Thursday, December 29, 2011

This Old Church—Saying Goodbye

The First Congregational Chuch of  Woodstock circa 1930.

Tonight some of us will gather for the last time at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock building to say goodbye.  It will be a virtual shell—most everything will have been boxed, packed up, and hauled to our new church home in McHenry, if everything goes according to plan.  The pews will still be there, and the pulpit.  We will have an informal service and leave taking.  Folks will share memories.  I plan to sing a song This Old Church, based on the 1950’s hit This Old House that I wrote for a worship service production celebrating the centennial of the building in 2006.  Folks will have to bring refreshments and treats from home to share—the coffee urns, founts of UU communion wine, will be gone with everything else.


Folks have been worshiping at Dean and South Streets since 1865 when a bunch of returning Civil War veterans and local teetotalers formed the First Congregational Church of Woodstock.  By the following year they had raised a tidy sum and put up a fine new white clapboard church building with an impressive spire in the New England Meeting House style.  It was the largest church in town and could seat 400, although Sunday services never drew nearly that many.

The church was typical in its Puritan, Spartan simplicity.  Originally it had no stove, let alone indoor plumbing.  Members sat through three hour worship services sitting bolt upright on hard pews in layers of heavy winter clothing.  Eventually a couple of heating stoves were added, but were hardly up to the worst of Illinois winters.  Gradually other amenities were added, including even gas lights.

Shortly after the turn of the 20th Century a new minister, Rev. C.H. Bene concluded it was past time for a modern building befitting the congregation’s status as the religious home of many of Woodstock’s most influential citizens.  A building campaign was launched and due to the generosity of the congregation and some of those leading families including the Hoys, Wheats, McConnells, and Wrights the money was raised.

In 1906 the old building was torn down and the new building featuring a squat square Norman bell tower and magnificent gothic arched stained glass windows was erected. Built on an unusual plan, the sanctuary was separated from a large open meeting room by sliding pocket doors. With the doors thrown open the floor of the open room became a stage for Sunday school pageants or amateur theatricals. Around the perimeter of the large room, smaller rooms could be created with folding doors for office space or Sunday school classes.

The new building also symbolized a break with the stricter tenets of traditional Calvinism. Not only was the New England meeting house style abandoned, so was Puritan austerity. The colorful stained glass windows in the German style featuring not only Jesus, but an almost Catholic depiction of Mary, would have been considered idolatrous to earlier generations.

Within two years more money was raised to purchase a magnificent pipe organ which brought a new sophistication to Sunday worship music and encouraged the formation of a choir.  More traditional Congregational practice was to have communal singing by the congregation only, perhaps accompanied by a lap organ.  Generations of young boys would get their Sunday morning exercise hand pumping the bellows for that organ before an electric motor took over the job after World War II.

With rooms for proper Sunday School, young families joined the congregation. The congregation grew a reputation as a bastion of liberal Christianity and an outpost of social gospel preaching under the Rev. William Kilburne from 1909 to 1917.

There were good times and bad.  The Church saw memorials for its young men lost in World War I.

The years after the Great War were difficult. Church attendance dropped dramatically across the nation in the wake of the disillusion caused by the war's carnage, scientific advances that seemed to negate revealed religion, and the wide open hedonism of the Roaring Twenties. The First Congregational Church was not immune. Thus it was in an already weakened state when the Great Depression hit throwing many members out of work. It became a desperate struggle just to pay the minister and keep enough coal on hand to keep the church from freezing on Sunday morning.

The ladies of the Friendly Aid came to the rescue with at least enough money for Sunday morning coal when they pledged an extra 5¢ per week each from their “pin money.”

The Rev. William D. Pratt, who assumed the pulpit in 1932, was a pragmatist who recognized that the Church needed to find new partners to survive. Other local churches were in no better financial condition. Negotiations were undertaken with the Presbyterians and Baptists to create a single Federated Community Church. Votes for this scheme carried the Congregational and Presbyterian churches but failed with the Baptists and the efforts collapsed.

Then, in 1937 former members of the defunct local Universalist Church who now worshiped at First Congregational remembered a $5000 bequest set aside for the establishment of a new Universalist congregation in McHenry County. It was decided to seek joint fellowship with the Universalists. The church obtained dual fellowship on May 1, 1938 with the Universalist Church in America.

The name of the church was changed to the Congregational Universalist Church of Woodstock and the church was rescued from financial disaster.

To cement relations with the Universalists, the congregation agreed to call a Universalist minister. Rev. Merton L. Aldridge held the pulpit longer than any other preacher before him, serving from December 1938 until his death in January 1949. As minister during the war years he watched attendance climb with the uncertainty of the age.

War came early and hard to the Congregation. Thomas Lounsbury, the twenty-year-old son of leading members Robert and Florence Lounsbury was killed on the battleship USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. He was the first McHenry County casualty of the war. The American Flag still carried to the Civil War Monument in the Woodstock Square for Memorial Day services every year was donated to the church in Lounsbury’s memory.

The post-war years were good ones for the church. Membership grew as families joined the congregation and finances, although never totally secure, ceased to be an ongoing crisis amid the affluence of the post-war boom.

Only three ministers served the congregation in the 14 years after Rev. Aldrige’s death—Rev. Leslie J. Tuck, 1949-1954; Rev. Robert C. Anderson, 1954-1957; and Rev. Weston A. Stevens, 1957-1963.

Services in those years were generally familiarly Christian in form, but the tone expressed the warm-hearted generosity of spirit associated with Universalism. The increasing interest in world religions among Universalists of the time also found its way into worship services.

Improved roads and the 1950's love affair with the automobile had its affect on the congregation. The church reached out beyond Woodstock for membership and gradually became more of a regional and less of a “town"” church. Members began to drive in from McHenry, Crystal Lake 
and Harvard drawn by the unique message of liberal religion. Because Congregational churches were available in other towns, most of these new members were attracted by the Universalist identity of the church. Thus the long, slow process was under way by which the numbers identifying themselves as Universalists, and latter Unitarian Universalists, gradually surpassed those of the founding Congregationalists.

                                                                                                                                                                                                 After 1957 the Congregational Church in America combined with other Protestant denominations including Reform churches of German origin and some Brethren churches, to form a new denomination, the
United Church of Christ, the Congregation’s connections to its original denomination began to slowly fray.

When the Universalist Church in America merged with the larger and more organizationally sound American Unitarian Association in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association it spelled major changes for the local church. Universalism was a waning movement which retained a distinct Christian feel while the AUA was robust and growing and was then dominated by Humanist thought. But together, they made a major voice for liberal religion.

The Ministry of the Rev. Weston Stevens from 1957 to 1963 symbolically bridged these years. Although ordained a Universalist, like many young ministers of his generation he shared much of the Unitarian outlook. Under his leadership, worship broadened to include more material from world religion sources and Humanism in addition to traditional Biblical and Christian sources. He also took a high visibility, activist role in the community sitting on the boards of numerous local charities and leading the Woodstock Ministerial Association. Stevens’ dynamic leadership brought the church to its highest membership in decades.

After Stevens, came a succession of brief ministries. The first of these, Rev. John A. Dunn, a former Catholic had a brief but memorable one-year pastorate in 1964 and '65. After the murder of UU minister the Rev. James Reeb during a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, Rev. Dunn was one of more than 200 UU ministers to answer the call to march in protest with Dr. Martin Luther King. Over half of the denominations active ministry also responded to that call, which became the legendary high point of the new denomination's early years.

In October of 1965 the Congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary without a settled minister. Membership had dwindled to fewer than 100, but that included many adult children of older members who had moved away or no longer attended church. Despite the celebration, the church was in serious trouble.

Membership continued to decline under two more lackluster ministers until by September 1974 only a handful of the faithful, mostly elderly, regularly attended services. The church's expenses were often only met out of the pockets of church officers, particularly members of the Mather family.

Despite some misgivings, the church's lay leadership took a bold step with the hope of attracting a new generation. They went out and hired a woman. The Rev. Barbara Wuensch—after her marriage Barbara Merritt—was a pioneer in the Unitarian Universalist clergy. She was among the first of a new crop of women to enter seminary and was among the first to get a permanent settlement as a parish minister. This congregation ordained her in 1975.

The new minister was young, energetic, enthusiastic and the perfect spark for a revival of the Congregation. Under her leadership the Congregational Universalist church was soon once again a lively place where young families joined the old established members. Particular attention was paid to reviving the religious education program, which was soon filled with children and care was lavished on music. An articulate and gifted preacher, Rev. Merritt's sermons were noted for their exceptional intellectual depth and their literary quality. She often used poets such as T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings as the text for her talks.

Rev. Merritt was very active in the community and gained considerable local notoriety for her patient advocacy for improved health services to the elderly as the leader of the county's Taskforce on Aging.  Several congregational traditions began under Rev. Merritt's leadership. The Barn Service, held for many years at Helen Wright’s barn, became an annual culminating celebration to the church year. The Tree of Life was adopted as a congregational symbol. Chalice Lighting was introduced as an opening for religious services. She also reformed church stewardship introducing an orderly budget system and an annual pledge drive. Within a few years the church had for the first time in years achieved some financial stability.

In the early eighties the church's lively music program and members interested in theater came together to launch Paradise People, an annual musical review. It evolved into a separate community project which finally split from the church, but church members including music director choir director Kathy Bruhnke and master of ceremonies Larry Dille revived the concept in 1999, as Dille's Follies, which ran annually for several years.

After Rev. Merritt left in December of 1982, the congregation, in another daring move, tapped a young husband and wife ministerial team, the Rev. Stephen Washburn and the Rev. Dianne Arakawa who began their ministry in August of 1983.

In 1984, the church also changed its name to the Congregational Unitarian Church. It was felt that few people understood what Universalism meant, but that many more were aware of Unitarianism. It was hoped the new name would help attract new members who were specifically searching for a UU Church. In that it was successful. From that point on almost all new members who joined the church expressing a denominational preference identified themselves as Unitarian Universalists.

A strong commitment to social justice was a highlight of these years.  The church was deeply involved in community projects such as local food pantries. The congregation's most notable project, however, was becoming a founding site for the rotating PADS homeless shelter.

The church was eager to offer its space as the Woodstock PADS sight. The City Council, however, feared that a homeless shelter would attract undesirables from out of the county who would loiter, panhandle and resort to petty crime. They declared that a homeless shelter required zoning and licensing as a hotel and threatened to close the site by police force if the church opened it. Rev. Washburn rallied the Congregation in his most memorable sermon and the Church Council unanimously agreed to open the shelter anyway and dare the local authorities to raid the church. They won the gamble, the city backed down and the PADS shelter, which still uses the Church every Wednesday night in October through April, opened successfully.

The congregation also reached out to the fledgling Jewish Congregation of McHenry County, which held services in the church building until they were able to purchase a building for the synagogue in Ridgefield. In the late 1990’s a new Reform Jewish congregation, Tikkun Olan, also also found a welcoming home. The tradition of open handed hospitality continued later as a Zen meditation group and the group that ultimately became the Blue Lotus Temple both found homes.

In 1990 the church was, however, again in bad shape. It was without a minister, demoralized by demoralized from internal strife, and in serious financial difficulty due to a significant loss in membership. The church sanctuary of the aging building was literally falling apart. There were gaping holes in the ceiling, damaged and cracked plaster and a dim lighting system. 

The Church Council determined that the congregation in its current financial condition could not afford the services of a full time minister. A search through UU channels was not successful. But the leadership found in McHenry County a former Presbyterian minister who had recently served the small  Methodist congregation in his hometown of Alden and was known in the county as an activist on human rights issues. The Rev. Dan Larsen was offered the part time pulpit of the church and he accepted beginning the longest and arguably the most successful ministry in the congregation’s history.

Rev. Larsen hit the ground running, challenging the congregation to get its house in order by initiating a major capital campaign to renovate the sanctuary. With the proceeds of that campaign and by mortgaging the parsonage, the sanctuary was completely remodeled.

The producers film Ground Hog Day, then being filmed in Woodstock asked to use the church for a wedding scene. They would pay for the paint, but demanded to select the colors. Not only did it save the church $5000, but it also rescued it from a brewing controversy over the color scheme.

Over the next few years there were continuing improvements to the building. 
From the beginning Rev. Larsen’s keen interest in social justice issues fueled the congregation's already strong commitment in the area. When the Gulf War broke out the Peace and Justice Committee led the county's only protest at a demonstration on Woodstock Square.  In the months after the 9/11 attacks the congregation reached out to local Muslims and defended diversity in the community.  It played a leading role in organizing local opposition to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There was outreach to the Latino community which led to the formation of what eventually became the Interfaith Council for Social Justice.  Rev. Larsen and the congregation provided services to Latino families and help lead protests to growing anti-immigrant hysteria.  The congregation helped found the Peace and Justice Festival on Woodstock Square as an alternative event to a local rally by the Ku Klux Klan. The festival continued on as Diversity Day for twelve more years.

The list of social service and social justice initiatives of Rev. Larsen’s 19 year ministry are too long and too well remembered to be fully enumerated.

By 2000 the congregation was thriving again and the building was bursting with activity and community uses.  Rev. Larsen was able to come on full time.  In the May 2000, after members identifying with the old Congregationalist roots dwindled to less than a handful, the Congregation voted unanimously to end affiliation with the United Church of Christ and to become an unequivocally Unitarian Universalist.

Meanwhile the Congregation worked toward its accreditation as a Welcoming Congregation, open to gay, lesbian, and transgendered people.  It led the way in early AIDS education and advocacy, provided a home to PFLAG and McHenry County Pride, the first openly Gay organization in the county, and advocated for marriage equality.

In 2005-2006 the Congregation spent more than a year celebrating the centennial anniversary of the church building.  The highlights were burying a time capsule in the walls of the sanctuary and the instillation of seven new stained glass windows in the social room commemorating the spiritual influences on the congregation.  Designed and created by Pam Lopatin window representing earth centered spirituality, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, science and humanism, and Native American spirituality, surround a dazzling Tree of Life whose leaves are made up of the colored glass from each of the other windows.

On July 12, 2009 the Congregational Unitarian Church officially changed its name the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock.

Six months later, Rev. Larsen began his transition into retirement and the process to call a new minster began.  The Rev. James Hobart, the Rev. Karen McFarland, and now the Rev. Jennifer Slade, have helped lead the congregation through the process.

In the summer of this year, the former Haystacks Manor restaurant on Bull Valley Road in McHenry went to auction sale at a bargain price.  Don Metivier, fresh off a term as moderator, bought the building and ground and offered to the congregation.  It all happened very quickly but in rapid succession the congregation voted to accept the gift and then to actually move to the new location.  At the same time the Blue Lotus Temple, expressed interest in buying the Woodstock building.  After the sale was complete and various zoning and building code matters were taken care of, the congregation is moving effective January 1, 2012.

It is both a sad and hopeful time, this last leave taking.  We are happy that our beloved home is in good hands and the PADS and other services will be able to continue here.  There is a lot of work ahead to plan and create a real home out of the building McHenry.  Services will start there on January 8.

No comments:

Post a Comment