The Fifties: Genesis
In November 1955 eighteen people met in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Carlson in Mahtomedi and discussed starting a lay-led fellowship and branch of St. Paul’s Unity Church. I-35E and I-94 were yet to be built, so the drive to St. Paul was tedious. The congregation was launched in 1956, and to expand their numbers, members began publicity in the area and succeeded in gaining new members.
The first Sunday meeting space was rented from Mahtomedi’s Wildwood Elementary School, where the classrooms afforded excellent RE facilities. Since Wildwood was a public school, members had to honor the First Amendment by stowing all their Sunday service gear in a big wooden cabinet called “our barn and altar.”
The members were comfortable with their diversity of belief. In one survey, seventeen identified themselves as humanists, fourteen as theists, and six as “other.” They also found that their common values counted for more than these labels, and they liked being together. As one member said, “We were proud of our madness, somewhat lacking in experience, determined to hang on, and eager for new members.” In 1959 the congregation was recognized as an independent fellowship of the American Unitarian Association.
Looking for a permanent home, they found that the Methodist congregation at 1914 Mahtomedi Avenue was selling its building (pictured right). Reverend Arthur Foote and Joseph Walters of Unity Church sat in on the purchase negotiations and donated $1,160, a good nine per cent of the total price. First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis and Unity offered chairs and hymnals at a low price.
In 1959 the new congregation took the name White Bear Unitarian Church. Sunday school classes were crowded, with over sixty enrolled students in the small building. Sunday attendance also went up by almost a third. Music was provided by a choir and an unreliable organ that was soon replaced. Arnold Anderson, an educator and bookseller, set up a branch of his bookstore in the basement, where it operated until the 1980s. Richard Sykes, Carl Peters, and Richard Marsh delivered sermons, as did guest speakers like Arthur Foote (left).
The Sixties and Seventies
By 1960 several trends had been established. The congregation provided strong lay leadership and capable members taking turns in the pulpit. By 1962, however, fatigued volunteers and static membership indicated the need for at least a part time minister and more classroom space. Member Richard Sykes, a candidate for ministry, was chosen and began in the fall of 1963. With donated labor from the congregation, expansion of RE facilities came in under budget. And some of the donated labor was remarkable. Murray Olyphant joined painter Pat Young and the noted wildlife artist Francis Lee Jaques, all members, to decorate one of the classrooms with murals depicting people and wildlife from all over the world. These murals are now at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis.
Three years later, when Richard Sykes announced he was leaving to go to graduate school, the congregation called the Reverend Charles Grady. Membership growth required holding two services on Sunday morning, and the congregation also bought land for a new church building. However, the members then voted against building a new church, provoking some to depart. Rev. Grady left not long afterwards, and the congregation wavered for some years, often functioning as a lay-led fellowship, and sometimes contracting with part-time ministers.
The Nineties: Exodus
In March 1990 members paraded from the old building to 328 Maple Street under a light snowfall with balloons, banners, and an impromptu brass band. Thanks to hard work and faithful confidence, total membership actually grew during the interim year. In late spring the search committee presented the Reverend Gail Seavey (right), a Harvard Divinity graduate, resident of Massachusetts, and former artist and teacher. Gail took an active role in interfaith, community, and denominational affairs, initiating the addition of “Universalist” to the church name.
With more members, social witness and action expanded. The congregation developed relationships with the archdiocesan family shelter, the Family Violence Network, and East Metro Place, a subsidized residence for displaced homemakers who were getting vocational training. The congregation voted against the first Gulf War One and became recognized as a Welcoming Congregation. And the RE classes, inspired by DRE Janet Hanson, took up social action projects with energy that inspired their elders. By 1995 there were 240 members, an office coordinator, and a choir director. Members donated time and labor for a major expansion of classroom and meeting space.
1999 to the present
In 1999 the congregation called the Reverend Victoria Safford (right) of Northampton, Massachusetts. In 2006 the UUA designated White Bear as a Breakthrough Congregation, a recognition of extraordinary growth.
As they face the second decade of the new millennium, the 700-plus members of White Bear UU Church share the hopes and uncertainties of the rest of the nation and the world. They reach out increasingly to the wider community, grounding their ethical principles in action. Veteran members who recall when the congregation was less than a tenth of its present size say that, while things are now done a bit more formally, the lively, generous, and creative spirit of the old days is still alive today.