Notes on 200 Years (and More)

by Douglas H. Parkhurst

The formal process leading to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury’s (UUCD’s) move to its present location at 24 Clapboard Ridge Road began in 1996. It was in response to a growing sentiment among parishioners that the group pursue a vision and dream to intentionally grow a diverse membership in a larger space more visible and accessible to the public.

What was then called the Unitarian Universalist Society of Northern Fairfield County (UUSNFC) made its home at 9 Picketts Ridge Road in West Redding, just east of route 7 and the Ridgefield town line and southeast of Great Pond. This former farm, purchased by the church in 1970, contained two-plus acres of land in a setting more rural than the suburban neighborhood it is today. The property included a house, a barn, and smaller outbuildings. The barn was remodeled into sanctuary space. The house, at first called the Religious Education Building and later renamed Founders House, became classroom, meeting, and office space with an apartment upstairs. This building was damaged by fire in 1983 and redesigned and rebuilt. The outbuildings were all eventually torn down. In its early years what became known by the collective nickname “the Barn” had a campus large enough for worship, religious education, social activities, and parking, with the benefit of a lovely natural setting.

By the mid-1990s change was in the air. On March 8, 1992, the UUSNFC had adopted a new statement of Promise…

To provide an open, caring community, welcoming people of diverse backgrounds
who come seeking spiritual, personal and intellectual growth;
To create a place where adults and children are taught, nurtured, loved,
and given freedom to explore and define individual beliefs;
To affirm and promote Unitarian Universalist values of peace, social justice,
and religious tolerance for all people.

Could the society fulfill this promise in its place and space in West Redding? During the latter part of 1996 the board of trustees, Maggie Hooton president, formed what was called “Task Force 2001.” Six interested and active members of the society were appointed to the task force: Bruce Berg, Mimi Davisson, Bill Hooton, Mary Alice Kimball, Chris Schmitt, and Art Warren. Society member Heidi Winslow, a Danbury attorney, while not a task force member, was helpful to the work of the group.

A time of promise, this was also a time of transition for UUSNFC. The Rev. Barbara Pescan, who gently but persistently coaxed members and friends to think boldly about the future, completed her seven year pastorate in West Redding. She is among the longest-serving ministers in the two hundred year history of this church. The Rev. Dr. Linda Hart came to the society for the 1995-96 church year and proved to be a most effective and popular interim minister. In the summer of 1996 UUSNFC welcomed Rev. Dr. Daniel Simer O’Connell to his first settled ministry. That October Rev. O’Connell was ordained and installed in a memorable weekend celebration at the Barn. Change also came in the leadership of the society’s religious education program. Mala Ranade was succeeded as director of religious education by Karen Judd. Both women were UUSNFC members.

The newly created task force began meeting in late fall 1996. Over four months the group worked to engage, in Maggie Hooton’s words, “the task of articulating our collective vision and charting a five year course for our Society.” The task force set about gathering opinions from members and friends. Anyone who was at the Barn

during this time will remember “The Great Wall of Comment.” This was not “Comment” as in the church newsletter but rather large sheets of paper fastened to available wall space inside the Barn itself. Markers were provided and members and friends were invited to share in writing their “comments, insights, thoughts, and ideas.” Over a period of several months dozens of such thoughts were posted for all to read. Here is a sampling.

A congregational commitment to a Social Justice Program—one involving children.
Will have a more up-to-date P.A. system, better lighting in the Barn if we are still here.
But I do see this in a new location, on a main street in Danbury.
Instead of assuming we have to move, let’s have a design/purpose-sensitive architect do an initial evaluation of our current site. This is a magical spot.
I can see co-ministry in our Society and we’re in a Main Street Location in Danbury.
I see many people of all ages and backgrounds.
Our dream sees “The Barn” as the distinctive core of our spiritual community into the 21st century….We see The Barn reaching outward on the Internet with cyber-wise ministry influencing the minds and hearts of interconnected viewers worldwide….
Expanded membership, increased community impact, well known in community as activists for religious freedom, social justice, and loving caring.
Our Youth Group hosted their third Con. It was well attended and our youth planned and
executed the entire program.
Let’s find a place where we can bring the UU spirit to at least twice as many people as we serve now.
A spacious building for Sunday Service, R.E. and Social Hall on a main street
where people can just pop in to see us.
A place where the RE program is properly funded to carry out its mission and dreams.

By the end of March 1997 Task Force 2001 was ready to share its findings and recommendations with members and friends of UUSNFC. The report was presented to the congregation in a meeting at the Barn on Sunday afternoon, April 6, 1997.

To be continued in May 2023…