The History of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester

“The fate of the church is in your hands and mine and there can be only one answer and that in the Unitarian belief is ‘Onward and Upward Forever’.”

These words could express optimistically the sentiments of the present day members of a church anxiously perched on the brink of opportunity, knowing the ominous nearness of failure unless faith and unity persist. Yet the quote is taken from a speech by Frank Livingston, Unitarian of Manchester, New Hampshire in 1922.

A record of his historical address, on that fiftieth anniversary of their church building, provides a vivid picture of the young life of his church, from a group of nineteen in 1842, through nearly 100 years of fluctuating membership, to an untold number of potential members.

The pioneers, under the leadership of Ezekiel Straw, whose name permeates the history of Manchester and, indeed, of the state, hired the Town Hall for three dollars each Sunday in order to hear “Unitarian preaching”. The flock soon grew to thirty-nine and by 1843, the first debts were incurred as members hired the Reverend Wellington for an annual salary of $500 and rented a small chapel.

That chapel and one half of a brick building, the parsonage, became the property of the church people who eventually moved the chapel to another location downtown. There the church paralleled the community in rapid growth, voted in new members, accrued a comfortable income and swapped for a larger building. A new church building was erected in 1872, thirty years after Ezekiel Straw’s first endeavors. The $38,000 building was placed on a lot donated by the powerful Amoskeag Mills.

Women were permitted to enroll about the same time that the church incorporated in 1897. Soon the church enjoyed much prestige; the membership boasted of three governors, five mayors, and three judges, with a peak of 215 in 1925. However, by 1946, the membership had dwindled to a mere 80; attendance was sparse and there were divisions within the church. These divisions and the declining membership probably cost the church several ministers. In 1946, the minister could not remain, for his house was sold from under him; no other was available.

That year, the American Unitarian Association sent the very able Lon Ray Call, Minister-at-Large, to survey the church in Manchester. His study resulted in the formation of “The Committee on Ways and Means for Reviving the Church.” Mr. Call recommended several possible solutions to the precarious situation: to repair the aging, uncomfortable, over-sized church; to sell and rebuild a more workable unit; or to join in federation with the First Universalist Church.

The Universalists, organized in 1833, nine years prior to the Unitarians, had, in 1839, built the second church in Manchester. The building stood until recently. The Fire Department had access to the chapel, for in it hung the only bell in town.

Although not as prestigious as its sister church, the Universalist Church had a better attendance. Its heyday was during the flourishing years of the great mills. As early as 1914, the membership was able to erect “free from debt” the fieldstone church which stands in proud beauty today at 669 Union Street at the corner of Myrtle. Into it were carried the stained-glass windows, pews and bell from the original church. The atmosphere was inviting.

Eventually, however, the Universalists were caught in the tide of indifference. There were fewer faces each Sunday. Attempted weekday activities were not successful, although whist games drew better attendance than the Sunday services. Perhaps the Arts and Science Institute’s programs were more enticing to newcomers. Whatever the cause, by 1946, the Universalists were also in need of a stronger base.

Mr. Call told representatives from both groups that they faced a natural merging because of the more humanistic interpretation they were offering their members, in contrast to the strict spiritualistic religion of the other liberal churches. Unitarian Universalist Churches were being formed in many cities.

The idea of merger was not immediately popular. Finally there was agreement and because of the fine condition of the Universalist Church, the Unitarians adopted it as their new home in 1953. The sale of the Unitarian Building in 1964 provided a considerable endowment for the combined society. By-laws for a Unitarian Universalist Church were accepted in 1957, but the federation was made legal only in 1965.

During George Niles’s twenty years of devoted leadership, the parsonage at 1353 Chestnut Street was constructed. And in 1964, the education wing was built. This addition blends harmoniously with the original building. The church properties are attractive and worthy of praise.

Elium Gault was minister at Manchester from April 1967 to June 1987, when he retired from active ministry. When Elium and his wife Donna came, their two sons, Bert and Jim, were already living on their own. Their daughter Patti lived at the parsonage until 1974, when she graduated from high school. Both Donna and Elium were actively involved in the church community, participating in nearly all church events. They believed in living life to the fullest and considered the congregation their extended family. Often they opened their home for various social activity functi6ns and welcomed everyone there.

Elium’s ministry emphasized liberal religion and humanism. He strongly supported the separation of church and state, often offending William Loeb’s conservative newspaper, “The Union Leader.” He did abortion counseling before Roe vs. Wade, and continued to support the right of choice afterwards. He was a member of the Manchester Clergy Association and was regularly involved in the NH-VT UU District. Since 1989, Elium has been our Minister Emeritus and he and Donna now live in Hazlet, NJ, near their son and daughter-in-law.

A major remodeling of the all-purpose room and the kitchen took place in 1972-1973. The church auditorium was completely remodeled in 1977, with church member Dennis Mires as architect. The pews were replaced with free-standing chairs, a stage replaced the chancel, the ceiling was insulated, the floor was carpeted and the lighting system completely redesigned. Since that time, a variety of energy-saving measures have been instituted and an excellent new piano purchased.

As a result of Elium’s impending retirement, a Ministerial Search committee was formed in 1986. At its recommendation, the church hired an interim minister to bridge the service of two settled ministers. Consequently, the church spent a year with Dick Woodman serving as interim minister. Since Dick and his wife, Pauline, had a home in nearby Dover, the church was able to rent the parsonage during his tenure and see some much needed income which went toward needed updates and repairs at the parsonage. Dick helped to bring the church into the age of technology by introducing computer systems to the running of the church.

The Search Committee continued its work and, in the spring of 1988 presented Dr. David Phreaner to the congregation as its choice for the next settled minister. David was well received and began his ministry in the fall of 1988. Joining him was his partner, Lisa Rothermich. During David’s ministry the church enjoyed significant increase in membership, a growing awareness of the need to be involved in both NH/VT District affairs as well as the happenings of the UUA, and an increasing interest in women’s spirituality issues. Under Lisa’s able guidance, the Cakes of the Queen of Heaven program was begun and the Women’s Spirituality group was subsequently formed. The Adult Religious Education program grew tremendously both in attendance and variety of programming.

In April of 1993, David resigned and the church once again faced the task of filling the pulpit and choosing new spiritual leadership. After deep soul searching, the decision was made to spend the following year without a minister. But that one year became three years as the church moved slowly and deliberately toward the next chapter.

During the first year, much self examination occurred within the congregation. It was recognized that work needed to be done before calling a new settled minister. The church was grateful for the quiet but strong leadership offered by Rev. Arthur Jellis, a retired UU minister living in New Hampshire who volunteered his services to this church. Arthur led many thoughtful Leadership Workshops in that first year and was a general counsel for the executive leadership of the church. By the end of the first year, the congregation chartered a Ministerial Search Committee to begin the process of finding a full time minister for us once again. Membership continued to grow during the second year as did our commitment to finding a new minister.

Unfortunately, a new minister was not found immediately and the church faced a third year without a minister. At the encouragement of the Search Committee which had received feedback from candidates, and the support of the Executive Board, it was decided to employ a consulting minister to help the church make the transition back to being minister-led. During 1995-1996, the church employed two consulting ministers. The Rev. Alan Deale, a retired UU minister who had served several large congregations, helped out by attending Executive Board meetings, being available for pastoral care as needed, and providing general counsel, as well as filling the pulpit once a month. In addition, a student minister from Andover Newton Seminary, Tricia Tonks, helped some of the groups that were struggling with issues and also filled the pulpit once a month. This transition time was extremely valuable in readying the church for a new settled minister.

During all three years without formal settled ministry, the church continued to offer varied Sunday services, religious education for our children, as well as adult religious education courses. There was continued involvement with the district. As a result of the three years without a minister, the church developed strong lay leadership, a clearer picture of its strengths and weaknesses and a vision of its future and its future ministerial needs.

Also, during the 1995-1996 church year, the church applied to the Hunt Fund (a local philanthropic fund, of which the church is a named grantee) to provide much needed repairs to the stained glass windows in our sanctuary. During the summer of 1996, members of the congregation, refurbished the parsonage including updating the kitchen, repainting and papering, refinishing the floors, installing aluminum trim on the building, painting the exterior, and installing new storm windows.

The Search Committee presented their candidate, the Rev. John Gilmore, to the congregation in April 1996. After a full candidating week, the congregation voted to accept John as the new minister. He and his wife, Fran, joined the congregation in August 1996. John began his ministry with many home visits to members and friends and with services that showed his delightful wit and strong intellect. Now in his second year as our minister, John continues to offer thoughtful Sunday services as well as introducing Meet the Minister Brown Bag Lunches, Mid-week Refreshment Vespers Services, and Adult Religious programs.