100 Years Young

“100 Years Young”  — May 4, 2012
By Susan Ruttan

1912 was a year of huge optimism in Edmonton. It was the year that Edmonton proper and the town of Strathcona on the south bank of the river merged into one city, population 53,000.

The High Level Bridge was under construction, as was the Alberta Legislature building. Real estate developers were launching new districts, like the Highlands. The fledgling university graduated its first class of students. Even the workers were optimistic – the men digging the city sewers went on strike in 1912, led by those good old lefties, the International Workers of the World.

And at the Blue Moon Tea Rooms on Rice Street downtown, on an April evening in 1912, the Unitarians held their first service. Ours was and is an optimistic denomination, one that sees itself as being progressive and up with the times. It’s fitting that our church was launched in a historic boom year.

The minister serving the brand-new congregation, Rev. A.J. Pineo, told the crowd that the church would be no threat to existing churches, but would serve those who didn’t feel comfortable in existing churches.

In the following months the new congregation met regularly at the Blue Moon Tea Rooms, had a summer picnic on the local golf course, and offered an adult study program about Buddhism.

The church, like the city itself, wouldn’t see a year like 1912 for a long time afterward. The boom started to weaken in 1913, and then disappeared altogether with the beginning of the First World War in September 1914. The First Unitarian Church of Edmonton carried on through the war years, struggled through the 1920s and 1930s and finally folded in 1936.

In 1954 the church was reborn as the Unitarian Church of Edmonton.

Over the next 58 years it has been sustained by some remarkable ministers and by the amazing people who found their way to us. It’s the unique nature of the Unitarian church that almost nobody is here simply because their parents were Unitarians. We find our way here through our own thoughts and actions. That has produced a special kind of congregational strength that we are blessed with.

I want to mark our centennial by giving you a glimpse into the archival records of the first church, which existed from 1912 to 1936, and from the records of UCE, which was born in 1954 and continues today.

In these records we see a lot of what we see today – money issues, building repairs, various programs of adult learning, children’s programs, social action. This is a church whose members have always had to work hard to keep us going. Even in the early 1970s, which I think of as the fat years of this congregation, there were money troubles, just as there are today.

Yet the records also show a long history of openness to new ideas and a commitment to tolerance and social justice. I was delighted to discover that one Sunday service in 1935 had a local rabbi as guest speaker. I was equally delighted to read that women were active members of the Edmonton church board from the beginning and not just as official ‘women’s’ representatives. They served as board secretary, president, treasurer.

I want to give you a glimpse of our church at three specific times in its history – in May 1918, the last year of the First World War; in April 1936, the sixth year of the Great Depression; and in October 1973.

First, 1918. The church was just six years old and the war had taken a toll on its members, with many young men from the congregation off fighting in the trenches. This was a war that took 61,000 Canadian solders’ lives.

Among Edmonton Unitarians, the war produced internal conflict. The leading layman of the church, Prof. W.H. Alexander, was deeply involved in supporting the troops, as one of the leaders of the Canadian Officers in Training Corps on the U of A campus. The church minister from 1914 to 1916, Charles Potter, was an outspoken critic of the war. Their clashes contributed to Potter’s departure and after he left Alexander became the lay minister.

In May 1918 a controversy erupted over anti-war sentiments expressed by a member of the church’s Women’s Alliance, its women’s organization. This was a time of women’s rights activity in Alberta, with women getting the vote in the province just two years earlier. So the Alliance was not just baking cookies. These women, who were a mix of church members and non-members, were more radical than the men.

At the church board meeting of May 5, 1918, the board secretary, Josephine Desilets, asked her fellow board members to give their views on an idea circulating in the congregation that only church members should be officers of the Women’s Alliance. The board told her they supported that restriction, because “women in the Alliance who were not members of the church had done the name of the church grave injury by unpatriotic utterances, and that it was felt that the church should be ensured at least the control of the Alliance by its being officered only by church members.”

Mrs. Desilets clearly did not agree with the board. She quit the board and the church on the spot.

The woman whose unpatriotic utterances caused the furore, Mrs. East, spoke at the next board meeting. She was asked if it was true that she had said she’d rather see her son carried out of the house in his coffin than wearing a British or American uniform. Mrs. East said it was indeed true, except she didn’t say “British or American”, just uniform. The board told her that such remarks were very near treason and made the church look bad, and it was very unlikely she would be accepted as a Unitarian member.

Accompanying Mrs. East was Mrs. Bell, who said she understood she was being accused of being “too socialistic”. No, she was assured, there were no charges against her.

The church records on this matter end there. Yet even that little glimpse into our past tells us a lot. There was intense pressure in English Canada to support the war, even as the numbers of dead mounted, but a few groups resisted that pressure. The women’s suffrage movement was one of them, and Unitarians being the social activists we are, there were some women attached to the church who were speaking out against the war.

Our second glimpse into the past is in April 1936, at the last recorded annual congregational meeting of the First Unitarian Society of Edmonton before it folded. This was a year of huge unemployment and misery in Alberta, and of severe drought. This was the year that the Social Credit government of Bible Bill Aberhart defaulted on its bonds.

The Unitarian minister, Carl Storm, reported that some things had gone right in the previous year – Sunday service attendance had held up, and the singing had improved. But not one new member had joined the church in the year, the children’s program was in disarray, and his efforts to stabilize the church had failed. He announced he was leaving the next month.

The church at this time relied heavily on the financial support of the American Unitarian Association in Boston and the British Unitarian Association. Both these funders were warning they expected the Edmonton church to start paying a greater share of its costs. These large Unitarian organizations were themselves suffering financially from the Depression, just as the Edmonton church was.

A canvass of Edmonton members done the previous summer had found just 20 people willing to make a financial pledge, and some of those were from the same family. The lay leader of the congregation, Prof. Alexander, introduced a motion to write the AUA in Boston and tell them the Edmonton congregation could not raise the money the AUA expected, and they would have to consider ceasing operations at the end of May, 1936. The motion was approved, although it was agreed that the church board continue to meet to handle business, such as disposing of the church building in Garneau, which was owned by the AUA. That building was subsequently sold to the United Church.

So ended the first Unitarian congregation in Edmonton.

Our final glimpse of our church is in October 1973, within the memory of some current members of our congregation.  This was a time of the emergence of the gay rights movement, with homosexuality being decriminalized in Canada just four years earlier. That year, 1973, the American Psychiatric Association decided to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

Those who were around UCE then can say better than me why our church was such a leader in the gay rights movement in Edmonton. I think Stan Calder must have been a large factor, a courageous man who in 1972 came out as a gay at a UCE Sunday service. Our minister at the time, Rob Brownlie, would do many gay weddings in his time at UCE.

At the October 1973 UCE board meeting, the following motion was approved unanimously. The motion was seconded, by the way, by our own Edwina Madill.

The motion was that the church should provide church facilities for homosexual groups as we do for other groups. The board also authorized formation of a committee to open avenues of communication to the gay community, and encourage participation and membership in our church by gay people. Finally it said UCE should act against discrimination against gays.

Even in our church, the board’s new policy caused a bit of a backlash. At the next meeting, a church member said he was concerned that a policy encouraging gays to be part of our church “gave the impression that the church is enthusiastic about homosexuality and this could have a serious effect on young people.” The man challenged the board’s right to make such a policy, and said it should go to a congregational vote.

The board responded by reaffirming its commitment to opposing discrimination against any minority, including gays.

It was a proud moment, and one that has been a blessing for us. Think of the wonderful gay men and women who have been part of our church in the years since then. UCE has held to its commitment to the gay community, becoming in 1992 Canada’s first official welcoming congregation when that UU program of outreach and support for gays was introduced.

Today, 39 years after UCE declared its support for gay rights, homophobia is still with us – an Edmonton candidate in the recent provincial election, Allan Hunsperger, thinks homosexuals are going to burn for eternity in the fiery pit. So, our pro-gay policies still matter.

I hope I have left you with a sense of what an amazing organization we have here, amazing because we who work to sustain it make it amazing. We have our struggles, certainly. But little miracles happen here a lot. One recent one for me was the Sunday service in February led by Gordon Ritchie and Karen Mills, in which the Chorealis choir and congregation sat together in a circle and we meditated to the ringing tones of Marcus Fung’s Tibetan bowls. That service was a deeply spiritual experience.

We make history every day in this church. We are a community of free-thinking individuals who are not bounded to sacred texts or rigid rules, so we get to experiment, to re-invent, to try different paths.

Where will the next century take us? Perhaps to church in a very different form. But if we are Unitarians, that new form must engage our hearts and minds, our spirits and our sense of justice, and our need for community.

I look forward to making the journey with you.