Notes on 200 Years and More

Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)

by Douglas H. Parkhurst

Continued from May 2024…

The Rev. John P. Christensen, then in his mid-thirties, arrived at First Universalist Church, now Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, in the autumn of 1948. A 1945 graduate of Tufts College, he earned a bachelor of sacred theology degree in 1947 from Tufts School of Religion-Crane Theological School. As a student minister he served the Universalist church in Chatham, Massachusetts. Rev. Christensen and wife Edith moved into the church parsonage at 8 Division Street recently vacated by the Hersey family.

In January 1949 Rev. Christensen proposed and the church trustees approved a reorganization of First Universalist’s governing structure, while still retaining the historic dual society and church arrangement. Officers would be a board chair, a treasurer, and a clerk. Trustees and/or officers would head six standing committees: finance and budget; education and service; publicity and extension; worship and music; hospitality and membership; and property and maintenance. Other committees could be formed or continue as necessary.

Highlights of church and society activities during 1949 included the every-member canvass in March; participation in Danbury community Lenten services at the Church of Christ; a visit by a group from the local Odd Fellows lodge to a service in April [note – several church members belonged to the Odd Fellows]; parish suppers; roof repairs and new linoleum on the kitchen floor upstairs; and a new sign with black background and gold lettering placed on the front lawn of the church. Services continued through July 17 with summer vacation to follow.

A contribution made to the denomination’s Unified Appeal was earmarked for two endeavors, a Universalist church project in Germany and the Jordan Neighborhood House in Suffolk, Virginia. In October a communication was received from the state superintendent of Universalists in New York regarding something called the Jeremiah Smith Trust of the North Salem Universalist Church. The officers and trustees needed more information on this. And, in what may be called a sign of the times, a tenant in a neighboring Main Street building asked permission to place a television antenna in a tree in the rear of the church property. This request was tabled.

Early in 1950 trustees of First Universalist began a lengthy process of discussing, securing information and quotes, and approving installation of a new heating system for the church building. The existing system was old; it circulated hot air and was fueled by a coke and coal burning furnace. Finding suppliers of coke or coal was also becoming difficult. The decision was made to modernize, with installation of a new one pipe steam heating system with boiler and fueled by an oil burner. This would be a substantial undertaking both in labor and cost. The price tag of the installation exceeded $4,400, this at a time when the total church operating budget was approximately $5,000. A furnace fund campaign was started to raise money to help pay for the new system. In addition, a loan was sought at a local bank and funds from separate society accounts were tapped. Local plumbing contractor Joseph Mongillo was low bidder out of five and was selected to undertake the conversion.

At mid-year Rev. Christensen announced he would be leaving Danbury to accept a call to a Universalist church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. The Christensen family, now including an infant daughter, departed at the end of October after a well-attended going-away reception. Meanwhile, the search process was underway for a new minister. In late 1950 the board engaged the Rev. David O. Long, a 1946 graduate of Chicago Theological Seminary and then teaching history and philosophy at the University of Bridgeport, on an interim basis. Rev. Long served the Danbury church through the first half of 1951.

First Universalist Church, like the present-day Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, had a history of dedicated and effective lay leadership. Many of the people involved were Universalists of long standing. Among those active in governance during the late 1940s and early 1950s were board chairs Wallace Parkhurst, William Wood, and Charles Walters; treasurer Frank Rollins; clerks Harry Lincoln and Helen Scott; trustees Arthur Olson, Sallie Rollins, Edith Ritton, Clifford Taylor, Ralph Jackson, and  Perry Brick.

The year-long search for a settled minister concluded on November 1, 1951, with the Rev. Leon S. Simonetti’s arrival for what became a four year pastorate. Born in 1901, Leon Simonetti was a 1924 graduate of Dickinson College with further study at Drew Theological Seminary and Columbia and Boston Universities. Ordained to the Methodist ministry in 1928, Rev. Simonetti fellowshipped with the Unitarians around 1932 and with the Universalists in 1940. In his more than two decades of ministry before coming to Danbury, Mr. Simonetti served both Unitarian and Universalist congregations in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, First Universalist board minutes after August 1951 to mid-1955 are missing and associated records are sparse. We know the Association of Universalist Women’s (AUW) lay group was active as had been the local Universalist Youth Fellowship (UYF). A couple’s club called MMT (for Meet Me There) organized social events, parish suppers, and fundraisers. What appears to have been a short-lived Men’s Fellowship was also organized. First Universalist continued an active participant in the work of the Connecticut Universalist Convention. At the Convention’s 123rd annual session in May 1955, which was held at the Danbury church, Wallace Parkhurst was elected president. The usual cycle of births, marriages, and deaths, christenings, child dedications, and funerals continued. The society gave up its long-time parsonage at 8 Division Street and purchased a house at 17 Homestead Avenue in Danbury. This new parsonage was home to Rev. Simonetti, wife Dorothy, and their three children. [See three notes below.]

Rev. Simonetti accepted a call to the Universalist church in Little Falls, New York, and left Danbury on August 31, 1955. A search commenced for a new minister and concluded quickly with a call to the Rev. Frederick L. Harrison, to serve at a salary of $4,600 per year plus car allowance. In his forties, Mr. Harrison as a younger man worked for the railroad at the Boston Terminal Company (South Station). He began a second career in the Universalist ministry after graduating from Tufts in 1948 and Crane Theological School in 1949. Rev. Harrison personified a “new” Universalism, a direction being taken by the denomination and some of its local churches and ministers. Frederick Harrison was a founder and member of the Humiliati, a group of younger clergy who advocated an “emergent Universalism,” a faith they earlier described as “functional, naturalistic, theistic, and humanistic” [see Notes…articles of May 2022 and May 2024].

[Note – AUW and UYF were national organizations with a local presence. UYF was a successor organization to Young People’s Christian Union (YPCU). It would become Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) in 1953. MMT was a group in the Danbury society.]

[Note – State conventions were the primary governing bodies of the Universalist denomination within each state, prior to the formation in 1961 of the Unitarian Universalist Association.]

[Note – Among those christened was this writer, in April 1952.]

To be continued in July 2024…