Our Church History

2021: The Present and Future

Rev. Roger Bertschausen

Rev. Roger Bertschausen

In August 2021, Rev. Roger Bertschausen joined WBUUC as our two-year interim Lead Minister. Roger came to us after completing an interim ministry at First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI. Previously, he was Director of the Partner Church Council and served more than twenty years as a settled minister in Appleton, WI.

As we move forward, the members of WBUUC share the hopes and uncertainties of the rest of the nation and world. We reach out increasingly to the wider community, grounding our 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 in our large church, the lively, generous, and creative spirit of the old days is still alive today.


The Early 2000s: A New Millennium

Rev. Victoria Safford

Rev. Victoria Safford

In 1999, the congregation called the Reverend Victoria Safford of Northampton, Massachusetts. A powerful preacher and thinker, Reverend Safford led our church in 22 years of expansion, both physically and programmatically. Our membership swelled to 750 members during a period when many other churches and congregations were static or shrinking. In 2006, the UUA designated our church as a Breakthrough Congregation, a recognition of extraordinary growth. Our growth was both outward and inward; the WBUUC congregation is rooted in a deep spiritual focus that guides us as individuals and as a community.

Among the matters that grew and flourished under Reverend Safford:

  • the birth and development of a strong network of lay-led committees to carry out the mission of the church
  • the re-thinking and re-structuring of the church Board through guided and deliberate consideration of our church’s place in the lives of our members
  • expanding the church year to include full-throated summer worship experiences
  • the introduction of monthly themes to shape the year, and inspire conversations among members in theme circles and around dinner tables
  • expanding the staff with a succession of young excellent ministers, under her mentorship, who went on to lead major churches in Arizona, Chicago, Rochester, and the Twin Cities.
  • leading the church to a strong stance on marriage equality (refused to sign licenses until all could marry legally)
  • leading our mostly-white congregation toward a rigorous consideration of our place in a white supremacist world
  • led us toward welcoming homeless families into our space through Project Home, and encouraging our designation as a Sanctuary church, and welcoming a live-in family in need of safe shelter

Under leaders Thaxter Cunio and Carol Caouette, music became enormously important at WBUUC, growing to include many ensembles in addition to the main and children’s choirs. Every service was preceded by ten minutes of congregational singing (this congregation really sings); concerts for the public drew others into our space. A roster of strong guest musicians, some in extended residencies, deepened our musical lives. Two now-standard UU hymns were written during this period by member and songwriter Peter Mayer and recorded with our choir: Blue Boat Home and Church of the Earth.

  • Conception, funding, and implementation of a major addition to the church, architecturally significant and environmentally responsible: a Green Sanctuary carefully placed on our land to harmonize with its woods and stream, and utilizing our own harvested wood for its pulpit. Growth of the church had outpaced its physical footprint; the new plan provided space for the present and future in the sanctuary, support rooms, and classrooms. Read more about the building expansion.
  • In 2010, WBUUC became the Northeast Suburbs host for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast, welcoming people of all faiths into our congregation to hear local speakers and a national broadcast from the Interfaith Action.

The Nineties: Exodus

Rev. Gail Seavey

Rev. Gail Seavey

In March 1990 members held a parade, moving joyfully from its tiny home in Mahtomedi, to a newly-purchased and much larger facility at 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, a Harvard Divinity graduate, resident of Massachusetts, and former artist and teacher. Reverend Seavey 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.

The Eighties: Steady Growth and a Difficult Parting

The eighties brought continued growth to WBUUC, in the number of members, both adult and families, in the number of programs, and in the church’s place in the community of Mahtomedi. The tiny and beloved stone church on Mahtomedi Avenue came to burst its seams, even as the bonds within the congregation became stronger. Ministry was provided by the Reverend Ted Tollefson, whose inappropriate behavior necessitated a negotiated resignation in 1988. There was division and difficulty, but with the help of the local district and the UUA, our own leaders guided us through a challenging transition. Elders recall that we emerged from this period stronger than we’d been before, dedicated to the survival and thriving of a unified community.

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 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.


1914 Mahtomedi Avenue

Looking for a permanent home, they found that the Methodist congregation at 1914 Mahtomedi Avenue was selling its building. 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.


Rev. Arthur Foote

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.