Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation Marks Sesquicentennial

The Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry, Illinois will celebrate its Sesquicentennial Saturday April 23 and Sunday April 24 with a series of events in Woodstock and McHenry.
The Congregation was gathered in 1866 as the First Congregational Church of Woodstock by a group of recently returned Civil War veterans and community leaders.  A New England meeting house style white clapboard church was quickly erected at Dean and South Streets.  That building was razed and replaced by modern brick church with a squat Norman bell tower in 1906.
During the Great Depression the Congregation became dually affiliated  with the Universalist Church in America and called the first in a long line of Universalist ministers. The previous Universalist congregations in McHenry County had closed and some Woodstock members were worshiping with the Congregationalists.  The congregation changed its name to the Congregational Universalist Church.
Through good times and lean ones the Congregation was a vital part of the Woodstock and McHenry County communities providing progressive, forward thinking leadership in civic and cultural affairs.
The Congregational Univeralist Church, 1952.
The Universalist Church consolidated with the American Unitarian Association in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.  That change on the national level would be reflected in the Congregation calling a series of Unitarian ministers.
In 1975 after a decade of shrinking membership, the Congregation took the bold step of calling Barbara Wuensch among the first of a new crop of Unitarian Universalist women to enter seminary for permanent settlement as a parish minister.  The Congregation ordained her the same year.    During her tenure she married.  As Rev. Barbara Merritt she served until 1983 then came to the pulpit of historic First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Massachusetts which she served as Senior Minister until her retirement in 2010 when she was named Minister Emerita.
In 1985 during the co-ministry of husband and wife team of the Rev. Stephen Churchill Washburn and the Rev. Dianne Arakawa, the Congregation changed its name to the Congregational Unitarian Church.  Also during that time it made headlines by becoming one of the founding host churches to the PADS rotating homeless shelter.  When the City of Woodstock tried to prevent that be requiring a hotel license, the Congregation told officials that they would open anyway and risk the arrest of volunteers and leaders.  The city backed down and the church continued to serve the homeless there for another 25 years.  It was emblematic of the Congregation’s growing reputation for social justice action.
In 1990 the Rev. Dan Larsen began his long ministry at the church.  Under his leadership a series of renovation projects modernized the crumbling sanctuary, re-built the commercial grade basement kitchen, and remodeled the basement Religious education space.  Later the parsonage next door on South Street was converted from office rentals to RE classrooms and meeting rooms. 

Rev. Dan Larsen, social justice activist, leading an immigration march in Woodstock.

Larsen also led the congregation in even greater social justice activity.  Initiatives included outreach to the Hispanic community and the founding of Hispanic Coalition; forming the Inter-Faith Peace and Justice Committee of McHenry County, later renamed the Inter-Faith Council for Social Justice; taking a lead in the creation of the McHenry County and municipal Human Relations Commissions; sponsorship of the Diversity Day festival held annually in Woodstock Square;  opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the McHenry County Peace Group; and leadership on Gay Rights.  The Congregation earned the status as a Welcoming Congregation for the LBGT community and as an ecologically friendly Green Sanctuary from the UUA.  The church also opened its doors to numerous community and activist groups, LBGT support and counseling groups, and other religious groups including the Tikun Olam Jewish Congregation, a Zen meditation group, and the Blue Lotus Buddhists.
The congregation which had almost no remaining members who identified with the United Church of Christ formally dissolved its relationship with that body and became solely affiliated with the UUA in 2000 and a few years later formally changed its name to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock.
In 2005 the Congregation celebrated centennial of the Woodstock church building.  It envisioned staying there for many more years.
But shortly after Rev. Larsen’s retirement in 2010 the congregation was offered the former t Haystacks Manor Restaurant in McHenry as a gift from a generous member.  Seeing the possibility for new growth and a fresh start and despite the strong pull of long ties to Woodstock, the congregation boldly voted to accept the offer in late 2011.  First worship services were held in the new building in December 2012.

A new home in McHenry.
The Congregation was delighted to sell their historic Woodstock Church to their old friends of the Blue Lotus Temple, which has remodeled the interior while preserving the historic building and even keeping and preserving the Christian stained glass windows.
In 2013 the Congregation changed its name to the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation reflecting its long-time use of the Tree of Life as a Congregational symbol and its commitment to the whole of the McHenry County region. 
The same year the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, a rising star in Unitarian Universalism, was called as Minister.  Rev. Dennison is a pioneer transgender minister.  The Congregation has continued its devotion to community and social justice with the Compassion for Campers Project which provides needed supplies for homeless PADS clients who must camp out during the months when the church shelters are closed and provides a weekly lunch every Monday at the PADS office all season.  The Congregation also spearheaded the McHenry County campaign to get Marriage Equality passed by the state legislature.

Lori Marcus and Rev. Sean Parker Dennison at a roadside rally for Marriage Equality in 2016 in McHenry.

Rev. Dennison has been an innovative worship leader incorporating all of the arts in the worship experience.  He sponsored a day-long Cabaret Church experiment in 2015 that drew national interest and attention and this year with Music Director Thomas Steffens launched the very successful Church of…worship series that highlights the spiritual messages found in different genres of music featuring performances by talented professional musicians.  Music has long been a crucial part of the Congregation’s life.  The large Adult Choir performs a wide range of music and this spring will be touring the oldest Unitarian congregations in the world in the province of Transylvania in Romania. 
The Congregation has much to celebrate.
Activities begin on Saturday, April 23 with a tour of its former Woodstock home, now the Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple, 221 Dean Street from 1-2 pm. 
In McHenry the Tree of Life building will be open for tours from 1-5 pm featuring changes made to turn the restaurant into a church and plans for the future.   There will be displays with pictures from the congregation’s history.  Tree of Life apparel and shopping bags as well as handmade Tree of Life or UUA Chalice fused glass sun catchers.  That evening there will be a private catered dinner with music for Congregation members and friends.

The Rev. Barbara Merritt.

On Sunday April 24 the Rev. Barbara Merritt will return as the guest speaker at 10:45 am.  She will co-officiate the service with the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison.  The theme of the service will be Celebrating the Past, Creating the Future: The Reality Principle.  The Adult Choir will perform. 
After services there will be a family cook-out and picnic on the grounds from 12-3pm with inflatables for the kids.  Meats and vegetarian dishes will be provided and people are invited to bring side dishes and desserts to share.  In case of rain, food will be served inside.
Proceeds from donations or collections received over the weekend will go to the restoration of  the 9 windows made for the Centennial of the Woodstock building featuring the faith symbols of traditions from which the Congregation draws spiritual inspiration.  They have been in storage since the move and the Congregation is eager to have them on display again.
For more information call the church office at 815 322-2464 or email

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