Spirits faithful to liberal religion have moved “forward through the ages” in Reading since 1827. At times they had no minister, at times they had no church building, at times they changed denominations, and always their theology evolved. Yet fundamentally the line of forward-thinking, deeply caring souls has been unbroken since the early days—supporting a liberal pulpit, teaching the next generation, tending each other, governing and financing their enterprise—and we, their descendants, now move forward with joy, vigor, and sound purpose into the new century.
The history of our church actually began in 1823. When the Third Parish Church invited the Rev. Jared Reid to become the new minister, the liberals attempted a resolution that would occasionally bring Unitarian preachers to the pulpit. “…Ordered, that it is the sense of this meeting that should Mr. Reid accept the invitation this day given him to settle with them in the ministry, it is expected and he is requested in his ministerial exchanges to invite and admit gentlemen of all descriptions of the congregational order, provided they are men of good moral character.” The motion was refused.
Within four years, 46 male members withdrew from the church, and on April 2, 1827 established the “Third Congregational Society of Reading” (Unitarian), with the purpose of “…promoting pure and evangelical principles of practical religion and morality.” During the next ten years, many eminent ministers visited the society and supplied its pulpit. For several of those years a resident minister was retained, but the society was small and by 1838 had no regular minister. About that time a few persons of Universalist bent were organizing a society. Since the purposes of the two groups were in most respects identical, in May of 1838 they merged and formed the “Second Universalist Society.” (As Mabel Coolidge, one of our marvelous churchwomen and historians, noted in January of 1961, “The first merger! 122 years ago!”)
The society disbanded in 1845, but the liberal movement in Reading lived on. On May 14, 1840, the women of the church had organized the Reading Association of Liberal Ladies for Benevolent and Useful Purposes—the “Sewing Circle.” By making and selling quilts, aprons, and pinafores, by binding shoes for Reading’s shoemaking trade, by holding to their motto “Happiness is a roadside flower growing on the highways of Usefulness,” in the short run they kept the liberal religious interest alive in Reading by obtaining the services of occasional lecturers and itinerant preachers. In the long run—for the circle existed into the 1920s—they were the model for the numerous auxiliary societies that flourished at the Reading church until well into this century, creating community, gathering the church for social occasions, making charitable donations, and providing greatly needed funds for the church’s own treasury.
In 1856 the “First Universalist Society of Reading” was organized, along with a Sunday School, meeting in various halls and at times sharing ministers with neighboring Universalist churches. In 1869 it became an independent organization, as it was practically disfellowshipped by the Universalist state organization (we do not yet know why), taking the name “Christian Union Church” and proclaiming, “A belief in the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Humanity as taught by Jesus Christ, and acknowledging him as our Teacher and Guide. Considering this belief a sufficient bond of union, we hereby associate ourselves together…” The minister, Rev. Edward Baxter Fairchild, drew many new followers, and a new meeting place was needed. The society built a lovely stone church in Reading Square, and in 1870 affiliated with the American Unitarian Association.
In 1909 began the church’s longest ministry–25 years of fellowship with Marion Franklin Ham, a poet and writer of hymns that appear in our hymnal and those of other denominations. By 1920 the congregation found the building in the Square inadequate, difficult to maintain, and poorly located (trolleys now rattled through the Square during Sunday services). They heeded Rev. Ham’s call to “rise up and build” and in 1924 dedicated the present church (to which they moved their pews, light fixtures, and organ), several blocks outside the Square. In 1999 we –since 1969 the “Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading”—joyfully celebrated the 75th anniversary of the building, and the courage and strength of those who brought it into being for themselves and for future congregations.
At the end of Rev. Ham’s ministry in 1934 the church’s fortunes began to decline, and overall the record of 1934-1943 makes sad reading indeed. Finances battered by the Depression, hardship in paying the AUA mortgage on the building, declining involvement among members, and apparent mismatches between ministers and congregation are all reflected in sometimes anguished reports and letters to the members. Yet once again the spirit of the church survived. In 1938 the Trustees were able to write, “We feel that the past year has been a success, not in the light of great and spectacular work having been done…but in the way of holding our Church body intact, in spite of difficulties; and in keeping up the traditions of service, friendliness, and loyalty, our Church stands, as always, an influence for good in the community.” Words from the 1943-44 Committee of Religious Education shine amid the bleakness: “We want [the children] to find out that true happiness comes from sharing. Then we want [them] to be aware of the beauty and order in the universe so that [they] may feel at home in it and gain a sense of security that is so necessary in these insecure times. We want [them] to care—about other people—even those of other races, nations and creeds—and to care about the problems of evil and injustice. Most of all we want [them] to dare.—To dare to be different, to dare to be…liberal, to dare to act on [their]highest impulses, to dare to help create the kingdom of love on earth for which Jesus lived and died.”
Rev. William Billingham arrived in 1943, and with the start of a new ministry a spirit of enthusiasm and hard work revitalized the congregation. In the following decades the church’s body and spirit expanded, contracted, and expanded several times—in Sunday attendance; in members’ enthusiasm and involvement; in finances and staffing. At times the Sunday School was bursting at the seams and a fund was launched for a new building; at times the classes fit inside existing walls. At times a junior high group and senior high seminar flourished, with a paid leader; at times these groups disbanded.
In the 50s the annual every-member canvass became a fixture, providing a sounder basis for financial planning and lessening the church’s dependence on bank loans and on income from the faithful Women’s Alliance, Evening Alliance, and Junior Unity. (Eventually the women’s auxiliaries disbanded—the last one in 1994. The many functions that each one fulfilled for so many years are carried on by “special-purpose” committees of both women and men: Adult Enrichment, Kris Kringle Fair, Fellowship, Social Action, and so on.)
Sunday music, always an important feature in the church, evolved through the twentieth century from soloists to a young people’s choir to a quartet to a full almost-every-Sunday adult choir (plus occasional music from youth and children’s choirs). The mid-50s witnessed a happy and significant event in the musical life of the church: the Trustees’ vote on October 3, 1954, to hire organist George White. George has personally experienced one-fourth of the church’s musical history—he has amazed and delighted us with his abilities for 50 years, joyously celebrated on October 10, 2004. Since 1999 our own Ivy Chord Coffee House has brought folk artists to the church for fall and spring concerts and a January gender-free contradance.
In 1960, Sawyer Kindergarten School was founded through the efforts of members of the Women’s Alliance. In 1972, its focus was changed to preschool students and the name was changed to Sawyer Nursery School. The church is the licensee of the school, which is governed by a committee consisting of a majority of church members and interested people from the community. The curriculum is nondenominational.
In 1963-64 the church—starting a trend of seeking professional advice on matters of governance, finance, and ministry—consulted with the Mass Bay District Department of Churchmanship and the Ministry “to strengthen this church.” A significant reorganization resulted, from a Board of Trustees to a Governing Board—instead of 6 members who often felt overburdened and had to delay decisions in order to consult with committee chairs, a 10-member board consisting largely of committee chairs streamlined the decision-making process and lightened each member’s workload. The Reading Fair Housing Committee, an outgrowth of civil rights legislation, met regularly at the church in the 60s; the Social Concerns Committee started in 1967-1968 placed an item on the church warrant “asking for consideration of what stand this church wishes to take on a proposal to establish a Black Affairs Council within the UUA”; by 1970-1971 one of our buildings housed a temporary meeting place for a youth drop-in center and a weekend TRUST hotline. According to long-time member Bill Grace, during the Vietnam era, “The UUCR was host to anti-war meetings and active in the protest movement, including a march which started at our church, ending in a rally on the Reading Common…The Vietnam War sentiments, pro and con, ran high in the congregation and were, as often the case, a cause of some bitterness.”
Reflecting society at large, in the early 70s the church wrestled with theology and the format of Sunday services—its growing liberalism becoming too liberal for some and not liberal enough for others. (With regard to giving teachers an outlined curriculum and a resource list, the RE Committee report for 1971-1972 notes that “Some feel this will help the new teacher. Others feel it may limit potential and flexibility.”) By 1972 average Sunday attendance had dropped to 50 and Rev. John Skeirik noted, “[Some] have sincerely felt that the direction of the church has been either too liberal or conservative for them and they are no longer participating.” His final wish for the congregation in his 1973 report was “May you find a consensus of spirit so that you can move forward together in hope and trust.”
In the past 40+ years the congregation has indeed moved forward—in theology, membership, religious education, staffing, financial soundness, social activism, and programming.
In the early 1980s, recognizing our religious diversity and inclusivity, to the cross that used to hang alone next to our chancel archway we added the lamp of knowledge, the circle of eternity, the flaming chalice, the star of David, the sun sign of the Native Americans, and the Taoist yin/yang symbol. A longtime member felt that to display only a Christian symbol was not in keeping with the UU attitude toward religious inclusivity, brought his concern to the Governing Board, and started the process that brought these symbols of our continuing religious journey. The Board clerk summarized her minutes of an impassioned meeting by saying, “Hopefully the notes…indicate that a church member can bring a deep personal concern to the Board, that the Board can respond, and that together a solution can be found.” The symbols were intentionally constructed as movable forms that “do not presume to show all truth and wisdom” and can be added to or taken down. Twenty years after putting them up, the congregation discussed them again: Did they speak to our identity as a congregation in 2004? Should we add symbols for Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam? Should we display symbols other than the chalice at all? Could we responsibly and appropriately display symbols from other faith traditions? And in the end these new symbols—and others—were added.
In the Liberal Ladies’, Alliance, and Junior Unity traditions of service and financial help to others, we’ve made annual charitable contributions (partly through Second Offerings received four times each year since 2001), organized textile collections, and helped with shelter suppers, food pantry collections, and work parties. In 1980 we sponsored a Laotian refugee family in Reading; many church folks pitched in for several years with housing, tutoring, financial assistance, and general friendly support—a sustained and mutually rewarding relationship of which we have warm and satisfying memories. For several years starting in 2001, we supported Habitat for Humanity of Greater Lowell by working on houses, bringing lunches to the volunteers, and donating money for materials. In 2009 we partnered with Jericho Road Lawrence, joining JRL in its mission to “improve the quality of life in Lawrence by strengthening the city’s nonprofits through pro-bono ‘white collar’ assistance”; congregants have volunteered, sat on JRL’s board, and donated funds. In 2013 another connection with Lawrence was forged: a strong commitment to fund and cook monthly meals for Bread and Roses soup kitchen.
Looking beyond our own doors, in late 1989 we entered partnership with the Unitarian Church in Alsόjára, Transylvania (Romania). We’ve sent and received letters (and now e-mails and videos), sent medical supplies, and raised money to help with building repairs. In 2001 and 2006 members of the congregation traveled to Alsόjára to meet our partner congregation. In 2012 we were fortunate to be partnered with a young UU student in the Philippines whose high school and now college fees the congregation has raised through Equal Exchange coffee and chocolate sales.
Looking both beyond our doors and within ourselves, we’ve become a Welcoming Congregation. Our church hosts monthly meeting of the Reading chapter of PFLAG, and we’ve proudly flown the rainbow flag from on our front portico for many years. Reading’s Diversity Awareness Steering Committee had its start in a Racism Awareness Group at the church. Thanks to several years of hard work by a dedicated committee, in 2015 the UUCR was designated a Green Sanctuary.
Since the 1980s Religious Education has been a cooperative venture—parents (and nonparents) team-teach so that responsibilities are shared. We strive to teach our UU principles and sources through real-world experiences, teacher-facilitated discussions, stories, and crafts. With a diverse team of RE volunteers who join in sharing a dynamic curriculum with our children and youth, our RE program is thriving and welcomes children and youth of all ages. Our classes and programs operate on a three-year cycle of major themes for grades PreK-6; these themes are Jewish and Christian heritage, Unitarian Universalist values and identity, and social justice and diversity. Youth in grades 7 through 12 engage in programming that helps them explore Unitarian Universalist faith, values, and the ethical life through curricula aligned to their grade level and interest including values-based human sexuality education, and social-affinity groups for middle and high school. Adults focus on education that deepens our spirituality, connections to one another through our faith, and social justice outreach. These programs are delivered through our Spiritual Leadership Institute and our Chalice Circles. All our programs are led by a full-time Director of Lifespan Religious Education (DLRE).
To the annual every-member canvass was added a functioning investment committee, overseeing our portfolio. In 1996 we began a long-range planning process focusing on programs, space, and staff. This eventually led to a successful capital campaign and expansion (see “Building Our Future” below).
Our view of minister and ministry expanded during Rev. Dr. Jane Rzepka’s 15 years with us (1984–1999). One of our proudest roles in the past 25 years has been that of Teaching Congregation—we enthusiastically worked with 10 ministerial interns during Jane Rzepka’s ministry. We learned the benefits that sabbaticals bring to both minister and congregation and experienced the strength of our lay leadership during Jane’s three sabbatical leaves. A trained Shared Ministry team began its supportive work. In 1999 our Sunday services started to reach the wider community through cable TV (and to be available on videotape/DVD to those physically unable to attend church), and we have a website with access to online newsletters and the monthly church calendar.
A year of interim ministry followed Jane Rzepka’s departure. Rev. Robin Zucker was called in August 2000, but after three years of ministry the church and the minister mutually agreed to conclude their relationship. A two-year interim ministry and a period of healing began in September 2003. The congregation explored and then adopted a new governance structure, streamlining and updating a Governing Board that had included many committee chairs into one that consists of a president, VPs of programs, finances, and planning, and five at-large members. During the fall of 2003 members and friends donated over $2.1 million to the “Building Our Future” campaign to renovate and expand our facilities, make more room for new faces and friends, and add programs and staff.
Rev. Tim Kutzmark was called as the 31st minister of the congregation in May 2005. With a sanctuary full past capacity on most Sundays and a new emphasis on including all ages in worship and congregational life, ground was broken on building expansion and renovation late spring of 2006. In September 2006, in order to accommodate the construction, the congregation moved Sunday worship services to nearby Parker Middle School. We also hired our first full-time Administrator and moved our Director of Religious Education to a full-time position. In April 2007 we returned from Parker Middle School to re-dedicate our expanded sanctuary and new Fellowship Hall, glass-covered atrium, large professional kitchen, and new office space. Soon after, in order to accommodate the growing number of people attending Sunday morning worship, we began offering two services, at 9:15 am and 11:00 a.m. At this time, we also offered occasional alternative services on Wednesday evening.
In 2008 we hired our first Member Services Coordinator in order to better assimilate new guests and members into our vibrant community, and to make sure that longer-term members stay connected amidst the change and growth. That same year, our Senior High Youth Group sent two vanloads of teens for a weeklong service trip to the still storm-ravaged New Orleans. We also welcomed our first Intern Minister in nine years. We once again became a Teaching Congregation, giving ministerial students real-world experience in what it means to be a minister and the opportunity to hone their strengths and identify and work on their growing edges and challenges. We are proud to be a Teaching Congregation, for this is one way we give back to our denomination, ensuring the future of our faith.
In 2008 we launched a new year-long Strategic Planning Process to help define our vision and mission for the future. September 2008 also saw the beginning of our “Helping Hands Community Outreach Fund.” An anonymous donor gave our children $10,000 and a dream: choose a local group that is working in the community and that in some way embodies our seven Unitarian Universalist principles—and share this money and, more importantly, their time with them. The children explored various options and then voted on who they wanted to get to know and work with. For the first year of Helping Hands, the children’s choice was The ARC of Eastern Middlesex County, which serves children, adults, and families living with developmental disabilities. For several years “Helping Hands” was an annual gift, and later recipients chosen by the children included The Ipswich River Watershed Association, The Whale Center of New England, and The Food Project.
In 2010 the congregation decided it wanted to strengthen its commitment to social justice and connection to the community, so it launched a year-long process to choose one important issue around which we could focus education and activism for all ages. In the end, the congregation selected the topic of “food.” Congregational initiatives around this issue included a partnership with The Food Project (youth empowerment and community gardening in underserved communities), the establishment of a CSA (community supported agriculture) that provides fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to church members, two food-related raffle quilts, and community workshops on healthy and responsible eating.
In September 2013 we began our “Make a Difference Sunday” program to provide simple and accessible ways for people of all ages to work together on projects that impact the larger community for good. In January 2014 we began an overhaul and strengthening of our religious education program, including working to transform it into a program of Lifespan Religious Education covering all ages. To ensure that all ages remain connected, in September 2014 we began holding one service only on the first Sunday of each month. During the 2014-15 church year, we also began a new long-range-planning process, adopted a new mission statement, and affirmed a first-ever congregational covenant of right relations.
On June 30, 2015, Rev. Kutzmark ended his ten-year ministry with the church in order to accept a new call to serve the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno, CA. With appreciation, the congregation bid farewell to Rev. Tim as he went to serve a larger congregation in a more conservative part of the country.
Rev. Catherine Senghas was hired as the church’s two-year Interim Minister and arrived in mid-August 2015. After a national search, the congregation will call a new settled minister in May 2017.
In 1923 certain Third Parish Church members desired to hear Unitarian preaching from their pulpit. So began a church whose theology and social outlook has become ever more inclusive, and whose members and friends care deeply about each other and those around them. We are a church that stands on the side of love. As our mission statement proclaims,
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading is a welcoming place to:
- Nurture and explore individual spirituality
- Build a committed and loving community
- Help Heal the world
We hope you will find here a spiritual home. Welcome!