A Brief History Of The Unitarian Universalist Church Of St. Petersburg

Our church, which is one of the oldest Unitarian Universalist congregations in Florida, was originally founded as a Universalist church, and it was the outgrowth of a dream of one woman. Her name was Mrs. R. J. (Pearl) Cole. Mrs. Cole, her husband, and son John, all held steadfast to the the liberal teachings of Universalism. She longed for a church which was less rigid in its doctrines than those prevalent here in St. Petersburg in the early 1900's. But Pearl's family was too small to start a church.

Luckily, fortune intervened and Mrs. Cole found the West family, newly arrived from Philadelphia. The West family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. George H. West and their children Russell, George H. Jr. , and Anna (later Mrs. Anna West Reese). When the West family arrived, Mrs. Cole said: "Yes, with my three, plus the five in the West family - why, we can have a church!" So with a nucleus of eight people, the Rev. Ella Elizabeth Bartlett arrived in October, 1914 as our first minister. The First Universalist Society of St. Petersburg was duly organized on January 5, 1915, in the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Hall on Mirror Lake, with Mrs. John Abbot, R. J. Cole, George H. West and Mrs. J. A. Robinson as trustees.1 Years later in 1926, Mrs. Cole wrote later about her early struggles to start a church: "One summer I was visiting at Osage, Iowa, and asked the minister there if he knew anyone we could get to preach to us, and help to start a Universalist movement in St. Petersburg, Fla. He gave me the address of Rev. Ella E. Bartlett... I wrote Miss Bartlett, and she consented to come to us."

Ella Bartlett, our first minister, was graduated from Canton Theological School at St. Lawrence University in 1877 and ordained September 4, 1878. She was a missionary worker in Southwestern New York State, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. She moved from St. Petersburg to Pensacola in 1916 and died October 26, 1931. She wrote, near the end of her life, that she was "just a commonplace nobody who has done what she could to promote the faith called Universalism and had so little success that it is not worth mentioning."2 How wrong she was! Miss Bartlett gave much to the little group that called her. Her sermons, and especially her beautiful prayers, reflected a rare spiritual quality. Her advanced age, however, restricted her activities. She remained a guest of the Cole family and received only the funds voted from time-to-time to cover necessities.

After leading the church through our first season, Miss Bartlett returned North and services were discontinued for the summer. The next fall, on October 13, 1915, the women of the Church set up their first organization, naming it "The Women's Missionary Circle of the Universalist Church." In the late fall of 1915 arrangements were made with the Universalist Convention to continue the activities in St. Petersburg. The congregation agreed to assume the sum of $25.00 per month as our portion of the minister's salary. The Rev. Harriet Baker Robinson agreed to come and serve jointly with our Church and the Universalist Church of the Good Shepherd in Tarpon Springs. She lived in the parsonage in Tarpon Springs. She conducted morning services in Tarpon Springs, then took the slow train to St. Petersburg for an evening service. Mrs. Robinson proved to be a good leader and during her ministry, attendance rose to 125 people. Continual progress was made in the 1916-1917 season, and the name of the society was changed to The First Universalist Church of St. Petersburg.

During the early days of the church, services were held in homes, and the fellowship was very close. Others joined the small congregation, and the old G.A.R. Hall became the first meeting place. This location was followed by other rented meeting locations: the Woman's Town Improvement Association Building (opposite Williams Park on First Avenue North - rental $2.50 per night); followed by the lodge room of the Masonic Temple (Fourth Street and First Avenue); and finally "The Auditorium" (Second Avenue South between Second and Third Streets). Sharing these quarters with other organizations meant sometimes listening to the German-American Society's jolly times in an adjoining room during preaching; sometimes it was the chug-chugs and whistles of old-time train sounds punctuating the service. And much effort was required by these early Universalist pioneers to set up the service - lifting heavy benches into place and bringing boxes of hymn books from attic storage rooms.

Other ministers who occupied these meeting places through the first ten years of the church shared a joint pastorate with the Universalist Church in Tarpon Springs. The Rev. Harriet Baker Robinson was followed by the Rev. Harry Holden, the Rev. Stanard Dow Butler, D. D. (who later served as our first full-time settled minister) and the Rev. Louis J. Richards. Under the constructive leadership of the Rev. Richards, two lots at the corner of Second Street N. and 10th Avenue North was bought and paid for. These lots, which were originally intended as the site for the church, was later sold, the proceeds of which were used to offset costs of the current church.

During the early boom period of the 1920's, the church as well as the city of Saint Petersburg grew rapidly. It was time to build a permanent church home. The Rev. Dr. Stanard Dow Butler, who concurred with the church's decision to form a stronger base for growth by uniting with the Unitarians, became our second full-time minister in 1925. The conviction that all liberals must join together if success was to be achieved gained stronger support. National headquarters of both the Universalists and the Unitarians were discussing the local situation. At a momentous meeting in the spring of 1925, it was decided that the two liberal churches in St. Petersburg - the Universalists and Unitarians - should federate for the founding a a liberal church. So, thirty-six years before the official merger of the national Unitarian and Universalist denominations in May 1961, a Universalist-Unitarian merger was completed in St. Petersburg! Thus our church is important, not only for its own unique history, but also for contributing to the very early growth of the national Unitarian Universalist movement.

On Sunday, February 27, 1927, a meeting was called at the close of the Sunday service for the purpose of officially changing the name of the Church to reflect the newly-merged Universalist-Unitarian church. The congregation adopted the name The United Liberal Church (Universalist-Unitarian) by a majority of 26 votes in favor, against 5 votes cast for other names. Incorporation papers of the United Liberal Church (Universalist-Unitarian) were filed on March 29, 1928. The full house in the Pheil Theatre for Easter Sunday in that year prompted enthusiastic plans for building a new church home - our current church edifice.

Thus, a new church was built to house the growing congregation - our lovely Spanish Colonial Revival style structure on Mirror Lake at Arlington Avenue N - which is true to the Spanish style both on the exterior as well as the interior. The impetus to build a permanent church home actually started in November of 1922 when the women voted to give $100 to the church building fund, to be used as a down payment for lots located on Second Street N. and 10th Avenue N. During the next several years, the minutes of the Ladies Aid Society reflect their herculean efforts to raise money for the Building Fund. Gifts were swelling our Building Fund and the dream of a church building seemed near realization. In 1929 the cornerstone was laid by Mr. Harry C. Chubb, chairman of the building committee, at a simple ceremony, and on March 2, 1930 at 4:00pm The Act of Dedication service conducted by Dr. Butler and the congregation was held in the newly completed church.

The church building was designed by Mr. Philip Horton Smith of the architectural firm of Smith & Walker, Boston, consulting architects of the American Unitarian Association. The lot on Mirror Lake upon which the church was built was purchased at a bargain rate of less than $20,000. Mr. Max A. H. Fitz, Chairman of thechurch's Finance Committee, wrote to the congregation on April 11, 1929: "We have as fine a site for our church as can be wished for, located on beautiful Mirror Lake, which is surrounded by beautiful parks and a number of prominent buildings, almost right in the heart of our city - a site which during the Florida boom brought $60,000, but which was acquired by us about a year ago at less than one-third of that figure."

The construction cost of the new church was $41,893 with "advisable extras" costing $1,523,97. Among the extras were the cast stone entrances ($430) and special Spanish tiles on the roof, which were given by the contractor at the cost of trucking the tile from the Gulf, where they had been dumped. Mr. Fitz wrote in another letter to the congregation requesting donations for the extras: "The tile we would like to have are genuine old tiles of great beauty, imported from Barcelona, Spain, at a cost several times [less] the price at which they are quoted to us, and our architects inform us that they are unusually fine." The tiles were purchased from our contractor Mr. Berry, who had them left over from the Don Cesar hotel, which he was just completing. Thus, our church roof (now only the top of the bell tower) and chancel floor are bits of old Spain. No two tiles are identical, each tile being formed over the thigh of the workman's leg as he works the wet clay. It was also discovered that the Boston architect, thinking that it never became cold in Florida, had made no provision for heating. It took much persuasion to get him to include gas radiators in his architectural plan.

It was also during this time of Prohibition, that the Florida Universalists, under the leadership of Dr. Butler, endorsed prohibition at their annual state convention and demanded more strenuous enforcement. The Universalists joined many other faith religions of the period in demanding the defense of the Prohibition laws.3 Dr. Butler filled the new sanctuary with the power of his preaching. All seats were filled, the balcony completed occupied, and the overflow seated in Gilmour Hall with the folding doors wide open. Unfortunately, Mrs. Butler's poor health brought about Dr. Butler's resignation in 1930. Dr. Henry Ross filled in as interim minister until a replacement could be found.

The Rev. Dr. George Gilmour succeeded the Rev. Dr. Butler and served from the fall of 1932 until a tragic automobile-train accident took his life in March of 1948. Dr. Gilmour was a very learned man and Harvard scholar. In 1939 an article appeared in the St. Pete Times indicating that he and his beautiful and talented wife were returning from an extensive summer's sojourn during which he spent his 20th consecutive summer studying at Harvard and reviewing more than 100 newly published books in his research area.4 Mrs. Gilmour was an artist and singer, active in the church and the community. During Rev. Gilmour's ministry, the church grew and the mortgage was paid off. Making his annual report during the annual election of the Board of Trustees at the Concord Hotel in January, 1938, Dr. Gilmour estimated the the church membership at about 539, which number, he explained, includes a large tourist membership, many of whom fail to return. On March 12, 1948, just prior to the planned celebration of mortgage burning on Easter Sunday,5 Rev. and Mrs. Gilmour were killed in a car/train accident just south of Frostproof on their way to a vacation in Miami. Both were in their 70s. Gilmour Hall is named for him. The tragic deaths of the Gilmours came as a shock to our Church and to many local non-church members. Dr. Gilmour was a brilliant man and was held in high respect by the larger community.

Following Rev. Gilmour was the Rev. Ernest Turner Marble accepted the call to be our minister in September of 1948, ably assisted by his wife Elisabeth. Rev Marble served as our minister until 1961. He was a young man of 41, with a wife and three young children. Rev. Marble was a Tufts graduate from Stamford, CT. and a WW II veteran, who served as a navy chaplain. Both he and his wife Elizabeth were active in St. Petersburg in many interfaith, interracial, and civic projects. He was a founder of the Council on Human Relations, and he served as vice president and a member of the organization's board of directors. During Rev. Marble's ministry, the church maintained a membership of about 200 and had an annual budget in the mid-1950's of about $10,000. It was during Rev. Marble's ministry that the church purchased its first parsonage, installed a Conn electric organ (which was subsequently replaced by an Allen organ in 1967, then again in 1987)6 as well as electric chimes, purchased a public address system, installed the ladies rest room on the first floor, and renovated and beautified the church and parish hall.

At the annual meeting of 1957, Mrs. Donald E. Putnam, professionally known as Mrs. Lura Fullerton Putnam, retired as organist after thirty years of continuous service, beginning two years before the present church was built. In recognition of her steadfast services and the high quality of music rendered, she was voted the title of Organist Emeritus of the United Liberal Church at a dinner given in her honor.

In an interview in Church News on the 10th anniversary of Rev. Marble's tenure, he stated "Our church is deeply conscious of the problems of all mankind and tries to find a common denominator for understanding among people of all walks of life and of all national and racial backgrounds."7 After leaving the church, he became a social worker in Tampa. He passed away September 13, 1988 at Tampa General at the age of 81.

Upon Rev. Marble's resignation, the Rev. John Ogden Fisher (born September 22, 1907 - deceased February 22, 2002) accepted the call to be our minister on September 1st, 1961. He served with great effectiveness setting up an Endowment Fund, which contributes a certain sum each year to the church treasury, and being instrumental in the building of a multipurpose activities and educational building named for him (now commonly referred to as Conway Hall, which is only the first floor). The building has many memorials marking major contributions to the building fund: "Conway Hall" was named in memory of Mrs. John S. (Martha) Conway whose generous legacy helped make the erection of the building a reality. The minister's study was furnished in memory of Marcus N. Wright who was instrumental in launching the building plans before his death. "Nathalie's Kitchen" was the gift of Mrs. Harold Soehl. Classrooms on the second floor are named the Truethart, Reflor and Daisy Davis rooms, in recognition of their contributions.

The two-story educational building was erected starting in August 1966 and was dedicated in March 1967 at a cost of $121,000. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was guest speaker at the dedication of the building. The subject of his address was "Our Heritage and Our Hopes." In addition to his efforts in making major improvements to the physical structure of the church, Rev. Fisher, or "Jack" as he was commonly known, was quietly active in the nascent Civil Rights movement. In order to gain a larger forum for his concerns about the direction and health of the Unitarian Universalist Association, he ran twice for its presidency, in 1964 and 1968. In both elections, he managed to garner 25% of the vote without running a major campaign. It was his evaluation in 1960 that saved the Starr King School for the Ministry from closing. Rev. Fisher's wife Dorothy Stallworth Fisher, a graduate of the New England School of Music, served ably as the organist and choir director during his ministry, and founded the church's first professional auditioned choir. In 1968, Rev. Fisher resigned feeling his work here had been completed.

A worthy successor, the Rev. Richard Boeke was called. Significant growth occurred during his pastorate, and during this period in 1973, we adopted our present name, the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg. In 1973, a large church in Berkeley, California, wooed Rev. Boeke from us.

We were again fortunate to obtain the services of the Rev. Weston A. Stevens, who brought his own very special talents to serve the needs of our church family and visitors. Following Rev. Stevens' departure, the Rev. Dee Graham was called. Following her departure, co-ministers Rev. Susanne Nazian and Rev. Dr. Alec Craig served as co-consulting ministers, and Rev. Liz Brown served as interim minister.

Rev. Manish K. Mishra was installed on November 5, 2006, and during his tenure the church experienced much spiritual growth. He greatly enhanced the quality of the Sunday worship services. Rev. Mishra was also very active in the community, very ably representing the values of our faith to the greater community. Rev. Mishra resigned his position to accept a call from a larger congregation in Cherry Hill, NJ. We were graced with his presence for several years, and he, and his partner Jeff, will be fondly remembered by all who knew them.

During Rev. Mishra’s tenure, James "Jim" Culver (Doctorate in Musical Arts) became our first Minister of Music and also served for about a year as Consulting Minister when Rev. Mishra resigned in 2009. In addition, Rev. Dr. Alec Craig, who served as one of our co-consulting ministers in past years, returned in the fall of 2009 to act as our part-time pastoral care minister.

Significant in the history of the church is the zeal of the women in the church who raised funds and kept the most complete historical records. The Women's Missionary Society was first, followed by the the Ladies Aid, then the Women's Union - and now the Women's Forum. In the early 1900's, the women set up displays of handicrafts and baked goods in a showcase on Central Avenue. Their handicrafts included pineneedle baskets, yards of necklaces made from dyed chinaberry seeds, Cherokee beans, and Spanish bayonet seeds. Oysters roasts were held in what was then truly "The Jungle" area of St. Petersburg, picnics were held on unspoiled beaches and boat excursions were taken on Tampa Bay. The Woman's Union carefully recorded the fundraisers the Union held, their expenses and the amount of monies they gave to the trustees. In the 1940s, there was a tradition of having lunch on Thursdays on the front lawn of the church outside of what is now Gilmour Hall.

Unfortunately, this brief history of our church cannot portray the many gifts it brings to all those whose lives it has touched. Only through its influences on the daily lives of its members, and all those that it reaches, can its real history be told.

Founded by the visionary action of one woman - Pearl Cole - the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg continues to be an effective liberal religious voice in the Tampa Bay area.

May its history continue to be a great one.

The full-time called ministers who have served this church include:

Rev. Ella E. Bartlett (1914- 1915)

Rev. Dr. Stanard Dow Butler (1925 - 1930)

Rev. Dr. George Gilmour (1932 - 1948)

Rev. Ernest Turner Marble (1948 - 1961)

Rev. John Ogden Fisher (1961 - 1968)

Rev. Dr. Richard F. Boeke (1968 - 1973)

Rev. Weston A. Stevens (1974 - 1993)

Rev. Dee Graham (1995 - 2001)

Rev. Manish K. Mishra (2006 - 2009)

Shared and part-time ministers who have served the church include:

Part-time ministers shared with UU Tarpon Springs (1915-1925):

Rev. Harriet Baker Robinson (1915-1918)

Rev. Dr. James Harry Holden (1919-1920)

Rev. Dr. Stanard Dow Butler (1920-1921) (who later served as a full-time minister)

Rev. Louis J. Richards (1921-1925)

Dr. Henry Rose: Interim Minister (1931-1932)

Rev. Armida Alexander: Interim Minister (1993 - 1995)

Rev. Suzanne Nazian; Rev. Dr. Alec Craig: Co-Consulting Ministers (2001 - 2005)

Rev. Elizabeth Brown: Interim Minister (2005 - 2006)

James Culver, D. Musical Arts: Minister of Music (2009 - 2012); Consulting Minister (2010-2011)

Rev. Dr. Alec Craig: Pastoral Care Minister (2009 - 2012)

Rev. Katy Korb: Developmental Minister (2012 - 2014)

Rev. Jack Donovan: Consulting Minister (September 2014 - present)

Rev. Karen Day, Community/RE Families Minister (July 2017 - present)

Information collected from the archives of our church. Photos of Rev. Harriet Baker-Robinson and Rev. Ernest T. Marble displayed with permission of Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.


1The First Universalist Society of St. Petersburg was founded as the second Universalist Church and the third Unitarian-Universalist Church in the State of Florida. The Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs was founded first, in 1898, followed by First Unitarian Church of Orlando in 1912 and our church in 1914. The Universalist churches were founded by missionaries: Tarpon Springs by Quillen Shinn and ours by its first minister, the Rev. Ella Elizabeth Bartlett.

2"Unitarian and Universalist Women Ministers" by Catherine Hitchings

3"Florida Preachers and the Election of 1928" by M. Edward Hughes

4St. Petersburg Times, September 29, 1939 "Pastor Back"

5The church mortgage was later burned on March 24, 1949 during Rev. Marble's ministry.

6The Conn electric organ was given to our church in 1962 by Miss Truehart. It was replaced by an Allen organ, in 1967, the gift of Mrs. Herbert (Margarethe) Grant in her parent's memory. Her father was Max A. H. Fitz, the Chair of the Finance Committee, during the construction of the church. Margarethe Fitz Grant bought the church's first Allen organ (cost at time or purchase in 1967 was $10,000) and had it installed professionally. Our current Allen organ was installed on 26-27 May 1987 at a cost of $45,000.

7Church News, Saturday, September 14, 1956 "Liberal Church - Religions without Dogma"