Delivered on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Towanda Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Across the Unitarian Universalist world today the rallying cry is “better together.” This is a radical idea in a culture that values individualism and competition . Businesswoman and writer Margaret Heffernan notes that ours is a culture more likely to foster a sense of competition than cooperation. The cultural ethos tells us that the best way to maximize profit, the way to maximize productivity is for all of us to compete. But, Heffernan says “in fact it leads to a catastrophic loss of productivity and creativity”[i]
Whether or not an ethos of competition and rugged individualism makes sense in the business world (and Heffernan argues that it does not) it certainly doesn’t make sense for churches, especially churches in the Universalist tradition where we believe in “Boundless Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular”[ii] And so folks around the UU world are imagining a new way of being together, imagining congregations entering into partnerships, into collaborations. How wonderful to remember that for the Universalists here on the North Branch of the Susquehanna River, collaboration is part of the legacy our ancestors bequeathed to us; it is part of our DNA.
But as historians of TUUF and UUCAS have been reading through all those old scrapbooks and news clippings preparing for this anniversary, we noticed that a history of collaboration is not how church histories are usually told. For example, the Sheshequin congregation includes in their church history a list of all their ministers for the last half century. It was not until I came across a search packet from the 1980s put together by the North Branch Association that I realized that every minister listed in the UUCAS history had actually been called by the North Branch association, and had served Towanda, Sheshequin and standing stone together in a yoked ministry. So this is the story I want to share with you today- not of any one congregation, but of the way our stories interweave.
Some of you will remember Universalism first came to this area back in the 1790s when Rev. Murray began preaching here. According to a local history, he was “known as disseminating the heretical doctrine of the Universal Salvation of the human race from the bondage of sin and corruption… it was decided that these innovations must be no longer tolerated. “
So 2 local ministers, Rev. Park and Joseph Kinney were dispatched to convince him of the importance of “endless suffering of the wicked” and “baptism as saving ordinance.” Murray welcomed them into his home, and as the story goes, after arguing with Murray for 3 days, came home converted. Park and his congregation founded The Universalist society of Sheshequin in 1808–the second Universalist church in Pennsylvania
In 1842 we organized the North Branch Association. At that time there were Universalist churches in Litchfield, Springfield, Troy, Orwell Hill, Sylvania, Monroeton and Mansfield (Sheshequin was called the “mother church”). North Branch churches shared ministers and helped each other financially.
The Towanda Society seems to have begun meeting in 1844 but did not formally organize until 1866 when they became incorporated under the name of the First Universalist Society of Towanda. And it is this anniversary we celebrate today.
In 1876 J. G. Porter was called as the first minister. That same year, Building project began. When the building was completed early in 1877. Dedication ceremonies with distinguished speakers from Philadelphia, PA, Newark, N.J. and Brooklyn, N.Y. extended over three days. (I like to think today’s celebration is in keeping with that tradition.)
The earliest story I found of collaboration between the churches dates back to 1882 when it is written that “The trustees of the [Sheshequin] society have entered into a contract with Rev. V. Brunning to preach once in two weeks, and are to raise the sum of $150. He is to alternate with Litchfield, preaching in Athens every Sunday morning. He draws out a good congregation and things look encouraging. His sermons are practical and to the point and there are but a few that the coat will not fit.
But by 1884 The Sheshequin society was struggling. The Historian writes “The society is dead and has not enough vitality left to get up a respectable funeral. Sunday School closed with the Christmas exercises, and has not reopened, nor has the church been used for divine service since that time… the church edifice is of but little use except as a relic of the good old days when our fathers were wont to worship in spirit and in truth.”
That’s a sad and scary moment in the life of a congregation, when you realize that you have not even the energy and resources to hold Sunday services. But what follows is the most hopeful story of our shared history. In 1895 our historian writes “There has been quite an awakening from the Rip Van Winkle sleep of the Society, and some young blood has been added, which it is hoped will redound to its good. .. Rev. G B Russell of Athens and Rev. Leonidas Polk of Towanda, held a series of meetings during the winter which resulted in increasing membership and interest. Twenty nine persons were baptized and received into full membership in January.
1896 “Our prospects are favorable for success. We have an attendance of 50 to 75. ... Financially we are quite poor but with much zeal… Children’s Day was observed today with appropriate ceremonies. The church was handsomely decorated with evergreens and flowers. The Sunday School numbers 70 on the roll with 50 average attendance.
When the Sheshequin congregation was lifeless and lacked the vitality to revive itself, the Athens and Towanda congregations pitched in and helped their sister congregation back to life.
As the 20th century began NBA continued to meet and area churches continued to collaborate and share resources. From 1925-1945 Rev. JD Herrick served both the Sheshequin, Athens and Towanda congregations. At a celebration to mark 10 years of ministry he commented on “unhandy train schedules” and “the good and bad effects of the Great Depression on Church Work.”
Then just 2 years after Herrick retired, the Athens congregation voted in 1947 to sell their church building to Christian Scientists for $2000, and the money in the treasury was divided between Towanda and Sheshequin. The Athens congregation persisted even without their own building for more than a decade. In 1951there were still 25 members on Membership list, and they held their meetings in Sheshequin building later in the day. Sadly in 1960 Church of Universal Brotherhood (the Athens congregation) dissolved.
So what was happening in 1960? For those of you familiar with UU history, you will recognize that year as a time of great transition - the merging of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations. What I didn’t realize was that our little cluster of congregations had such a dramatic role to play. The North Branch scrapbook contains news clippings from local papers, as early as 1959, reporting the Universalists of this area “overwhelmingly voted against a proposed merger of the universalist and Unitarian churches in a plebiscite at the 3 churches of the association Sunday.” And when the merger passed despite their opposition, the minister of the NBA, Rev. Harry Means, was a founding leader of a new organization called the “Committee for Continuing Christina Universalist Churches”. Means said he “takes issue with the Universalist Church of America over the latter’s extreme liberal views in which it has abandoned traditional Universalism” The debate about merger literally split the churches in two. In 1962 Rev. Means left his pastorate, and I’m told much of the congregation followed him when he went. In 1962, after he had left his NBA ministry Rev. Means formed a quarterly publication called “the Christian Universalist” to give voice to the conservative Universalists who felt displaced by the UU merger. The editor of the magazine, John Schofield writes: “we believe in the existence of God; and we feel so firmly on this issue we can hold no fellowship with those who deny him.”
So the congregations who remain along the North Branch are made up of people who were not willing to let religious diversity tear us apart. We are people who believe in the importance of welcoming theists and atheists, Christians and humanists, Jews and Pagans sitting down together and supporting one another amid our diversity
The departure of Rev. Means and the tearing apart of his congregations must have been a sad and difficult time for everyone. Our history shows us that not only do we flourish when we come together and support one another, but also that when we let go of those bonds that connect us, we all lose some life-giving vitality.
Rev John Trowbridge became the minister of the North Branch in, 1964 and so began a great renaissance of Universalism in this area. Trowbridge was beloved by all 3 congregations, and both Towanda and Athens still hang his paintings on their church walls. Trowbridge served the NBA for 21 years. It was a time of great collaboration.
When you look at the orders of service and newsletters of the time, you can see how close this yoked ministry brought the churches. In 1954 the NBA offered a summer camp for Junior high school students. We find in the archives form 1962 mention of the “Union Youth Group off the Universalist Churches of Bradford County”, and a joint youth choir.
The churches often held what they called “union services” where all the Universalist congregations of the North Branch Association (NBA) would worship together as one. They also shared services over the Easter and Christmas Holidays. For example, in 1964 Christmas Eve services were held at Towanda and Standing Stone, with a service Christmas day at Sheshequin. Throughout these years, the same order of service was used for all 3 churches, with a pencil drawing of all 3 steeples arrayed like a family portrait.
When Trowbridge left, he was, as you would imagine, difficult to replace.
There was a gap between ministers, before they called the Rev. Susan Van Dreser in 1985. The record from the time only reports that “the yoked ministry between Towanda and Sheshequin did not work well.” That was the last time we shared a minister together, and it also seems to have begun a period of decreased collaboration between the congregations. Perhaps some conflict among the congregations lead us to go our own individualistic ways, and so we weren’t there for one another in the years that followed.
In 2004 TUUF closed its doors, agreeing to dissolve and handed over its assets to the PUC. But PUC in 2009 revived the congregation with help of members of UUCAS (Brian and Benno, Paul and Ginna), some old members (like Marsha and Rick and Peg) and some new folks (like Jean and Crow)
In 2013 the Committee on Ministry of the Athens congregation noticed how out of touch we felt with our nearest neighbor. We began the practice of ministers and board presidents meeting semi-annually to build bridges and develop relationships. These meetings lead to a “covenant of reciprocity” which simply agreed that in times of flood or fire or medical emergency, we would open our buildings to one another, and share speakers.
Just this past month, representatives of congregations from the St. Lawrence district met for a historic vote and our keynote speaker Rev. Sue Phillips asked us to consider what it meant for congregations to be in covenant with one another. We are emerging from a time when ruggedly individual congregations have focused on their own needs and worries, and Rev. Phillips challenged us to take more seriously our covenant with one another. At this moment she challenges us ask ourselves, what exactly is our covenant with our neighboring congregations? What does it mean to be a neighbor, to be sister and brother churches?
I believe that we stand on the threshold of a new age of collaboration. Collaboration not only with NBA (which now includes Brooklyn) but also Ithaca and Binghamton (here today) and all those other congregations that sent their wishes.
Just last year several of the Athens Ukulele group helped the Ithaca congregation celebrate their 150th anniversary last year in the Ithaca Fest Parade. And today we are so honored to have with us Stephanie Ortolano, organist for the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, to share this special day with us.
Just as our congregations had one “union youth group” back in the 1950s and 60s, Our youth just got back from a weekend long Coming of Age Retreat and Vigil held jointly by Big Flats, Athens and Ithaca congregations. The joint program started back in 2008. The Athens planning team had wistfully wondered about offering a joint coming of age program, but it was a teen from Big Flats, Lydia, who noticed the Coming of Age event in our order of service and bravely asked if she and her friend from Big Flats could participate, and we have worked together ever since. Many small churches can’t offer a program for their teens, but with our two congregations together, we are able to offer something powerful and real.
Collaboration is not always easy. It took 7 years of partnership with Big Flats and a year of planning and working together with the Ithaca and Binghamton churches to create this year’s shared program, and to build the relationships you need to make such a program successful. It takes time to develop relationships. It takes time to just sit and talk and get to know one another as we learn how we will communicate, as we learn what each has to give, and where we are struggling and need support.
I am so grateful for all of you who took the time today to travel from Ithaca, from Lycoming, from Binghamton, form Athens. I am grateful not only because a celebration like this one is so much more festive when you have friends to share it with, but because each time we gather across congregations, we strengthen our connections. Because I believe over these next 150 years we will need one another. And over these next 150 years Unitarian Universalism will need us. As we spoke together in our chalice lighting words this morning:
“We need one another in the our of success,And when, in the next year or the next decade, you have a success you need to share, or when you need encouragement, I hope you will turn to The Towanda Universalist Unitarian Fellowship to share in your joys and sorrows, as you have shared this moment with us.
when we look for someone to share our triumphs
We need one another one another in the hour of defeat,
when with encouragement we might endure and stand again.”
[ii] found on the back of the copy of an NBA order of service- quoted from Geurge De VBenneville, Univerwsalist Forefather