A brief history of the Unitarian Universalist Church, Tippecanoe County
By Josh Prokopy, in conversation with many church elders.
City records show that a Universalist Church was first established in the Lafayette area in 1838. The congregation later built a church at 9th and Cincinnati in Lafayette. It was served by itinerant preachers and disbanded in the early 1900s.
1949 - 1957
Our modern roots go back to January 9th, 1949 when sixteen people met at the home of Dorothea and Raymond Girton to form the first Unitarian fellowship in Greater Lafayette. The group divided its time between various members’ homes and room 218 of the Fowler Hotel. But attendance quickly declined and their final meeting took place on October 18, 1950.
However, just over one year later, on December 2, 1951, the Girton’s held another meeting at their home to talk about recreating the fellowship. This new iteration met at the Hillel Foundation on alternate Sunday afternoons using a combination of local speakers, book discussions, and recorded sermons.
This approach continued through the late 1950’s with varying levels of membership. On some Sundays they were lucky to have ten people. As member Caroline Barnhart likes to joke, there are more people in the choir now than there were in the congregation back then. But starting in 1954, the Reverend Jack Mendelsohn from All Souls in Indianapolis began coming up one Sunday a month to lead a service, and that really held the group together.
1958 - 1963
In 1958, the Fellowship bought at house a 439 Harrison Street for $15,000. They met in the living room and knocked down an adjoining wall to create an L-shaped sanctuary. The RE program, which had grown from a handful of children in the early ‘50s to some sixty kids, met partly in the basement and partly upstairs. Reverend Mendelsohn had stopped driving up to Lafayette by that point, so for three years the Fellowship returned to the practice of finding speakers from the community, including Nobel laureate Herman Muller. Then in 1961 they called their first part-time minister, the Reverend Robert Hoagland.
During this time, the Fellowship started several innovative traditions. They organized a series of Circle Suppers, in which various members agreed to host regular potluck dinners for a small group of other congregants. This provided a fantastic opportunity for fellowship, which members at the time still look back on with fond recollections.
They also formed a Women’s Alliance, which made and sold Olde English Rum Mincemeat for the holidays. Member Caroline Barnhart recalls making the mincemeat, which included actual suet along with copious quantities of rum, apples, and raisins, in a big galvanized tub in the kitchen and packaging it in quart containers. The mincemeat was incredibly popular in the wider community.
Finally, with the help of several local artists looking for a place to exhibit their work, the congregation started our first holiday Art Fair – a tradition which, except for a break in the early ‘70s, continues to this day.
In 1961, the Unitarians and Universalists formally merged to create the Unitarian Universalist Association. And at that time, the congregation changed its name to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
By 1963, the Fellowship had 45 pledging units and had outgrown its space on Harrison Street. They sold the property and bought two buildings at the corner of Wood and Chauncey Street in West Lafayette. Services took place in the house on Wood Street, which was a two story, wood sided building dating from 1910. The services took place on the first floor, and, as at Harrison Street, they had to knock down a wall and create an L-shaped sanctuary in order to have enough space for all the members. RE again took place upstairs, and services were held to the sound of 60 pairs of young feet running around their classrooms.
On Monday evenings, the Fellowship rented out space to the Midwest Alliance, an abortion clinic and problem pregnancy center. This was a cutting edge thing for them to be doing, as Roe v. Wade was still many years in the future and abortion was illegal in Indiana.
There was also a large contingent of Liberal Religious Youth, made up mostly of students from Purdue, who met there every Sunday evening and enjoyed a meal prepared by the Emery family.
Shortly after purchasing the properties at Wood and Chauncey, the Fellowship hired an architect to design a new building on the lot that could meet their long term space needs. The plan he came up with was extremely cutting edge, featuring a divided roof that faced in four different directions. With member John Carlson as co-chair of the capital campaign, they raised $15,000 of their ultimate $45,000 goal, but before they could break ground the architect died. A second architect, hired to continue the project, determined that the original designs were not structurally feasible and the project was abandoned.
During this time, the Fellowship called its second part-time minister, the Reverend Ed Wilson, who came to Lafayette from Yellow Springs, Ohio for two consecutive Sundays a month. Reverend Wilson was the editor of The Humanist magazine. He was also one of the signers of The Humanist Manifesto, and the composer of one of our hymns in Singing the Living Tradition – No. 113: Where is Our Holy Church?
This was a time of significant growth for the Fellowship. By 1966 they had some 100 active congregants and 75-80 children in their RE program.
1968 - 1975
In 1968 the Fellowship called its third minister, Rev. Charles Slap, who had just graduated from Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary. Slap started as a part-time minister, but was quickly ordained by the Fellowship and became our full time minister in 1969. He stayed for two more years, and married Jackie Becker – the daughter of congregant Marty Becker – before leaving for a ministry in Davis, California.
In 1972, The Fellowship called Ken Hurto as our fourth minister. Reverend Hurto was a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a former Lutheran who struggled to adjust to Unitarian Universalist theology. His tenure at the Fellowship proved to be somewhat rocky, and membership began to dwindle. Many of the original founders of the Fellowship had moved out of the area or become inactive. Reverend Hurto resigned in 1975, and the Fellowship began taking steps to sell the properties at Wood and Chauncey.
With the help of member Yvonne Mendelsohn, who was a teacher and local real estate agent, the Fellowship received an offer of $60,000 from a pair of what member John Carlson describes as “slum landlords” who wanted to purchase the property for student housing. But this offer was rejected by the Fellowship. Shortly after that, Ms. Mendelsohn secured a second offer for $84,000 from the West Lafayette Parks Board. This was accepted, and the property was eventually turned into the Tommy Johnston Neighborhood Park.
At the time of the sale, however, the Fellowship had yet to find a new home. They had to appeal to the Parks Board to let them stay at Wood Street until the City was ready to develop the park.
The Fellowship initiated a search for a new site, eventually settling on the former Temple Israel building on 7th Street in downtown Lafayette. The site was owned by the Red Cross, and after some protracted negotiations the Fellowship was able to purchase it for $30,000.
However, the building was in a terrible state of repair. First constructed in 1867, it had been sold to the Red Cross in 1969 and used for storage and training. During those years, it suffered from the combined effects of vandalism and neglect. The roof was crumbling, the stained glass windows were in tatters, and, according to member RuthAnn Ferris, there had even been hay stored on the first floor. All in all, it required extensive rehabilitation, but before that work could even start the Parks Board announced that they were ready to take possession of the Wood Street property. The Fellowship had to immediately move to the new site.
Since Reverend Hurto had left, the Fellowship was also without a minister, as they had decided to postpone their search until they had a permanent home. So for five years, the Fellowship got by without a minister, meeting in whichever cramped section of their new building was not currently being rehabbed. Under other circumstances this might have been impossible, but the work of rebuilding Temple Israel helped hold them together.
In addition to a new roof, much of the building had to be gutted. And while they hired contractors to do the structural work, the members of the Fellowship did much of the other work themselves. According to RuthAnn Ferris, this created a general feeling of community – with everyone pulling together to get the job done.
One of the big projects that the members took on was building a wall at the east end of the building to cover the area where Temple Israel had kept their Ark of the Covenant. After much discussion they decided to build the wall out of rough cedar. Volunteers did most of this work themselves, installing the planks diagonally in a stacked V pattern so that the wall seemed to be reaching towards the sky.
The Fellowship also had to decide what to do with both the damaged stained glass windows and the pews, which were bolted into the floor. Many people felt that these features were too churchy, and, according to member Caroline Barnhart, there was even a suggestion that they should throw the pews out through the stained glass windows!
Eventually, they did vote to repair the windows. However, they removed one that depicted the Eye of God, and replaced it with a chalice designed by LouAnn Reed. As for the pews, the board approved a trial removal, and members Roy and Dorothy Patrick quickly pulled them from the church – so that one Sunday morning they were simply gone. However, the congregation liked the flexibility that the new open space offered, and the pews were never seen again.
With the help of a $10,000 grant from the Loeb Foundation, the exterior paint was removed and the bricks tuck pointed. And on the inside, a crew of volunteers repainted the walls. Member RuthAnn Ferris likes to recount the story of how she once fell off a fourteen foot ladder while painting the sanctuary and spilled an entire bucket of paint. She wasn’t hurt, but still chuckles about how much paint must be hidden under the carpet.
By 1979 the rehab work was finally complete. The Fellowship had taken great pains to preserve the historic character of the structure. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and building dedication ceremonies were held during the week of April 22-29, 1979. Reverend Charles Slap returned to Lafayette to give a sermon during the ceremonies, along with former member turned UU minister, Joyce Smith.
In 1980, The Fellowship participated in a UUA sponsored program called Minister-on-Loan. Reverend William Saunders came to Lafayette for six weeks to help them map out their future. At the end of that time, he held a congregational meeting and asked each member to note down on a slip of paper how much money they would pledge if the Fellowship were to a hire a full time minister. The total was enough to justify starting a search, and Reverend Libbie Stoddard was called in December of that year.
Reverend Stoddard was a recent graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, and was ordained by the Fellowship early in her tenure here. She had raised three children on her own by the time she got to Lafayette, and had worked as both an English teacher and a librarian. She had struggled financially most of her life, and member RuthAnn Ferris clearly remembers her gushing about how she’d just walked to the post office and bought an entire roll of stamps – something she’d never previously been able to afford. She felt like a rich woman when she came here.
According to member, Bill Asher, Reverend Stoddard had a magnificent knowledge of literature and her sermons were almost works of art. She was also a fantastic counselor, with a deep capacity for listening, and played an important role in helping him to move on after his wife passed away.
In 1988, the Fellowship had a capital campaign to pay for a second round of renovations to make the 7th Street building wheel-chair accessible and rehab the first floor. Services were held on the second floor, which at the time was only accessible by a set of twin staircases located at the front of the building. This meant that wheel-chair bound members like Lucy Jordan could only get to service if two or three strong people hoisted them up and down the stairs. The solution was to install an elevator in the building.
In addition to this this, the downstairs, where all of the RE took place, was a single large room divided up by cloth curtains. There was no office for the minister, and to reach the bathrooms congregants had to come downstairs and walk through every single classroom. The decision was made to add a second staircase that provided direct access to the bathrooms, and to gut the downstairs and reconfigure the space to provide individual classrooms along with adequate office space for the minister.
This meant that everything from chairs to RE equipment and office supplies had to be moved out of the church and stored in member Patty Wood’s barn, John Carlson’s garage, and various other locations around town. During this time, services were held at the Wabash Center on Greenbush Street, complete with a Coke machine humming away noisily in the background.
In 1996, the congregation voted to change their name from “Fellowship” to “Church”. And the following year they voted to become a Welcoming Congregation – a designation which publicly announced that they were a safe haven for the LGBTQ community.
During this time, the congregation also experienced a period of rapid growth. As they began to reach the limits on the space available to them at 7th Street, they moved to two Sunday services a week.
In 1997, the congregation bought a lot at 2239 Union Street, with the intention of building a new church to meet their growing membership needs. The lot was full of weeds, and member RuthAnn Ferris has strong memories of long hours spent pulling garlic mustard to clear the lot.
Keith Brown, RuthAnn Ferris, and Ernest McDaniel formed a capital campaign committee to raise funds for a new building. But while the congregation raised a significant sum of money over the course of several years, it still was not enough to build the kind of church that they wanted – nor to deal with the significant drainage problems that existed on that lot.
In the meantime, Reverend Libbie Stoddard resigned in 1998 to care for a chronically ill daughter and her family. Reverend Robert Flanders was called as an interim minister and served for two years, until the congregation called Reverend Hillary Krivchenia in 2000. In October of that year, Reverend Krivchenia became the third minister to be ordained by the congregation.
From that point, the congregation began its search for a new home, finally purchasing the former St. Andrew United Methodist Church at 333 Meridian Street in 2007. A building dedication was held in the fall of that year, and UUA President William Sinkford was on hand to give the sermon.
Reverend Krivchenia left in 2008 to lead a larger congregation in Illinois. Following a two year interim ministry under Reverend Marlene Walker, the congregation called Reverend Charles Davis in 2010. Shortly after that, a decision was made to change the name of the Congregation to the Unitarian Universalist Church, Tippecanoe County.