FIRST KNOWN UNIVERSALIST PRESENCE IN PENSACOLA
Before there were UU’s, there were U’s and there were U’s. One of those U’s was present in Pensacola at the turn of the twentieth century. That U was for Universalist, which became part of our name when Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961. Nationally, the Universalist organized in 1793; the Unitarians organized in 1825. Overseas, their roots go back centuries, according to the Unitarian Universalist Association.
In 1902, a woman named ATHALIA IRWIN was ordained in our fair city as a Universalist minister and served the Universalist church here from 1902-1904.
The Universalist denomination was the leader in ordaining women. In fact, it ordained Universalist Minister Olympia Brown in 1863. She is often cited as the very first woman minister in theUnited States, but there is some dispute about that.
The local Universalist church, the one where ATHALIA IRWIN was ordained, was located in downtown Pensacola. The city directories of the time showed a listing under CHURCHES –WHITE – – UNIVERSALIST — FIRST UNIVERSALIST CHURCH with an address of 44 E. CHASE Street.
This would put the church approximately on the back corner of the First Presbyterian Church complex and next to the old Pensacola Glass Co. The 1903 directory showed Rev. Irwin living in a house at 500 N. Hayne Street.
That Universalist church started in 1898, and services were held on the first and third Sundays. That church continued till about 1935.
April 11-13, 2008, we celebrate the start of the Unitarian group which has been a continuous presence in Pensacola since 1958 and evolved directly into UUCP.
–Barbara Goggins and Dolly Berthelot
PUUF/UUCP Earliest Years
UNITARIAN ROOTS IN PENSACOLA
It all began fifty years ago. In January of 1958, Penny Barney, a local resident, placed an advertisement in The Pensacola Journal, asking persons holding liberal religious beliefs to attend a meeting. Five individuals responded to her ad. Penny became the founder of what became Pensacola Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (affectionately called PUUF), and decades later, the congregation renamed itself Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola.
As Penny was taking this local initiative in 1958, the national Unitarian denomination sensed a budding interest in the South and sent a man by the name of Monroe Husbands to aid in organizing groups to become Unitarian fellowships. Mr. Husbands came to Pensacola. His talk, announced in The Pensacola Journal, brought a number of people together. Some came out of curiosity about the unfamiliar word “Unitarian,” others came to satisfy a real need to communicate with people holding values similar to their own.
On July 16, 1958 the American Unitarian Association admitted the Pensacola group into fellowship.
Finding a place to meet proved difficult. The group met in private homes, the Armory, Temple Beth El, a day nursery, the YWCA, even in a closed bar. Cramped facilities and protesting babies in a nearby room at times made serious thought difficult.
During one period, the Pensacola Unitarian Fellowship met on Sunday mornings at the American Legion Hall. Church school was then held in the bar of the hall, says Penny’s original song about PUUF, “where the spirits of the night before lingered to mingle with that of the classroom.
The facilities problem was solved in September of 1965 with the purchase of the Jehovah Witnesses meeting house at 904 East Scott Street. Cost was $5,200. Pensacola Home and Savings held the mortgage for $3,500 and an interest free loan was obtained from the United Unitarian Association for $1,700 which was to be paid back at a rate of $10.00 per month. The payment on the mortgage amounted to $39 per month or $468 per year.
PUUF/UUCP History, 1980s
THE DYNAMIC – AND SOMETIMES DISTRESSING – 80s
The 1980s brought dynamic growth and transformation, under the consecutive leadership of three exceptionally active presidents–who were then elected for two-year terms followed by two more on the Board. Art and Linda de Tonnancourt entered on Easter 1978, finding an informal discussion group of 25-30 folks, some even smoking. The couple had tremendous impact. Art’s 3 years as president (1 replacing Bob Haywood) helped the Fellowship become a more stable organization with governing board and real services. We improved 904 Scott St., added a kitchen, bought a cottage two doors down (924) as an RE building, started a canvass system of regular pledges, and grew a financially supporting membership of about 85 by 1985, when VP Carolyn Salmon ably took the helm.
President Carolyn Salmon carried on and extended earlier initiatives, and led us toward a full time settled contract with our half-time extension minister, Rev. Michel Seider.
But a funny thing happened a day or two before Dolly Berthelot officially began her presidency, expecting a stable year led by the minister to whom we’d become accustomed. Michael Seider knocked at her door at 9:30 pm to announce his departure—from PUUF, from Pensacola, and from Ministry. He simply felt a change of heart. Turmoil, commitment, and creativity resulted, with most making a tremendous effort to pull together. With devoted help from the Board, Service Leader Marion Holland and the president beat every bush, including UU General Assembly, for speakers, and found excellent ones. With no minister, the president led almost all services. Stalwart leaders Dorothy Hinkle, treasurer, and Liz Pedro, secretary, became critically ill that year, and the VP suddenly moved out of town. Amid all else, those key leaders had to be replaced. Art deTonnancourt stepped up again, as VP.
A Search Committee was elected to find a new minister. Carolyn Salmon and Ron Berthelot co-chaired. By spring, a short-term interim, Rev. Wyman Rousseau, briefly brought much needed relief, particularly welcome while the president’s father was also dying of cancer in Louisiana. All the beleaguered workers excitedly looked forward to meeting the ministerial candidate the Search Committee had rushed to put forth, and we anticipated the usual, and especially needed, restful summer…
But more shock waves hit. At her first Sunday service and candidating week here, the candidate was judged a poor match for PUUF and was rejected—even by some search members who chose her, and by other leaders who most needed respite. We had to start the whole process over.
All hell broke loose. A few advocates of this candidate, led by two search members and their spouses, started Sunday home meetings—the same time as PUUF services. Some expressed belief that the No vote meant the Fellowship didn’t really want any minister, and that PUUF did not adequately support Religious Education. RE leaders were among those who fled, so the refurbished RE house was deserted for weeks. Summer conflict resolution meetings with UUA consultants Roger Comstock and Eileen Karpeles helped. Almost all members returned and were quickly re-integrated. We paddled forth, happily together again.
Jean Shields chaired a short-term Interim Search Team carefully appointed to represent diverse factions and theological perspectives for a religiously diverse congregation.
Nov. 20, 1988, Interim Minister Steve Stock began his 20-month tenure, in time to participate in our quickly created and wonderful 30th Anniversary Celebration, Dec. 4, 1988. Steve was naturally facilitative, accepting, and witty. He provided terrific, provocative services and was a soothing salve, relieving our stress and pains from past traumas.
That 30th Anniversary event was rousing, rejuvenating, and joyous. Our lively PUUF Founder, Penny Barney Long, flew in from Kansas, and shared her original song about our Fellowship. Now a lively 87-year-old, she sends best wishes, and is sorry she won’t be able to make our 50thCelebration, April 11-13. However, we will hear her delightful song again.