History of the UUCE
The Elgin Unitarian Universalist Church uses the founding date of 1866. Actually, the Elgin liberal religious movement began in the year 1843 with a Unitarian missionary minister from Geneva, IL by the name of Augustus Hammond Conant. Elgin’s population at that time comprised 300 to 500 citizens. Every second Sunday, Reverend Conant came to preach. In 1846, the forerunner of the present church was formally organized as the First Free Christian Congregation of Elgin. Twenty members signed the charter with “every member left to the free exercise of his own understanding and conscience.” Although the nation-wide merger of the Unitarians and Universalists did not take place until 1961, this first small congregation was composed of both Unitarians and Universalists.
In 1848, the first building was completed from money raised in New England. Reverend Conant was hired for $150 per year to preach one service each Sunday. He continued until his departure in 1852, after which the movement soon lost momentum and that building was sold in 1854. The congregation was disbanded, but some members continued to fellowship and plan for another church.
First Universalist Society of Elgin
In 1857, the First Universalist Society of Elgin was organized. Many of the same families from the original movement became members. The Reverend Otis Skinner served as the full-time minister, preaching each Sunday to audiences of fifty to seventy-five. Seven months later he left Elgin to become president of Lombard University at Galesburg. Again the congregation was without ministerial presence except the occasional itinerant ministers.
At this time Elgin was suffering a decline following the Panic of ’57. The population was decreasing, the economic base was “lamentably low.” A citizens’ committee of influential townspeople, which included a number of Universalists, was formed to attract industries to the town. Their efforts resulted in the advent of the Elgin National Watch Company, which was to shape the pattern of Elgin life for a century.
As a result the church experienced a revitalization along with the town. In 1865, a Sunday School was organized. In 1866, the Society was reorganized and in that same year began work on a new building which was dedicated March 28, 1867. This structure was forty feet by sixty feet with fifty-six pews and “free of debt.” The Rev. Holmes Slade was settled as pastor.
In 1870, the building was lifted and a basement added. By 1890 it had become too small for the growing church. The society was then strong and prosperous, with more than 350 members. The 1866 building was renamed Unity Hall and moved to the back of the lot, where it remains today; its exterior was redone in the 1900s. The unique building located at the corner of DuPage and Villa Streets, which was to serve the congregation for 85 years, was erected in 1892.
The new church was constructed to conform to the shape of a watch in honor of the Elgin Watch Company. The building committee at that time included the watch factory superintendent, George Hunter, who was instrumental in the design of the church in the image of an old-time “hunting-case” watch.
The rotunda was the “snap” of the case, the choir loft the hinge, the pulpit represented the numeral twelve on the dial. The building is round and the pews were curved to fit its contour. The original chandeliers and stained glass windows were outstanding when installed, as was the hand-crafted tracker organ–one of the few of its kind in the world.
Members of the church included many prominent, wealthy members of the community which is indicated by the fact that three of the first six of Elgin’s mayors were Universalists.
The Reverend Everett D. Ellenwood was the minister in 1916 at the celebration of the church’s Golden Jubilee. Church rolls at the time state that there were 398 members with 138 enrolled in Sunday School.
Throughout the years, members of the church were active in society, politics, women’s rights and the general welfare of the community. Some rather radical viewpoints were expressed on theological and social issues. As a result, the church has received its share of vilification and vandalism.
In the late 1950s, there was dissension among the members concerning the political views of the minister, the Reverend Albert Harkins. The minister resigned, and with several other members formed a fellowship which would later become the Countryside UU Church of Palatine.
At this same time, the nation-wide merger of the Unitarians and Universalists was being discussed. In 1959, the Elgin church voted in favor of the merger. Soon a new minister was called–the Reverend Paul Bicknell.
Reverend Bicknell’s term as minister began a decade of activism and community involvement. It was during this time that the local Mental Health Clinic was born in our church. The Community Concern for Alcoholism had its initial meetings in our building. In each of these instances a high percentage of the persons involved were church members. The church and its members were active leaders of social change in such issues as women’s rights, support of abortion reform, open housing, civil rights and the American Indian rights movement. The church facilities were loaned for peace groups and draft counseling during the Vietnam War.
As a result of some of these controversial activities a bomb was planted in the church in 1970, but fortunately no one was hurt and the damage was minor. Disclosure nine years later placed the responsibility for the bombing on a right wing extremist group operating out of neighboring communities.
On October 31, 1965, the name was officially changed from the First Universalist Society of Elgin to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin. In 1966 the centennial celebration found the church with 100 pledging units. It was in this year that the Midwest Annual Meeting was hosted by the church.
In 1972 Reverend Bicknell resigned as minister. From January, 1972, until December, 1973, the church functioned without a minister with services conducted by members and visiting speakers. The Reverend Leonard O’Brian began his ministry in January of 1974 and a period of quiet calm marked the next few years. 1974 also brought the 150th anniversary of Unitarianism in the United States and the 131st anniversary of Unitarian Universalism in Elgin.
The calm was shattered on January 19, 1977, when a fire broke out in the middle section of the church complex. The damage was estimated at $90,000. Firemen had to cut holes in the roof and floor of the sanctuary. Although much of the main building suffered only smoke damage, there was enough destruction to render the building unusable for Sunday services.
The congregation began meeting the following Sunday in the chapel of the nearby Congregational Church. Members rallied loyally and donated almost $10,000 in additional contributions to be used for emergency repairs. The furnace was repaired and the damaged area boarded up so that services returned to Unity Hall in May of 1977.
Randall Road House
Damage in the main building went unrepaired while an ad hoc building committee studied options open to the congregation. Because the quotations for repairs and remodeling of the 85-year-old building were very high, relocation seemed imperative. The congregation voted in the spring of 1978 to sell the downtown building and later, when a promising rural property became available, to buy it and move there. This came to pass sooner than expected as a five-acre site on Randall Road with a large brick farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings came on the market. The church bought the property and prepared for the move.
The church congregation met for the first service in the house on Randall Road with its new minister, the Rev. William Metzger, on October 1, 1978. A farewell service was held at the old church on October 15, and on the following Sunday the congregation officially moved into its new facility. The old church was sold in 1979 to a commercial firm and is now a focal point of the Elgin Historic District. In 1983 the old church building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1980, the building on Randall Road was remodeled to increase seating capacity and to facilitate redecoration of the main rooms. Basement and upstairs rooms were made usable for RE use, minister’s study, etc. Painstaking renovation and careful maintenance created a pleasant new meeting house for the congregation.
Reverend Metzger resigned on December 31, 1986. A Ministerial Search Committee was formed and on January 17, 1988, the church called the Reverend Dan Brosier.
With a new minister in place, the church began to address its needs for more worship, religious education, and parking space. A committee was formed to explore the various options and in the spring of 1989 the congregation voted to build an addition onto the present building and create a parking lot. Both of these were completed during the summer of 1989. The following spring and summer the brick garage was converted into two classrooms. Even as the new classroom space was being completed it became clear that the church was outgrowing its worship and parking space.
In the spring of 1992 the congregation voted to sell the current property, buy land and build a new church. They decided that the new building would be a reconstruction of the 1890’s barn which was on the Randall Road site. The barn was dismantled, the timbers saved, and property was purchased on Highland Avenue west of Elgin. In the spring of 1993 the Randall Road property was sold and the congregation held its last service in the building that June. For the next two years, as the new building was being constructed, they met at the Dundee Middle School.
Most of the work on the new building was handled by contractors but in order to reduce expenses the congregation did some of the work. The largest of these projects was the installation of the floor decking on all three floors. The congregation also stained the exterior cedar siding, painted the interior, laid the tile floors and installed the door and floor trim. The minister acted as the general contractor.
In the Fall of 1995, the congregation moved into its new home on Highland Avenue. The congregation had raised enough money to finish only the first floor of the new three-story building. Finished were the multi-purpose room (which was used as the meeting space), the kitchen, bathrooms, three classrooms, and the ministers office (which was also used as an RE classroom and general church office). In the Fall of 1997 ground was broken on the second phase of construction. Sufficient money had been raised, when pooled with a loan, to complete the second floor sanctuary, four classrooms, and construct an addition which housed the elevator and second stairway. By January the project was sufficiently finished for the wedding of a young woman who had grown up in the church. The second floor space was dedicated on February 22, 1998.
Plans were made, and work began, in 1996 to landscape the beds around the church using only native plants and to establish a prairie on much of the rest of the property. In 1997 the 90-foot Earth Wisdom Labyrinth was built on the property with stones donated by Neal and Mary Harris of Barrington when neighbors complained about the labyrinth in their backyard
Also in 1997, sufficient money had finally been raised, along with a loan from a church member, to allow construction to begin on the second floor, including the elevator and front “secret” stairway. It was finished just in time for the wedding of Paul and Susanne Hanifil’s daughter. The second floor was dedicated on February 22, 1998 and in the fall of 1999, the second floor was completed with the addition of restrooms, two offices and space for a library.
The early years of the new millennium saw UUCE grow in community and outreach, if not necessarily in numbers. In 2000, after a period of exploration, education, and implementation, UUCE officially became a Welcoming Congregation. Considerable attention to our seventh principle also led to the planting and care for two prairie areas surrounding the church, the installation of a meditation garden, and, in 2003, the church became a Green Sanctuary. In 2004, the first of five annual Prairie Festivals were held to celebrate the stewardship of the earth and share our passion with the greater community. In March 2012, UUCE installed solar panels on the roof and began generating our own electricity.
In 2005, ten years after the dedication of the Prairie Cathedral, the third floor of the church was completed with the addition of two classrooms. Also in that year, Dan Hislip conducted a service on Micro-Banking. The members responded enthusiastically and was able to raise funds for a Micro Bank in Haiti. In the years since, the congregation has continued funding several more Micro Banks in Guatemala and Africa.
The “Prairie Cathedral” era also saw the church struggling with the idea of growth, with discussions related to growth beginning in 2001. As a precursor to future growth, the congregation investigated new ways of managing the business of the church, and in 2005 the church adopted a Policy Governance style.
Nine years after announcing to the congregation that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, Dan Brosier announced his resignation as minister (effective in June 2013) and the search for an interim minister was started. On May 18, 2013, Dan performed his last official wedding ceremony as minister of UUCE (between Mike Moutrie and Dottie Carringi). In August 2013, Rev. Lise Adams Sherry began her interim ministry to the church to help guide us through the process of finding out more about ourselves as well as our next settled minister. In 2015 Leslie Mills became the next settled minister for UUCE. In October, 2016 she was ordained and installed.
Ministers of the UUCE
1857 – 1858 Rev. Otis Skinner
1866 – 1871 Rev. Holmes Slade
1871 – 1877 Rev. William Stevens Balch
1877 – 1878 Rev. Holmes Slade
1878 – 1879 Rev. Dr. D. M. Reed
1881 – 1884 Rev. Lyman D. Boynton
1884 – 1886 Rev. Leonard Warren Brigham
1886 – 1897 Rev. A. N. Alcott
1898 – 1900 Rev. Charles Henry Rogers
1900 – 1905 Rev. Eugene Landon Conklin
1905 – 1910 Rev. Augustine N. Foster
1910 – 1912 Rev. Clark S. Thomas
1913 – 1919 Rev. Everett Dean Ellenwood
1920 – 1923 Rev. Frank D. Adams
1923 – 1926 Rev. Orin Crooker
1927 – 1944 Rev. William Rainey Bennett
1944 – 1949 Rev. George Lapoint
1949 – 1958 Rev. Albert Harkins
1958 – 1972 Rev. Paul Bicknell
1974 – 1978 Rev. Leonard O’Brian
1979 – 1986 Rev. William F. Metzger
1988 – 2013 Rev. Daniel Sam Brosier
2013 – 2015 Rev. Lise Adams Sherry (interim)
2015 – ____ Rev. Leslie Mills