History of Marquette UU Congregation
Editors note: No history is complete or free from bias. Without a doubt, this brief history has many omissions and probably some errors as well. I would greatly appreciate hearing what you think should be added or rephrased. Thanks, Nancy Sullivan
A brief history of Unitarian Universalism in Marquette, MI
Early roots – 1950s
The first attempt that we know of to start a Unitarian Fellowship occurred in 1950 or 1951. This group was purely Unitarian in focus as it was not until 1961 that the Unitarians and Universalists merged their separate churches into one denomination called Unitarian Universalism.
This effort was initiated primarily by Dr. Roland Schwitzgoebel, who was teaching in the Education Dept. at Northern State Normal School. Roland and his spouse, Marian, had been raised in different religions. Marian was raised Lutheran and Roland was raised Catholic. Neither of them was completely comfortable with the Methodist church where Roland was the choir director. They were searching for something more compatible with their current beliefs.
Roland spotted an advertisement in the Mining Journal one day about a Unitarian from Boston who would be speaking in the area on Unitarian Fellowships. They went to hear him and Roland stayed a long time with this person after the talk to explore the idea. Roland spread the idea around Northern Normal School (the precursor institution to Northern Michigan University) and eventually a small group of people sent in $100 to Boston for start-up materials.
The group rented the Federated Women’s Building in town and met every Sunday evening for a discussion group. Roland took responsibility for picking the discussion topic and organizing the meetings. It was a “pure discussion” group. Marian recalls that Roland used to say that he didn’t want to be involved in a “run-of-the-mill” church! Marian remembers leading one of the meetings once. She read the poem, “Daffodills” by William Wordsworth and then folks discussed the poem.
Marian says there were usually about 20 adults at the meetings including the father (Peter Embley) of one of our current (year 2013) members, Sari Embley. No children attended, nor was childcare provided. As a mother, the lack of Sunday school bothered Marian because she felt the children could benefit greatly from it. But only she and one other family had children who were the right age for that at the time.
The group finally disbanded due to leadership fatigue. People were busy with their careers and families. The turnover of the higher education faculty moving away to new positions led to the loss of key members. The few people who did most of the work were tired of the effort and the group finally disbanded after about three years of meeting.
Second attempt, 1970 or so
The second attempt to start a Fellowship in Marquette occurred in 1970 or 1972 depending on various recollections. Again the Schwitzgoebels were key organizers. There were four to six families involved and this time they met in homes. This group self-identified itself as a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, though they did not file the paperwork with the national association. Some of our current (2013) members and recently moved members were a part of this group in the 1970s, including chemistry professors,Tom and Gail Griffith; and art professor, Richard (Michael) and teacher, Marilyn Gorski.
As in the earlier attempt, Roland Schwitzgoebel was the leader, using “Church in a Box” materials from the Unitarian Universalist Association. Again it was a discussion group, with no Joys & Concerns or other ritualistic practices. The group was small enough that they just met and talked on Sunday afternoons. Members felt the effort eventually failed (after two or three years) for lack of Sunday school, lack of membership growth, and leadership fatigue.
Third attempt – 1992
Kathy Melanbacher (now, Melanbacher-Claycomb), a young woman living in Gwinn was encouraged by her mother, Jean Melanbacher, to get a UU group started in the Marquette area. Kathy’s mother was a key organizer in a small UU group meeting in homes in Grand Marais at that time. Jean knew of Gail Griffith, who had been in the 1970s group and had Kathy contact her. Together they spread the word to members of 1970s group. Fourteen people gathered at Kathy’s “tiny home” filling both her living room and dining room on Father’s Day, 1992.
Kathy recalls that most of the people attending that gathering had been participants in the 1970’s group. Kathy remembers that the Gorski’s, the Griffith’s and the Schwitzgoebel’s were in attendance. All present thought that starting another UU group was a good idea. They agreed to participate, but the comment was made that for a successful endeavor, everyone had to participate in some way. Those present felt that the reason the previous group had failed to thrive was that the main organizer did not have sufficient help from others.
Gail Griffith, L.E.E. Wolf and Kathy Melanbacher researched the “Church in a Box” from Church of the Larger Fellowship of the UUA, and looked into possible meeting places over the summer. They also met with Jerry Wright, the representative from the Michigan-Ohio district. The larger group met again in August or September 1992 (possibly at Glenda Robinson’s house) and formally decided to start the process of forming a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
A basket was passed and $200 was immediately raised to start the church. The “Church in a Box” materials were ordered to help the group get started. In August, 1992 L.E.E Wolf contacted the Rev. Mark Engle at St. Paul Episcopal Church about using space on Sunday afternoons. The group started meeting in the Morgan Chapel at the St. Paul Episcopal church on the first and third Sunday afternoons of the month that fall. The Rev. Mark Engle at St. Paul Episcopal Church was supportive of our developing UU congregation and the warm relationship continues today.
Our first Board of Trustees met on Dec. 1, 1992. Members were L.E.E. Wolf, President; Mike Gorski, VicePresident; Kathy Melanbacher, secretary; Sue Halbrook and Gail Griffith were Members at Large. Standing committees were Children’s Program, Finance, Incorporation and By-laws, Maintenance, Program, Social Service, Publicity, and a Treasurer’s position.
Morgan Chapel days, Sept. 1992 – Aug. 1995
The new UU congregation was quite small at this time. It was a “good day” when attendance was in the double digits. The group did elect officers to attend to the business aspects of growing a church. Everyone who attended helped out in one way or another. People took turns facilitating the meetings, with help from the “Church in a Box” from “Boston” (the UUA). One meeting was a “humor” meeting, to explore the place of laughter in our lives. For another service there was a winter potluck celebration, with customs from many cultures highlighted.
There was little focus on pledging or growth. The group decided to meet for a year to see whether or not the group had enough momentum and energy to survive. Then after 9 months of meeting, on May 16, 1993 sixteen adults signed the Unitarian Universalists of Marquette Membership Roll formally starting the congregation and establishing its connection to the Unitarian Universalist Association. Kathy Melanbacher-Claycomb recalls, “I remember the book-signing pretty clearly, but I don’t believe there was any particular ceremony about it. The book was on a table in the hallway, and people who were so inclined signed it.”
Services were held at 3 pm and childcare was offered for the four children of one family. The following year the childcare was discontinued due to expense, which was a very divisive issue at the time. In 1994, the group wished to have the freedom to meet on Sunday mornings rather than in the afternoon and began a search for new space. The congregation decided that if it were to survive, current members had to make a deeper time and monetary commitment. The group decided to move to the Village Inn, a local hotel on Third St (now the Beacon House) and to hire a student minister to fly into the area to offer services once a month.
The Village Inn and MOD Squad years ( Sept. 1994/5 – summer 2002).
The congregation contracted with the Meadville Lombard Theological school for a MOD Squad minister. MOD stood for Ministerial Opportunity and Development (I think). A student minister would be selected and contracted to provide a Sunday service one Sunday a month. The congregation provided home hospitality and meals as well during the first few years. As the program continued, students were housed in local hotels.
Our first student minister was Rev. Bill Sasso and he served our congregation for two years starting in 1995. He did a great deal to raise the bar in terms of the types of services we were offering and expecting. Subsequent student ministers were Cynthia Landrum, David Owen, Chris Hillman, and Curtis Cole. Each minister student brought us to a new point in understanding. At the end of Curtis Cole’s term, we felt ready to run all our own services and the desire to have a settled minister was strong.
Twice in the 1990s, the Rev. Charlotte Cowtan, the Congregational Sevices Director from the Michigan-Ohio District came to our area to urge us to join the UUA. Members were quite resistant to this idea, feeling that a yearly $40 membership fee per member would be economically too taxing to our membership. In addition, the group was undecided about its desire to grow in size. Some members liked the small family size of the group (with 20-30 members) others desired to work towards a “full-service” congregation with about 100 members.
Religious education (RE) for the children was led by the parents primarily, but eventually we hired young adults to lead the classes during the services. On any given Sunday, we had anywhere from 3 to 10 children of various ages. Alice McMahon was a key advocate for programming and RE leader for the children in the early years. We did hire and RE teacher for one or two of these years.
Two or three visioning sessions were held in the mid to late 1990s with Rita Hodgkins from the MSU Extension Service paid to facilitate. Eventually, the group came to the decision to try to grow to a full service congregation with a full-time minister. Finally, at the annual meeting in May 1998, the Board of Trustees recommended and the congregation voted to become a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
There was much dissatisfaction with our basement meeting space at the Village Inn. The lack of storage for our materials was a problem, and the weekly set-up and putting away of materials was tedious. In 1997(?1998) the congregation purchased 4.5 acres of wooded land just outside the city limits on Wright St. with the hopes of building a church there at some future time.
Desire for a meeting space which was solely dedicated for our use intensified. A team was formed and re-formed several times in an effort to find affordable space. It took several years before we found suitable and affordable space. We rented half a house at 180 Brickyard Road in Marquette Township.
At the May 2001 Annual Meeting the congregation made several big decisions. The congregation voted (1) to hire an architect to draft a plan for an affordable starter building suitable for our Wright St. property; (2) to not hire another MOD squad ministerial student and instead pursue the hiring of a part-time minister, and (3)to hire a UUA consultant to help us design a capital campaign to fund a starter building.
Part-time Minister years & The 180 Brickyard Road ( 2002 – 2006)
The Rev. Kayle Rice was voted unanimously to be our first settled part-time minister on April 28, 2002 and she arrived in July of that year. Somewhat belatedly, on Oct.4, 2004 we had an installation ceremony and a celebration of her recent completion her internship to become a fully recognized UU minister. Pastor Kayle set a tone of warmth and caring. She led adult programs & classes, including Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, New to UU classes, Welcoming Congregation study and certification, Building your Own Theology, and Voluntary Simplicity. She encouraged multiculturalism with a Diwali Festival which was well attended, winter solstice celebrations, a Seder dinner, and a Ramadan fast. She chose not to perform weddings in solidarity with the GLBT movement since same sex marriage was illegal in Michigan. Membership in MUUC expanded to about 50-55 members. She started at 0.6 time and increased to 0.75 by the time she decided to leave, seeking full-time employment elsewhere. She announced that she was leaving in March 2006 and did so in July of that year.
Religious education (RE) of the youth continued to grow during these years with two different RE coordinators, Barbara Michael and then Kathy Wright. We continued to hire RE teachers during these times. We started offering the Our Whole Lives human sexuality program to middle school aged youth every other year. Each year the program has grown and it continues as of 2013. During some years RE was held prior to services, then eventually it was held during the last half of service time on Sundays.
During Rev. Kayle’s tenure, the church continued to rent half of a converted house for our services and other activities. The space was small for our needs, quite damp in the basement, and was not handicap accessible. The group searched diligently for better meeting space, but was unsuccessful in finding something affordable. Membership was around the mid fifties in number when she left. Unfortunately, during her tenure we learned that zoning and water problems would prevent us from building on the Wright St property.
Lay Leadership, Celebrancy and owning our first Meeting House (2006-2013)
Once Rev. Kayle announced that she was leaving, a Transition Team was established to determine our next steps forward. A lot of brainstorming with congregational input was done. That summer we decided to bid on the First Assembly of God church building out on Hwy M28, southeast of town in Chocolay Township. The building had been for sale for 3 years. With the monies freed from paying the minister’s salary and income from a quick capital campaign fund and our on-going Building Fund, we were able to purchase the building. We moved in Sept. 2006. Sari Embley, president of the Board at the time, led the blessing of building and filled the hall with the scent of burning lavender. It was a wonderful moment for our congregation.
Nancy Irish, a member of our congregation, was voted by our congregation to be our Celebrant around that time. MUUC supported her in Celebrancy study and certification through a Canadian school (? Name). She served in this role, leading life passage ceremonies, including weddings, memorial services and baby blessings. She also served as our Community Coordinator facilitating many community building events for our group. Under her leadership, we became a stronger voice in the local Inter-Faith Forum and the Inter-Faith Thanksgiving service started to be held at our Meeting House each year. She represented the congregation at the annual Holocaust Memorial service, NMU Diversity Conference and spoke at student forums representing the UU point of view. In addition, she held women’s retreats and helped hold summer camps for the for the MUUC children on her property. She led new member classes and our membership expanded to around 60-65 members during her tenure.
Some in the congregation disliked the Celebrancy with Lay-leadership Model and expressed desire for a settled minister with more traditional seminary education and connection to wider UU denomination. Others liked the Celebrancy with Lay-leadership Model as it combined economy with functionality for a small congregation. They felt it reflected our grassroots nature and sense of independence from church hierarchy. The lack of overall consensus, commitment to the Celebrancy Model created a challenging working environment for the celebrant. In 2013, Nancy resigned from this role eager to move onto new things.
Our RE coordinator in the new building on M28 was Melissa Middleton. Over the years we had two or three age groups of children on Sunday mornings. The program grew in size as the church grew with few to as many as 12-20 children on a given Sunday. The summer Camp MUUCs were popular for some years. The children spent a night or two camping at Big Creek with parents leading the activities. The OWL program continued on an every other year basis.
Laura Nagle next took on the role of RE coordinator in spring 2013. She offered RE classes during the summer, and is currently leading the program. In the same year, Teri Rockwood offered our first Coming Age program for our high school youth with church members serving as mentors.
The property on Wright St, which had been unsuccessfully for sale since 2005, finally was sold in Sept. 2011 after negotiating with a neighbor to the property. If all goes according to plan, the land contract sale will be complete in Sept. 2014.
Our Collective MUUC Future
In the coming year, 2013-14, the Board of Trustees will lead a visioning process to help us choose our next pathway. It will be the responsibility of all members to help shape our future. In the meantime, we will continue to be a lay-led fellowship with many talents and strengths. This fall we hope to continue with a full roster of Sunday services, forums, Religious Education, service and social justice events, covenant groups and an “Exploring Buddhism” group.