By Linda Thompson January 29, 2016
The First Universalist Society formed in Middleborough in 1842. They met for 30 years but declined and disbanded in 1872. (Some context: The American Civil War was April 12,1861 -May 9, 1865)
In the late 1870’s a small group of like-minded liberal religious folks had begun meeting in homes and halls. They established the Unity Church of Middleborough in 1889 and were joined by some of the First Universalists.
In March of 1889, they made a decision to organize as “The First Unitarian Society of Middleborough, Mass.” and call the Rev. Wm. M. Ramsay, to become pastor for $1200 for a year.
By 1890, this group decided to build a church building of their own on a purchased lot, the Reed lot on Pearl St. After establishing a budget, Enoch Pratt formerly of North Middleborough, now of Baltimore, purchased the lot, and money was borrowed from the American Unitarian Association (AUA).
The congregation occupied the Unity Church in 1891, and bought pews and other furniture, still used today 125 years later.
An organ was purchased 1892, but an addition had to be built to house it!
A group of women called the Ladies Sewing Circle was singularly responsible for putting on suppers and entertainments to supplement pledges and supply the financial needs of the early church.
Certain bequests were also instrumental in sustaining the budget as well as pledges and fundraisers.
By 1903, the salary of the minister had risen to $1500 after long discussions and promises of increased pledging. None of the early ministers stayed on for long terms.
Growing pains by 1907, saw Rev. MacIlwain encourage the group to expand. David Pratt gave the congregation a lot on South Main St., so they could move to a more central location in town. The Society pledged to raise $5000.
Some money was raised from the sale of the Reed lot and the rest was borrowed from the AUA again. This allowed the building to be cut apart, moved through the streets and reassembled on a new stone foundation.
At this new site, the church became a center for many activities for the youth in town. In these pre-WWI years, there was a free Kindergarten, a mandolin and guitar club, and a club/game room in the Alliance Room (our Fireplace room), for boys.
By 1920, the minister’s salary had risen to $1800 a year, though longevity was still not common.
In 1929, our first female minister was called. The Rev. Mrs. Clara Cook Helvie was also paid $1800 and additionally appointed the Director of Religious Education.
During the Depression years, the minister’s salary was cut to $1200, and the music fund was cut from $850 to $325. Rev. Helvie resigned when the activities of the Society reached a low ebb.
The Rev. Curtis Beach was ordained in 1941 at our church with “a glorious celebration”. He was put to work immediately. He was also a talented carpenter and accomplished renovations to the chapel room, and the front of the sanctuary before he left in 1943 to a larger west coast church.
By 1944, Yale student, Rev. Solon Morgan graduated and ministered here for 2 years. Ministers were still hard to entice to Middleborough because of the low salary.
In 1949 the new minister’s salary was finally up to $2500 a year. A dream which began in 1907, was finally realized, when the congregation bought a house for a parsonage.
The Stanley Benson house on Courtland St. was purchased for $7000, and the new Rev. and Mrs. Knight would have a home.
A hospitality committee was formed in 1950, as well as a Flower Committee. The first Coffee Hour was instituted at that time also.
By the 1960’s, the membership dwindled again and the fundraisers and pledges couldn’t keep up with the upkeep. The Parish Committee voted to sell the parsonage and invest the money to attract a minster who could revitalize the Society, and its place in town life.
After supply ministers kept us going and the Society became the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Rev. A. John Skeirik and his dynamic wife, Betsy, answered the call to become our part time minister. The dozen or so members became many many more. By the mid- 1970’s the church had become a vibrant thriving place.
More major repairs and improvements included repairing the steeple, shingling the roof, painting the outside and the inside, modernizing the kitchen, and installing the oil burner in the furnace.
The UU Society sponsored a Laotian family of 4 caught up in the aftermath of Vietnam. In the 1970’s this church joined others to sponsor and financially care for the Mathipannha family.
In the ebb and flow of membership, the 1980’s saw dwindling numbers again, and we struggled to find the right minister, again. We found Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox who revitalized our liberal religious entity. Under Rev. Elizabeth, membership grew, R.E. grew, and with the help of a new parishioner, Tricia Tummino, we started the Welcoming Congregation process.
A capital fund drive was created to fund an elevator and make our building accessible to all. $25,000 was pledged and raised. The project was accomplished in 1989 under the leadership of members Bud Soule and Vinnie Mack, in time for our 100th anniversary celebration.
Our social action outreach reemerged in the early 90’s as we became involved in trying to save the members of a family in Rwanda caught up in the Hutu/Tutsi genocide. Chuck and Jan Bichsel mobilized the church and other organizations to get this family to the USA and pledged to support them for a year. Over some time, 12 family members were found and saved.
Our next minister was Rev. Tricia Tummino who had, with Rev. Elizabeth, spearheaded the move to have our society become a Welcoming Congregation within UU guidelines. Rev. Tummino served us for 12 years, marking her our longest serving minister.
After many ministerial search experiences the Parish Committee wisely led us to a two year interim minister process. During this process, we, quite uncomfortably, realized that we had, probably throughout our entire history, underpaid all our staff. We can be proud to say, we decided, that stops right now!
We set some goals. We wanted to insure high quality ministry, music, and religious education programs, good quality space for staff and RE, more consistent social outreach, and reasonable pay for our staff.
We have now reached the point where each of these goals have been achieved for the first time in over 160 years. Our struggle will be to make these accomplishments sustainable.
The I Love My Church Initiative is the first step in a five year plan to reach sustainability. We must pay attention to our building, which at one time was a glorious attention-getter on South Main Street, and now is a symbol of our indomitable past.
We have recently had some new and talented people find a home here. We need to have faith in ourselves and each other. This course will bring sustainability and growth for the future.