This is the history of our congregation, beginning with the early years (1953-1963), not the history of Unitarian-Universalism. You can read the whole history from start to finish here. Choose the era you wish to read about from the left sidebar menu.
1953 – 1963: The Early Years
It all began with an advertisement in the Modesto Bee on January 6, 1953. A few former Unitarians and their friends, who were natural Unitarians, met at the Hotel Covell for the purpose of forming a Fellowship. That gathering proved to be encouraging and within three weeks the first speaker, Joe Bartlett, spoke on Unitarian History. Thirty people attended the services at the Odd Fellows Hall, which was to be the first of many meeting places. Music, flowers, meditation, talk back and coffee set a pattern we still follow today. Later that year thirty men and women registered as Charter Members. Almost forty years later (1992), Hazel Hall was the only charter member who still attended our Fellowship.
The roster of charter members:
Margaret S. Boothe
Virgil F. Bradfield
Gwen L. Carter
W. C. Chad
Beatrice N. Coffee
William F. Fitzhugh
Hazel Murray Hall
Mary L. Jacquemin
E. M. LeBaron
Lois A. LeBaron
Thomas C. Lloyd-Jones
Esther S. Merriam
Hugh G. Merriam
Rhoda D. Mills
Clark L. Morrison
Frederick S. Morrison
Margaret A. Rasmussen
Lora Lee Roberts
Clarence P. Stevens
Kittie Lee Swim
Craig W. Vilas
Richard C. Vilas
Tom and Genevieve Lloyd-Jones held many of the earlier meetings every other Sunday evening in their backyard. We also met in other members’ homes, as well as Moose Hall and the KBOX Studios. By 1957 we were meeting in Group Hall, at 6th and J Streets, owned by the Halls and the Modesto Little Theater Group. Over the years Roy and Hazel’s sense of drama and timing enriched many of the Fellowship’s programs. Group Hall was beginning to feel like home as members went about painting and redecorating, only to find that the building had been sold to another church group, which required us to move out by January 1964.
Dr. James Ford Lewis, minister to the Stockton Unitarian Society at that time, was instrumental in helping us get established. At the May 1954 Annual Meeting we passed a resolution making Dr. Lewis our “Honorary Minster” for the duration of his Ministry in Central California.
While we were at Group Hall, three ministers served in rotation; Harold Schmidt, Larry Jaffe and Clifton Gordon. (Larry and Clifton were Harvard Divinity School graduates). From 1958 to 1960 the Rev. Leonard Kirkegaard spoke three Sundays a month and did pastoral work on Saturdays.
At first there wasn’t an R. E. program but the need for it was evident and soon a very active one was under way with the help of Rosemary Matson of the Pacific Central District Staff. As it is now, many of the teachers were parents of the children. At one time we conducted the classes Saturdays at the Congregational Church. The “four season” mosaic panels, seen these days outside on the Johnson Building, were made by the youth group under Margaret Rush’s guidance. Howard TenBrink took the mid-group on visits to “The church across the street,” to sample other denominational services. (It was during this period, too, that Howard went to help rebuild earthquake-shattered Skopje, Yugoslavia). Fred Johnson, (who set up the program), Edith Wheeler and Willodean Binna were Religious Education Chairpersons.
During the time at Group Hall, Veda Morris lined up coffee servers. Esther Merriam usually contributed and arranged flowers. Hazel Hall and Lois LeBaron organized and loaned library books. Don Cantwell moderated a discussion group, which preceded church services. Mary Johnson led the redecoration of the Group Hall. Howard and Harry TenBrink, aided by others, did the heavier work. Social affairs were frequent and held in members’ homes or in public halls. Programs and potlucks and were the work of many and enjoyed by all.
Here’s a transcript of that advertisement in the Modesto Bee. (Tuesday, January 6, 1953; Page 10)
Unitarian Fellowship Will Be Organized at Meeting Tonight.
Unitarians and other interested persons will meet in Room 223, Hotel Covell, tonight at 8 o’clock to organize the Modesto Unitarian Fellowship.
This is one of a series of organizing meetings in the San Joaquin Valley and is part of the four hundredth anniversary of the martyrdom of Michael Servetus, the first exponent of the modern Unitarian faith.
Rev Frank Ricker, Berkeley regional director for the American Unitarian Association, will conduct the meeting and will speak on “Religion Does Make a Difference”.
Unitarian Fellowships are a pioneering laymen’s venture in religion. In Canada, the United States, [the territories of] Hawaii and the Canal Zone and South America, groups of religious liberals have been organizing programs without the assistance of a minister. In three years more than 100 fellowships have been organized and several have become churches.
Rev. Riker will discuss many distinguished Americans who have been Unitarians, including Thomas Jefferson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and California’s famed Thomas Starr King. Questions and general discussion will be held before making plans for the new society. The meeting is open to interested persons.