochester to female students, with Susan B. Anthony and Mary Gannett among the campaign's leaders. When the reluctant university trustees finally agreed to admit women, they set a condition that $50,000 first had to be raised by a specific date to defray costs. Just back from a trip to Wyoming for the women's suffrage movement (at the age of 81!), Susan B. Anthony was informed the evening before the deadline that the fund drive was $8000 short of the goal and that its organizers had given up hope. Opposition among the university trustees had increased significantly, so there was no chance of an extended deadline. Riding through town the next morning in a carriage on a hot day, Susan B. Anthony visited stores, offices, factories and homes of the wealthy, but was turned down repeatedly. Fiercely determined, she nonetheless succeeded in raising the remaining $8000, all of it from members of the First Unitarian Church, all of whom had undoubtedly contributed generously already: Sarah Willis (Mrs. Edmund P. Willis), Rev. William and Mary Gannett, Samuel Wilder, Susan B. Anthony herself, and her sister Mary Anthony. Thirty-three young women triumphantly entered the university a few days later in September 1900.
In 1928 David Rhys Williams left the Third Unitarian Church of Chicago to answer the call of our church. David Williams’ ministry here spanned three tumultuous decades of American history – economic depression, world war, cold war, and internal suspicions. Through it all, he was steadfast in his principles, and our church grew under his leadership.
Our church gave Planned Parenthood its first home in Rochester, and David Williams was the first local clergyman to support Planned Parenthood publicly. Among the other groups which used Gannett House as headquarters was the Rochester Better Housing council, which operated there in the mid 1940s.
In 1957 several members organized the Rochester Memorial society, advocating simple, dignified memorial services rather than the traditional elaborate and ostentatious funeral practices. The society has grown to a membership of over a thousand families, now a majority from outside our congregation. Our church serves as the Society’s mailing address, and members of the church still provide much of the leadership of the Society.
At Sunday services on January 5, 1958 David Williams announced
his planned November retirement.
While our congregation was in the midst of selecting candidates for our pulpit, we were struck by another crisis: In April we were approached by planners of the proposed Midtown Plaza Project with an offer to purchase our church property. While the Pulpit committee deliberated over ministerial candidates, another major committee had to be chosen to consider this offer. One element that had to enter into the decision was the fact that we did need more space.
During the ensuing year the congregation considered the problem. In January of 1959 the difficult decision was finally made: We would abandon to the wrecking crew the parish house and sanctuary where our congregation had worshipped since 1883.
We rented Hutchison House on East Avenue from the University of Rochester to house our church school and offices, and we began to hold Sunday services in the nearby Dryden Theater.
To prepare for the church’s new home a committee was formed to search for an architect to design and build the new church. Noted architect Louis Kahn was chosen to design the building. His work with the congregation resulted in a significant building that is known throughout the world and is often included on architectural building tours.
In November of 1962 we moved into our building on Winton Road, holding dedication services on November 18 and on December 2.
We began the 1963-1964 church year settled in our new building with a new minister. Robert West arrived in Rochester in August of 1963. “His first sermon dealt with the Civil Rights march on Washington in which he had participated, as had David Williams and several of our church members.
Because of rapid growth in membership, we began holding two Sunday worship services in the fall of 1964. Soon afterward Louis Kahn was hired once more, this time to design an addition to the building, which was completed in 1969.
The Social Action committee (later renamed the Social Responsibility Committee, now the Social Justice Council) was founded in May, 1961. Through the years, this committee has served as a vehicle for education of the congregation about the great social issues of the day, and for action by church members on these issues. The committee’s goal was to study social and world problems, propose action on them, arrange for congregational consideration of these proposals, and supervise social action projects.
Community Interests: One of the early concerns of the Social Action Committee was housing for minorities, which was expensive, in short supply and subject to racial discrimination. After some study a corporation called Community Interests, Inc., was formed in March 1963 to provide financial assistance and counseling to families eligible to own homes outside the ghetto. Church members bought $5.00 shares of stock, others contributed money, and several foundations provided grants or loans. In 1968, for example, 16 counselors worked with over 100 families, and 29 loans were made, bringing the total for five years to 254 families counseled and 64 loans made. This successful program was eventually taken over by the Monroe County Housing Council.
The Winton Road Nursery School was founded at this time as a semi-cooperative, interracial, nonprofit, nonsectarian school for three and four-year olds. In consideration for partial scholarships offered by the school to low-income families, the church provides three classrooms and the playground for nominal rent.
In September, 1968 Robert West announced his candidacy for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association. West was elected UUA President and on July 16, 1969 he resigned as our minister. When he was installed as UUA President in September, he chose to hold the ceremony in the Rochester church, for he considered it his church. Many UUA dignitaries came for the ceremony.
During the 1969-1970 church year a pulpit committee searched for a new minister. The Search Committee did all the usual things and one unusual thing: Sue and Dave Schwardt went to a wedding in Ithaca. That’s not so unusual, except that upon their return, they convinced the Search Committee to add the minister who officiated at that wedding to their list of candidates. So begins the Dick Gilbert story.
Dick Gilbert came to us in 1970, already having been involved in the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. Since then he has been active in many, many more causes, both in Rochester and the wider community, as well as for the UUA and UU Service Committee, as organizer, participant and often as chair. Gilbert has played a leading role for years in Interfaith Impact of New York State, a religious coalition that promotes progressive policies within state government. Over the years he has earned his doctorate and written several books which helped him formulate a philosophy of the role of social responsibility in the UU Church - relating the fundamentals of Unitarian Universalism to social action work, and integrating social responsibility into the very fabric of the church community.
In 1980 Rev. Gilbert wrote The Prophetic Imperative: Unitarian Universalist Foundations for a New Social Gospel. This book has become one of the key resources for the UUA's Social Justice Empowerment Program, which conducts seminars for congregations that are seeking to build an effective social justice program. According to the UUA web site, the book "has guided hundreds of Unitarian Universalists Congregations in their quest to do public ministry effectively."
In 1983 Dick Gilbert wrote the first volume of Building Your Own Theology, a guidebook for a multi-week course in which people examine and clarify their personal values and beliefs in a group setting. Along with two subsequent volumes, his course became the most widely used adult religious education curriculum within the denomination.
At the UUA General Assembly of 1982, Joyce Gilbert called a meeting of attendees interested in creating an organization for church musicians. The overflow crowd's energy led to the 1983 summer conference of what quickly became the UU Musicians Network. Both Joyce Gilbert and Minister of Music Ed Schell served on the UUMN organizing committee and subsequently as presidents of this 500+-member international organization, which played a major role in developing both the hymnal Singing the Living Tradition and its supplement Singing the Journey.
It was about 20 years from when we moved into this building in 1962 until the “Great Organ Transplant”. Ed Schell led the effort to move the St. Bernard’s Seminary pipe organ into this church. The money had to be raised in a matter of hours and 18 folks guaranteed the $18,000 at record speed. Having it moved would have cost twice what we paid for it. Instead, many dedicated volunteers spent two evenings a week doing the installation.
Our association with #22 School and later the Children’s School happened as a result of a call to action by the Urban League in 1985, asking churches to support better education for Rochester’s children. In 1988 Dick Gilbert attended a conference on this same topic and reported to the Social Responsibility Committee. SRC advertised for volunteers in the newsletter, with responses from both prospective volunteers and teachers in inner city schools. Teachers in #22 School, which has a high percentage of poor, immigrant and minority students and an 85% turnover rate, provided a wish list, and #22 was chosen to be a partner school.
Over time the grounds around our building have become a lovely garden through the efforts of Madlyn Evans and many volunteers. In 1986 the Memorial garden was dedicated with a wall plaque in the SBA Lounge bearing the names of those whose ashes are scattered in the garden.
Also over time, a number of changes have been made to the building starting with the addition in 1969 to give us much needed space. Other changes have been made to provide accessibility for various handicaps. These include elimination of the step at the main entrance, the door buttons, handicap available restrooms, Braille signs and a major project – installation of the elevator in 1995-1996.
Following the retirement of Richard Gilbert in 2002 (after 32 years with us) there were Interim Ministers for two years, and then in 2004 we welcomed Kaaren Anderson and Scott Tayler as Parish Co-Ministers and Jen Crow as Associate Minister. In 2012, Jen Crow moved to another congregation, and Tina Simson became our Minister of Pastoral Care and Adult Spiritual Development. In 2013, Scott Tayler was honored with the opportunity to work for the UUA as the Director of Congregational Life. Kaaren Anderson now serves as our Senior Minister, and as of 2013-14 we are in search for a partner Lead Minister to round out the team.
Due to continued growth in membership, in 2010 we began offering a Saturday worship service in addition to the Sunday services. Music for this service is provided by "Orange Sky," our house band.
We hope that learning something of our past will assist in achieving our visions for the future.
July 10 2013