by Douglas H. Parkhurst
This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury (UUCD). In 1922 what was then called First Universalist Church celebrated its centennial. Let’s take a look back to that noteworthy occasion!
First, a snapshot of Danbury in the early 1920s. The U.S. Census for 1920 counted 22,325 people calling Danbury home. Government was divided between the mostly urban central “city,” incorporated in 1889, and the largely rural and relatively thinly populated “town” surrounding the downtown area. Hatting and associated businesses dominated the local economy though this was beginning to change. There were 135 farmers listed by name in the 1922 Danbury City Directory, most of them located beyond the downtown city limits. Eighteen churches were named in the same Directory. There were eight public elementary schools and two parochial schools in the city; five rural schoolhouses continued to operate in outlying parts of town. Danbury High School and the state trade school (now Henry Abbott Tech) were at different locations on Main Street and there was no Immaculate High and no Wooster School.
The Danbury & Bethel Street Railway (trolley) carried passengers around and near downtown Danbury’s business, shopping, and residential areas and into the center of Bethel. A branch of this trolley line also ran to the Danbury Fairgrounds and beyond to Lake Kenosia Amusement Park, two premier outdoor attractions of that era. Silent movies were popular and commercial radio was in its infancy. The Taylor Opera House, long a popular downtown entertainment venue, was destroyed by fire in 1922. Candlewood Lake did not exist; it was approved for construction by Connecticut Light and Power Company in 1926 and completed in 1928. Rogers Park, the War Memorial building, Danbury Airport, and the Federal Correctional Institution were each a part of the future.
Roads and highways were being improved, with some paved, to accommodate an increasing number of motor vehicles. Railroads, long established, served Danbury in all directions. Travelers and visitors could stop at the Hotel Green on Main Street (one of several hotels downtown) for a meal or overnight accommodations. A public library; a hospital including nurse’s training school; a state normal school (now Western Connecticut State University); and various associations, clubs, fraternal organizations, and trade unions all served the increasingly diverse population of Danbury.
The Universalist Register and denominational Yearbooks for the early 1920s offer a variety of church statistics. There were eleven Universalist churches or societies in Connecticut, one (New London) was federated with the Unitarians and one (Long Ridge in north Stamford) was summer only. The Hartford church (since moved to West Hartford), celebrated its own centennial in 1921.
Since 1893 Danbury Universalists had been meeting in the building they constructed at 347 Main Street, a few doors south of the railroad crossing. Built of granite, brick, and brownstone with a tower overlooking the street this structure was valued in 1922 at $40,000 (perhaps $650,000 today). Church membership followed the old New England pattern of society and church. The numbers recorded in the Yearbooks are somewhat ambiguous among categories; for example, figures from 1923 show 56 families/75 individuals/97 parish members/120 church members.
For much of 1922 the congregation was without a settled minister; Rev. Elliott B. Barber had served from 1912 to 1920 (and still lived in town) followed by the brief pastorate of William P. Farnsworth in 1920-21. Miss Adelaide Grabert was church organist and choir director. Chairman of the board was Royal F. Foster, Frank P. Rollins was clerk, and treasurer was Luman L. Hubbell. Hubbell, also a church deacon, served the Connecticut Universalist Convention as the only lay member of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. There were two women’s organizations in the Danbury church and one men’s group. Ernest Stuckey supervised the Sunday School which had five teachers and enrolled 40 children. The local chapter of the Young People’s Christian Union (YPCU), for Universalist youth and young adults, had 30 members; Clifford Taylor was president, succeeded by Arthur Olson. Danburians were also prominent in the Connecticut YPCU. Paul Voegele was president of this group and Miss Bessie Pierce (later Jackson) recently completed a term as vice-president.
Our one hundredth anniversary was celebrated over four days in early December 1922. We can assume that most if not all of the events and activities took place at the church. This building was spacious, well-equipped, and had a friendly feel. The sanctuary was furnished with pews and could seat perhaps two hundred. Sliding wooden doors opened into a large adjoining room where if necessary chairs could be placed and more people accommodated. A large fellowship hall upstairs, with kitchen to the rear, was used for dinners, meetings, social events and other gatherings.
Music played a significant part in the celebration. Organ and choral music for the several services were under the direction of Adelaide Grabert. By this time Miss Grabert had been associated with the Universalist Church for more than thirty years.
Events began on Friday evening, December 8th, with the ordination of Gustave H. Leining, a twenty-nine year old native of Meriden, Connecticut, and recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate of St. Lawrence University with preparation at its Canton Theological School. He had been called to Danbury the previous summer to fill the recent ministerial vacancy. Officiants were Rev. Theodore Fischer, DD, minister in New Haven and Superintendent of Universalist Churches in Connecticut; Rev. John Murray Atwood, DD, Dean of Canton Theological School; and Rev. Fred C. Leining of Providence, Rhode Island, Gustave’s older brother. Dr. Atwood delivered a sermon on “The Spiritual Authority and Leadership of Jesus.” Rev. George W. Roesch, PhD, of the local Methodist Episcopal Church extended a welcome to the new Rev. Leining on behalf of the local community.
The next evening, Saturday, December 9th, there was a parish supper, one hundred years to the day after the First Universalist Society was organized. Presumably the supper was prepared and served upstairs in the church. Longtime member Luman Hubbell read a historical paper and reminiscences were offered by several of those present. The Rev. Lee S. McCollester, DD, Dean of Crane Theological School at Tufts College was in attendance and spoke briefly, as did Rev. Gustave Leining and former Danbury minister Elliott Barber.
At the Sunday morning service on December 10th Dr. McCollester spoke on “The Contribution and Evolution of American Universalism.” Nine people were received into church membership and a baby was christened by the pastor. At 7:30 that evening a special service was conducted. The Rev. Joseph Fort Newton, DD, minister of Church of the Divine Paternity (Fourth Universalist Society) in New York City was present and addressed “The Future of the Church.” During his long career Dr. Newton served Baptist, Universalist, Episcopal, and non-sectarian churches. The previous year he delivered the Occasional Sermon when the Universalist General Convention met in Detroit. Dr. Newton was well known and highly regarded for his liberal and ecumenical approach to religion. [See note below.] Clergy and visitors from local Baptist, Congregational, Disciples of Christ, and Methodist congregations were in attendance and the Danbury Universalist Church was reported to be “filled to overflowing” for Dr. Newton’s appearance.
On Monday evening, December 11th, a fellowship meeting was conducted. Among those present was Alpheus Baker representing the Danbury City Council; Rev. Ellis Gilbert, president of the local ministers association; State Superintendent Dr. Theodore Fischer; and Herbert Belden of Hartford, treasurer of the Connecticut Universalist Convention. Rev. Alfred J. Cardall, minister in Danbury from 1903-1909 and Rev. Elliott Barber extended greetings and letters were read from former Danbury ministers who could not be present.
So concluded the first hundred years of First Universalist Church of Danbury. Might the “twelve apostles” of Great Plain, those who organized this Congregation two centuries ago, have anticipated what maintained and grew their little group through all those years? The same can be asked of the women and men of the Ridgefield Unitarian Fellowship, the more recent side of our local heritage, from almost sixty years ago. How and why did this small town and later small city church survive when others did not? Will the goals, practices, and traditions of the free and broad faiths represented by our forebears continue as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury enters its third century?
The Rev. Barbara J. Pescan was with us in West Redding from 1988 to 1995. She has written:
“Because of those who came before, we are;
in spite of their failings, we believe;
because of, and in spite of the horizons of their vision, we, too, dream.
Let us go remembering to praise, to live in the moment,
to love mightily, to bow to the mystery.”
[Note – From 1908 to 1916 Joseph Fort Newton was minister of The Liberal Christian Church (Universalist and later Unitarian) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This is the same church, today known as The People’s Church, which was pastored by Rev. Dr. Linda M. Hansen nearly a century later. Dr. Hansen ministered to the Danbury UUs between 2003 and 2008.] [Note – The Barbara Pescan quote is from Singing the Living Tradition Readings No. 680.]