How We Got Here: Unitarian Universalism in Greater Pittsburgh

By Kathleen Parker | October 2015

Our liberal religious vision first came to Pittsburgh in 1808 with the arrival of Benjamin Bakewell, a glass industrialist who had become a Unitarian while living in England. In time, Bakewell met others of like mind in Pittsburgh, and together with the Rev. John Campbell, a minister recruited from England, they founded in 1820 the First Unitarian Church. They constructed a building on the corner of Smithfield Street and Virgin Alley (Oliver Avenue) in 1823. The dedication service attracted such a large audience that many were forced to stand outside the door.
This small congregation struggled to continue after Rev. Campbell died in 1824; it was led in the 1850s by a "minister-at-large," Mordecai DeLange. The first Unitarian minister ordained in Pittsburgh was the Rev. Walter Wilson in 1860. Both DeLange and Wilson received their ministerial training at the new Meadville Theological School, established in 1844 to prepare ministers for western Unitarian ministry.
During this time, a small Universalist congregation emerged in Smithton; they named themselves the Thomas Universalist Church after the man who donated the bell in their bell tower. At the same time, a small Universalist congregation met in Pittsburgh. Their last minister left for California in 1899 and after that, the Universalists in Pittsburgh worshipped with the Unitarians.
The First Unitarian Church grew greatly in the 1890s, as industrial growth brought a greater diversity of people to the city. The Rev. Charles Elliott St. John served the church during this time and brought with him an earnest Social Gospel approach, encouraging the congregation to serve the needs of the city. This was done most prominently by working in the Kingsley Settlement House and by constructing a water filter on the church lawn to promote municipal water filtration for public health.
It was during the 30-year ministry of Rev. L. Walter Mason that the First Church erected in 1904 its current building on Ellsworth and Morewood Avenues. Soon after, Mason assisted in the founding of a Second Unitarian Church, soon called the North Side Unitarian Church, in the former Allegheny City. It was soon led by the Rev. Charles Snyder, who together with Walter Mason, challenged the criticisms leveled at Unitarians by the Rev. Billy Sunday in 1914. The First Church and the North Side Church maintained cooperative relations long after Rev. Mason’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1929.
The Depression brought hard times, and Rev. Frank Edwin Smith remained at the helm at First Church, in spite of pay cuts to his salary due to pledge losses. The North Side Church retained the leadership of Rev. Warren Blodgett until 1934, and after that a lay preacher and public school teacher, Clarence Klein. The North Side Church had long embraced a philosophical and humanist approach in its services.
Irving Murray arrived at the First Church in 1943. His energy and drive soon infused the congregation with new vitality, and the 1950s brought growth in numbers and social activism for fair housing and integration. After Irving Murray resigned suddenly in 1960 under a cloud of suspicion over rumors of a romance with a married female parishioner, the First Church congregation entered a period of struggle and division.
The period of the 1950s was a hard time for the North Side Church, which lost membership due to a changed constituency in the neighborhood and a new highway connector that bisected the community. This church was also hurt when its popular minister, the Rev. John Evans, was targeted in 1952 by an FBI informant for suspected communist activity. Evans fled immediately, and so did some parishioners, which the church could ill afford to lose.
In 1954, around four families started meeting in homes in Morgantown, West Virginia and officially established the Morgantown Unitarian Fellowship on May 23 of that year, with twenty-seven people signing the membership book. They erected an attractive and inviting A-Frame building on a wooded lot in 1963. Known today as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Morgantown , they are currently served on a part-time basis by the Rev. Renee Waun.
It was at the end of the 1950s that congregations began sprouting up in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding Pittsburgh. The first was in 1958 in the North Hills, a congregation of about 75 people who rented space at the North Hills YMCA and temporarily piped in Irving Murray’s sermons via telephone. They soon purchased the Bellwood Dairy Farm, converted it into a worship and meeting space, and became incorporated in 1961 as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills. The congregation is presently served by Rev. Scott Rudolph.
To the east, a small group came together and established in 1966 the East Borough Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. They met sequentially in private homes, a school, a fire hall, and an old church. They participated in services, picnics, and plays, all under the guidance of lay leaders. Today, they are known as the East Suburban Unitarian Universalist Church, and are served part-time by the Rev. Renee Waun. They purchased their own building on Sardis Road in 2002.
In the South Hills, twenty-one people from adjoining communities gathered in 1965 at the home of Gloria Snyder and her husband. They advertised for friends of First Church who lived in the area to join them and began meeting at the Bethel Park YWCA. They purchased a large corner house in 1970, after assuring the neighbors they were not "Moonies" and promising the Borough Council they would fill in the pool. They soon became the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills, also known as Sunnyhill. In 2015 the congregation called Rev. Jim Magaw.
Meanwhile, in 1958, the Unitarian Fellowship of Indiana County was established. Members first met in each other’s homes and rented spaces. They incorporated in 1984 as the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Indiana and began working toward the acquisition of a building. After some years of leadership from various ministers, in 2007, they ordained and installed the Rev. Joan Sabatino as their settled minister.
In 1960, the Thomas Universalist Church celebrated the Centennial Anniversary of its founding. But the 1960s proved to be a time of struggle. They hired the Rev. John Papandrew in 1970 with a grant from the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention, which led to a more promising time. Papandrew was followed in 1976 by the fourteen-year ministry of Rev. David Leonard. Still small in number, and served in recent years by Rev. Tom Bodie and Rev. Rebecca Cartus, they are now the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton.
The Rev. Jesse Cavileer came to the North Side Church in 1966 as a man perfectly suited to the congregation and the neighborhood. Jesse believed the church should open its doors to serve the community, and this urban ministry outlook led to the creation of the North Side Common Ministries. The church changed its name to the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church in 1985, the same year that Jesse left. He was followed by the Rev. Art McDonald, who was invited in 1991 to become Director of Social Advocacy, with the congregation down to fifteen members. This number grew to fifty by 1997, when Rev. McDonald was installed as Minister and Director of Social Advocacy. The church is served today by the Rev. Dave McFarland, who just celebrated his tenth year of service to the congregation.
Autumn of 1975 marked the beginning of what would become the Ohio Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation. Interested folks met in several locations around the Wheeling/Ohio Valley area. Their first building in East Wheeling was vandalized beyond repair, but they recovered from this loss, and in 1989, they erected a permanent geodesic structure they fondly refer to as The Dome. They are served on a part-time basis by the Rev. Renee Waun.
In 1986, a few folks in eastern Westmoreland County dreamed of a UU church in their community, but they questioned whether it was possible. Their dream became a reality when they held their first service in December 1987 as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ligonier Valley . Fifteen years later, they were able to move from a rented space to a permanent building situated in a lovely wooded area. Rev. Renee Waun is their part-time Minister of Record.
The most recent addition to the UU family of churches in our Greater Pittsburgh Cluster is the Ginger Hill Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Slippery Rock. Begun in 2003, the small but vibrant Ginger Hill congregation meets at 174 Main Street for weekly services and cultivates UU values through Tuesday dinners, Contemplatives, and social action for climate justice and economic fairness. They are especially proud of their status as a Green Sanctuary community.
The First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh survived the struggles that accompanied the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s under the leadership of four Humanist ministers. This Humanist emphasis culminated in the ministry of the Rev. Paul Beattie in the 1980s. After he died suddenly in 1989, the Rev. David Herndon was called from a small congregation in Canada to begin what would become a 25-year ministry. This inaugurated a period of greater theological diversity and steady growth in activity at the church. The 80s and 90s was a time when many of our Cluster churches reached new levels of stability, which allowed them to build, purchase, update, or expand their church buildings. First Church built a beautiful garden lobby that more richly connected the two wings of its building and installed an elevator for full access to the sanctuary. First Church today is active in the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) and East End Cooperative Ministries, among other things, and is re-envisioning its mission.
In the spring of 2013, Rev. Herndon invited the ministers of our area churches to join in forming an organizational structure that would encourage greater connection and collaboration between the ministers, program staff, lay leaders, and parishioners of the area churches. This was in part a response to the replacement of the districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association with a new plan of regionalization which would require greater local self-reliance. Pittsburgh area ministers and lay leaders began meeting in 2013 to write bylaws, assemble a Board of Directors, and organize the first Cluster Assembly, which was held in November 2014. Future Cluster Assemblies and other communal events will continue this process of building relationships around our shared UU values and vision.
The spark of our free faith, inspiring a liberal religious view, has been present in this region for over 200 years. Though small, it has given rise to the establishment of eleven religious communities dedicated to living out our UU Principles among ourselves and in our world. The Unitarian Universalists of Greater Pittsburgh connects these communities in celebration of our common purpose and our persistent hope.

Kathleen Parker is a UU historian, Editor of the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, published by the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society, and also the author of Here We Have Gathered: The Story of Unitarian Universalism in Western Pennsylvania, 1808-2008.