A Brief History Of The Unitarian Universalist Church Of St. Petersburg
Early Days: 1914-1928
Our church, one of the oldest Unitarian Universalist congregations in Florida (1), was originally founded as a Universalist church, and was the dream of one woman, Pearl Cole. Mrs. Cole, her husband R.J., and son John, all held steadfast to the liberal teachings of Universalism. She longed for a church less rigid in its doctrines than most in St. Petersburg in the early 1900’s.
In 1914, Mrs. Cole reached out to the West family, newly arrived from Philadelphia: Mr. and Mrs. George H. West and their children Russell, George H. Jr. and Anna. 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 organized on January 5 1915, in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall (G.A.R.) on Mirror Lake, with Mrs. John Abbot, R. J. Cole, George H. West and Mrs. J. A. Robinson as trustees.
Ella Bartlett, our first minister, graduated from Canton Theological School at St. Lawrence University in 1877 and was ordained September 4 1878. She was a missionary worker in southwestern New York, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Near the end of her life, she wrote 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.” Miss Bartlett gave a great deal to the small congregation. Her sermons and 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. She left St. Petersburg for Pensacola in 1916 and died on October 26 1931.
After the 1914-15 season, services were discontinued for the summer. That fall, the women of the church set up their first organization, “The Women’s Missionary Circle of the Universalist Church” and arrangements were made with the Universalist Convention to continue activities in St. Petersburg. The congregation agreed to assume the sum of $25 per month as our portion of the minister’s salary. Rev. Harriet Baker Robinson agreed to 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 grew 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 chugs and whistles of trains punctuating the service. Much effort was required by these early Universalists 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: Rev. Harriet Baker Robinson was followed by Rev. Harry Holden, Rev. Stanard Dow Butler, D. D. (who later served as our first full-time settled minister) and 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 were purchased. These lots, originally intended as the church site, were 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 and the city of St. 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. There was conviction that all liberals must join together if success was to be achieved. 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 of 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 were filed on March 29 1928. The full house in Central Avenue’s Pheil Theatre for Easter Sunday, prompted enthusiastic plans for building a new church home – our current church building facing Mirror Lake.
Thus, a new church was built to house the growing congregation. Our Spanish Colonial Revival style structure on Mirror Lake at Arlington Avenue N – is true to the style both on the exterior and interior. The impetus to build a permanent church home started in November 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. The cornerstone was laid by Mr. Harry C. Chubb, chairman of the building committee, at a simple ceremony in 1929.
Church construction: 1929
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, chair of the church’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 $1523. 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 as surplus from the Don Cesar hotel, which he was just completing. Thus, our original church roof 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 worked the wet clay. It was also discovered that the Boston architect, thinking that it never became cold in Florida, made no provision for heating. It took a good deal of 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.
Dr. Butler filled the new sanctuary with the power of his preaching. All seats were filled, the balcony fully occupied, with overflow seated in Gilmour Hall with the folding doors wide open. Unfortunately, Mrs. Butler’s poor health led to Dr. Butler’s resignation in 1930. Dr. Henry Ross filled in as interim minister until a replacement could be found.
The 1930s – 1950s
The Rev. Dr. George Gilmour succeeded 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 Harvard scholar and served as minister of the First Unitarian churches in Dallas and Denver prior to his arrival in St. Petersburg. Mrs. Nona Leach 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 church membership was about 539 which, he explained, included a large tourist membership, many of whom would fail to return. On March 12 1948, just prior to the planned celebration of mortgage burning (2) on Easter Sunday, Rev. and Mrs. Gilmour, both in their 70s, were killed in a car/train accident on their way to a vacation in Miami. Their tragic deaths came as a shock to the church and to many in the larger community who held him in high respect. Gilmour Hall is named for Rev. George Gilmour.
Following Rev. Gilmour, Rev. Ernest Turner Marble (above) 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 interfaith, interracial and civic projects. He was a founder of the Council on Human Relations, and 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 with 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 (subsequently replaced by an Allen organ in 1967, then again in 1987) (3) and 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.” After leaving the church, he became a social worker in Tampa. He passed away September 13, 1988 at Tampa General Hospital at the age of 81.
Upon Rev. Marble’s resignation, the Rev. John Ogden Fisher (Sept 22 1907 – Feb 22 2002) accepted the call to be our minister on September 1 1961. He served with great effectiveness setting up an Endowment Fund and was instrumental in the construction of a multipurpose activities and educational building which was originally named for him. Major contributors included Mrs. Martha Conway, Marcus N. Wright, who was instrumental in launching building plans before his death, and Mrs. Nathalie Soehl. Classrooms on the second floor were named the Truethart, Reflor and Daisy Davis rooms, in recognition of their contributions.
In addition to his efforts in making major improvements to church facilities, 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.
Women in the Church
Significant in the history of the church is the zeal of the women who raised funds and kept the most complete historical records. The Women’s Missionary Society was first, followed by the Ladies Aid, the Women’s Union and 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 pine needle 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 Women’s Union carefully recorded fundraisers hosted by the Union, 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.
The 1960s and a new Education Building
The two-story educational building was erected between August 1966 and March 1967 at a cost of $121,000 and designed by Harvard-Jolly Architects. 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 church facilities, 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 special talents to serve the needs of our church family and visitors between 1974-93.
In the nearly two decades during the ministry of Weston and Barbara Stevens (1974-1993), some annual events were inaugurated such as Hanging of the Greens and Caroling Party at Christmastime, Harvest Festival at Thanksgiving (usually with special guest Sister Margaret of the Free Clinic), Seder Supper & Easter breakfast, Summer Services, Coffee and Conversation. Also started: a Counseling Service, an Intercultural Festival Series, the Forrester Church Memorial Lecture, Para-ministry training, Community Forums, UU Book Store and the non-profit Downtown Pre-school.
The Memorial Society, the Community Concert series were continued along with History Group, Human Concerns, a Men’s Club and the Women’s Union. Wes also served simultaneously as President of the Florida UU Ministers and the Clergy Association of Greater St Petersburg.
In their final decade, Barbara served as our Religious Education Director. A Children’s Chapel and an outdoor Playground were added. The Little House became a center for Art and Adult Programs. The Sims House became a home for Vietnamese refugees.
Rev. Dee Graham was called, serving from 1995-2001. 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, 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; he and his partner Jeff, will be fondly remembered by all who knew them.
During Rev. Mishra’s tenure, Jim Culver 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.
Rev. Jack Donovan joined us in September 2014 as consulting minister; he was called to serve as our settled minister in March 2020. Rev. Jack Donovan retired June 2021.
Rev. Ben Atherton-Zeman began in August 2021.
Before his move into the UU ministry, Rev. Ben had a 30-year career in the feminist movement, working in a number of organizations to prevent sexual and domestic violence. With a background in theatre, he wrote and performs a one-man play, “Voices of Men,” about sexual harassment, abuse, and domestic violence, a performance that he’s delivered around the world. He holds a Master’s Degree in Social Justice Education from UMA Amherst. As a long-time Unitarian Universalist, Rev. Ben felt called to UU ministry several years ago.
While working on his Master’s Degree in Divinity at Boston University, he served for 2 years as a part-time ministerial intern with UU Nashua NH. After successfully completing that internship, Rev. Ben was ordained in May and received his Masters of Divinity degree in September so ours will be his first full-time ministry.
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.
The full-time called ministers who have served this church include:
Rev. Ella E. Bartlett (1914-15)
Rev. Dr. Stanard Dow Butler (1925-30)
Rev. Dr. George Gilmour (1932-48)
Rev. Ernest Turner Marble (1948-61)
Rev. John Ogden Fisher (1961-68)
Rev. Dr. Richard F. Boeke (1968-73)
Rev. Weston A. Stevens (1974-93)
Rev. Dee Graham (1995-2001)
Rev. Manish K. Mishra (2006-09)
Rev. Jack Donovan (2014–2021)
Shared and part-time ministers who have served the church include:
Part-time ministers shared with UU Tarpon Springs (1915-25):
Rev. Harriet Baker Robinson (1915-18)
Rev. Dr. James Harry Holden (1919-20)
Rev. Dr. Stanard Dow Butler (1920-21) (who later served as a full-time
Rev. Louis J. Richards (1921-25)
Dr. Henry Rose: Interim Minister (1931-32)
Rev. Armida Alexander: Interim Minister (1993-95)
Rev. Suzanne Nazian; Rev. Dr. Alec Craig: Co-Consulting Ministers (2001-05)
Rev. Elizabeth Brown: Interim Minister (2005-06)
James Culver, D. Musical Arts: Minister of Music (2009-12); Consulting Minister
Rev. Dr. Alec Craig: Pastoral Care Minister (2009-12)
Rev. Katy Korb: Developmental Minister (2012-14)
Information collected from the church archives.
(1) The 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) The church mortgage was later burned on March 24, 1949 during Rev. Marble’s ministry.
(3) The 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.