ALUUC History Summary
This history borrows heavily from the “For Better Things”, a history of the congregation written in 1993 by Peter Ellertson. Condensing a 70-page book into a 3-4 page manuscript means a lot of the detail gets left out.
The history of ALUUC begins as most organizations do—with a need. Although a Universalist congregation had briefly flourished in Springfield during the latter half of the 19th century (1852 – 1900), no organized religious liberal society existed during the first half of the 20th century.
Following World War Two, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) launched an ambitious program to seed new religious fellowships across the entire country. In 1950, a newspaper announcement drew about 100 people to a meeting in Washington Park. A speaker from the AUA urged those assembled to form a liberal religious fellowship. Soon, two small different groups were organized locally. Almost immediately, conversations began that proposed that these groups be merged. After several years, these conversations finally bore fruit and twelve people signed the original charter and took the name “the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Fellowship (ALUF)”. The AUA recognized this congregation as its 100th fellowship and heralded the event nationwide. ALUF Members selected February 11, 1953 as the fellowship’s official founding date; the following month, an official service of dedication was held on March 29, 1953 at the Washington Park Pavilion.
Originally, the congregation met in various rented space for several years, including the YMCA, Temple B’rith Sholom and the Springfield theatre Guild. By the late 1950s, the fellowship, numbering 38 adult members and 27 children, began to search for a permanent building. Initially, because of the efforts of Janelle Weingardt, renowned architect (and Unitarian) Frank Lloyd Wright agreed to design a building for the group. Unfortunately, Mr. Wright died within a few days of agreeing to help.
Ultimately, the congregation bought a two-story house on Elliott Avenue. For 16 years, the Elliott Avenue church would serve the congregation. Called the “New Fellowship House,” the building was dedicated November 22, 1963, the same day as President John Kennedy’s assassination. The dedication ceremony became both a dedication and a memorial to the president.
Elliott Street served the congregation well but by 1975, the old house required major improvements. The fellowship was also outgrowing the building. Board presidents Wes Duiker (who is still an active member) and Dale Ouzts put a deal together to buy a property on North Walnut. The fellowship closed on the sale of Elliott Avenue on 21 September 1976 and bought the property at 514 North Walnut Street building the following day.
Walnut Street proved an improvement over Elliott Street but still required many hours of maintenance. From the very beginning, the basement (where Religious Education classes were held) always leaked when it rained, and it always had to be mopped before church. Mold abatement was a constant concern. Congregation members put in many volunteer hours to improve the building. A ramp and a handicap accessible bathroom were installed on the main level, and a divider was built to separate the kitchen/bathroom/foyer area from the sanctuary. The building was situated on a small lot on a very busy street, so a play area for children was extremely limited. No summer services were held there, but a number of members met at Douglas Park on Sundays with someone leading a discussion while the children played nearby.
Every fall, the RE Committee hosted a Halloween Party, and the Weingardt’s invited everyone to their farm for a Hayride and picnic. These occasions remain fond memories for many of our grown children.
During these years, we rented the building on Sunday afternoons to the Metropolitan Community Church. When we moved to “the country,” MCC elected to secure its own building.
When the problems and limitations at Walnut Street became too problematic, the Fellowship decided to purchase our “Field of Dreams” on Woodside Road. The process of building a new church with only about 100 members was quite daunting, and we realized that we would need more members to support our new home, but we were convinced that we had something important to share. Our mantra became, “If we build it, they will come!”
Church members compiled a dream list, which the Building Committee, Capital Fund Drive Committee, and our architect, Larry Quenette, faithfully consulted to design a building that would meet as many needs as possible while still respecting our budget constraints. Careful attention was given to future expansion plans, so that the building could be easily enlarged when the time comes. It proved a very amicable collaboration. Even though the Building Committee balked at some of the proposed interior colors and submitted a green compromise to our architect, nobody seemed too upset!
The move to Woodside Road was a very exciting and challenging time. We had already begun to build community by increasing interaction among members with fundraising and social activities (i.e. Fantasy Auction, Circle Dinners, etc.), and we incorporated this sense of celebration and enjoyment of our fellowship into the capital fundraising process.
As construction got underway, we continued our bonding process as we worked side by side to do the interior and exterior finish work needed. Those who helped finish every board of the ceiling, or painted walls, or built fencing around the playground, or hauled rocks to the pond, can still remember those happy days of hard work toward a common goal.
As completion neared, the Fellowship Committee was concerned that we would have a beautiful new building, and virtually no furnishings or equipment to make full use of it, so a “shower” for the new church was organized. A wish list was published, and hundreds of wonderful items were donated. Gifts ranged from pots and pans, silverware, serving pieces and appliances in the kitchen, to playground equipment, to office equipment and furniture (Wes Duiker personally refinished the Minister’s desk). Through careful shopping, the Building Committee saved back enough money for stacking chairs to use in our multi-purpose sanctuary and tables for RE and other uses. The day our new building was dedicated (March 31st, 1996) was a joyous day for our congregation. Our RE children, accompanied by our incomparable pianist, Bonnie Ettinger, sang beautifully what was in everyone’s heart, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine.”
When the fellowship was founded in 1953, there was no regular minister. Early speakers in the first days of the fellowship’s existence included Unitarian ministers from congregations in Bloomington, Urbana, Alton, Quincy and Chicago. So too did the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, then the minister at Rockford, IL and later a prolific UU author.
From its inception until 1981, the congregation regularly engaged Unitarian seminarians to preach at the fellowship and to provide basic pastoral services. These young men and women attended the Meadville Theological School in Chicago. William Horton was the first such student preacher. He was followed by David Parke, who served his internship year (1954-55) with the congregation, spending weekends in the homes of members when he came to town. After his internship, he graduated from M/L and accepted his first settled pulpit in Peterborough, N.H.
Rev. Harold P. Marley became our first part-time minister in 1956 when he came to Springfield for a state agency job. Rev. Marley served for four years.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, ALUF continued to rely upon Meadville students to fill the pulpit. Notable among these was Mr. F. Allen Wells, Jr., conducted services twice a month during 1964-66. During this period, he was an active participant in the congregation as well. It was also during this time that the congregation changed its name to the Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, in recognition of the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists several years previously.
A turning point for the congregation occurred in 1970 when the Rev. Berkley L. Moore arrived in Springfield to take a state job. Berkley had previously served ten years in the full-time UU ministry. Upon settling in Springfield, he joined the ALUF and began to preach and provide essential pastoral services. From then until 1981 he alternated with the student ministers as the pulpit speaker for about one half of the congregation’s Sunday morning services. During that time he also conducted almost of the UU wedding and funeral services in Springfield and performed other ministerial duties on an ad hoc basis. In 1995, in appreciation for his years of service, Berkley was designated this congregation’s Minister Emeritus. He continued to be an active member of the congregation until his passing in 2018, and was a valued colleague of the settled minister.
In 1978 and 1979, the congregation took part in the Weekend Ministry program, which brought a variety of ministers into our sanctuary. In 1980, Rev. Rudy Nemser came to Springfield as part of the UUA’s Minister on Loan program.
In June of 1981, the congregation voted to call the Rev. Sylvia Howe as our minister. It was a part-time appointment so Rev. Howe also provided one sermon a month to the fellowship in Macomb, IL. Sylvia’s ministry with us lasted until the mid-1980s when she accepted a call from a Florida congregation.
In August 1985, the Rev. Mary Moore became our next part time minister. She split her time between our congregation and the UU congregation in Decatur, about 45 miles from Springfield. Mary was very active in the Springfield community, attending and participating in numerous ministers’ groups in the city. The congregation grew substantially during her years here and changed its name to the Abraham Lincoln UU Congregation, reflecting a change in its identity and mission. Mary encouraged the congregation to pursue its “Field of Dreams” and also to become a Welcoming Congregation. After fifteen years of service, Mary tendered her resignation, effective in January 2001.
The congregation made a conscious decision to move from part time to full time ministry. This represented a substantial commitment. The Rev. Alex Holt was engaged by the Board of Directors as our full time interim minister for two years. Alex successfully modeled what a full-time minister could provide, endearing himself to many members.
During this interim period, a Ministerial Search Committee was created and various candidates from across the country were interviewed. In the Spring of 2003, that committee presented the Rev. Martin Woulfe to the congregation for consideration. Rev. Woulfe was a graduate of the Meadville/Lombard Theological School who was then serving as an interim minister in the Chicago area. Following a candidating week during which members had the opportunity to meet Martin and his family, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to call him as our first full time settled minister.
Martin assumed his duties in the summer of 2003. The congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary that same year. During his tenure, the congregation has grown and has achieved a higher visibility in the wider community. Martin and several other ALUUC members were key participants in the interfaith service marking the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in April, 2005.
Unitarians have traditionally been in the forefront of public issues. Our congregation is no different. With each passing decade, the congregation has supported political and grassroot movements in many ways. Even as early as 1956, the congregation took a public stand in support of the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It would be a daunting task to list completely all the activities in which our membership has been engaged during the past half century. The following is a short list of our more recent participation.
Our current mission is extensive. While we have talked about a unique signature program, we’ve been quite busy doing a whole range of things to narrow our efforts. Also, given the relative size of the congregation, it has been often proved both practical and mutually beneficial to collaborate with other churches and organizations.
A few of our projects in recent years (and many remain annual endeavors) with which we’ve helped were: Peace Camp, a camp for children designed to teach peaceful resolution of conflict and sponsored by Heartland Peace Center; two building projects with Habitat for Humanity (the first was an all women build and the second was the interfaith initiative dubbed the “House of Abraham”), the Springfield Overflow Shelter (SOS); Helping Hands (a local homeless shelter); Hands Across America; contributing funds and goods to Sojourn, a shelter for abused women; contributed funds, goods, and labor to M.E.R.C.Y. Communities, a transitional housing and comprehensive support service for homeless women and their children; regularly collect canned food for the Kumler Food Pantry; participate in the bowling fundraiser for Big Brother Big Sister annually; raising money on “Breadline Sunday” to support a local soup kitchen; participate in World AIDS Day event; donate eye glasses, mittens, coats and other items needed by various local charities; participate as a group in biking, running and walking to raise money for social causes (including our sister church in Romania, AIDSWalk and Cropwalk); helping the Animal Protective League find homes for dogs and cats; forming a partnership with Lee School to provide opportunities for work experience at our church and have donated school supplies and library books; speaking out as a congregation and individually against racism; sponsoring a public forum in November 2001 in response to events that had occurred since September 11; voting to become a Green Sanctuary Congregation; supporting The Phoenix Center which serves the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning community; contributing items and money to the Lincoln Memorial Garden, a local nature preserve; and raising money to assist victims of the December 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the March 12 2005 tornadoes.
In the later 1980s, we declared ourselves a Nuclear Free Zone. In the last couple years, many members (including our choir) participated in a community-wide Celebration of Diversity, a response to a local visit by Matt Hale, a white supremacist. We’ve donated the use of our building to a number of organizations such as Planned Parenthood and PFLAG. We support The Coalition to Promote Human Dignity and Diversity by having a congregation member serve on the coalition and by supporting their activities (including involvement in making Springfield a “Hate, Not in Our City” community). We have hosted one of the Study Circle groups sponsored by the City of Springfield to address racism in our community. Several members were also involved in the Study Circles.