HISTORY of UUism in Decorah
Beginnings of the Northeast Iowa UU Fellowship
compiled by Bill Musser [research in progress]
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Beginning circa 1890, a Unitarian congregation existed in Decorah until about 1912. The congregation built Unity Church (dedicated in January of 1891), a structure that now houses the local Elks Club, on the northwest corner of Main and River Streets. Rev. S. S. Hunting, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, was minister before and during the construction of the church building.
Unity Church at the turn of the 20th century
Following is an incomplete list of ministers of Unity Church; dates of service are as yet tentative and approximate: Sylvan Stanley Hunting, 1890-91; U. G. B. Pierce, 1891-1892; B. A. Van Sluyters, 1893-94; George W. Skilling. 1895; A. G. Wilson, 1895-99; Margaret Olmstead, 1903-05.
In 1998 a group of Decorah area residents seeking a religious community that would serve their needs as religious liberals formed the "Open Church", meeting once a month on Sunday afternoons at Hauge Lutheran Church northeast of Decorah. Sue Otte, Bill Musser, Ellen Rockne, and Rev. Arland Braaten-Lee (Lutheran pastor at Hauge) formed a worship committee in February of that year and planned services that included songs of many faith traditions, meaningful and challenging readings, opportunities to create rituals honoring life celebrations and commemorations, and forums to discuss important individual concerns and world issues. The first service was held on March 29 and services continued through November. Unable to find a model that worked for all participants for the long term, however, the group ceased to meet.
In February of 2003, a group of individuals met to initiate consideration of the Unitarian Universalist model in the Decorah community for a group similar to that of the Open Church. Sue Otte, Bill Musser, Otter Dreaming, and Birgitta Meade composed and sent out a letter to those they thought might be interested in this model, asking for their input. A meeting was held on March 26 at th Decorah Public Library for those interested in discussing the possibility of forming a UU fellowship in the area. Eighteen people attended.
An invitation was then issued under the signatures of Sue Otte, Bill Musser, and Otter Dreaming to all interested individuals to gather at Baker Commons on the Luther College campus on May 4 to further dicuss the idea of a forming a group modeled on the Unitaian Universalist model, bringing together religious liberals interested in spiritual exploration. Over 50 people attended the gathering and committees were formed to work over the summer on adult programs and music, location, and education for youth. The group also discussed goals for a religious community and their vision of what such a group would look like.
On Sunday, September 14, at the group's initial service in Whalen Cabin in Phelps Park, the chalice candle was lit for the first time.
FIRST STEERING COMMITTEE
After a brief service on September 21, 2003, an organizational meeting was held and a steering committee was formed consisting of the following volunteers: Elyse Cohrs, Ruth Jenkins, Janet Lambert, Bill Musser, Sue Otte, Janis Rockabrand, and Shirley Vermace with Otte and Musser serving as co-chairs.
FIRST EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM
In the early fall of 2003, a small group of interested persons met to discuss the possibility of using the UUA's highly acclaimed "Our Whole Lives" curriculum to provide an alternative avenue for sexuality education for young people in the community. Britt Rhodes, a sexual health and pregnancy counselor with Helping Services of Northeast Iowa, introduced the materials to the group and allowed the teachers to use copies of the curriculum owned by Helping Services. Liz Rog assisted with contacting parents and coordinating the program, and the following volunteered to teach: Randi Berg and Matt Spencer, K-1st grade group; Bill Musser and Janet Lambert, 4th-6th grade group; Britt Rhodes and Otter Dreaming, junior/senior high group. Parents were invited to one initial orientation session; a total of 21 children/youth attended 8 one-hour sessions held in the education wing of the Decorah United Methodist Church between November 20, 2003 and January 29, 2004.
FIRST ANNUAL MEETING & IMPORTANT
The first annual meeting of the group was held on Sunday, May 2, 2003 at Vennehjem in Decorah, followed by a potluck dinner. Two major decisions were made at the meeting, the first that the name of the organization should be "Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of..." (Northeast Iowa, or of the Upper Iowa, or of Decorah -- depending upon names already incorporated in our area). After further investigation, the steering committee chose "Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Decorah." The second decision was to make donations from the $1,058 in funds from the treasury. The group decided to make donations to the Calmar Food Pantry, the Decorah Food Pantry, and the Decorah Diversity Team, each donation being $70.00 (an anonymous donor gave an additional $90 to round the figure to $100 for each).
On November 6, 2003, the fellowship celebrated Charter Member Sunday and 36 individuals declared themselves to be members in a ceremony conducted by Maryann Caudill-LoGuidice, Prairie Star District Resource Liaison and lay leader of the Dubuque UU Fellowship. Charter members are:
|1. Kristin Albertson
2. Margaret Baird
3. Harvey Benson
4. R. Allard (Al) Bergan
5. Elyse Cohrs
6. Brenda Darling
7. Dennis Darling
8. Parker Deen
9. Mark Eichinger
10. Michelle Eichinger
11. Carol Hagen
12. Tim Hayes
|13. Ardith Hoff
14. Darrel Hoff
15. Ruth Jenkins
16. Pat Johnson
17. Paul Johnson
18. Mary Jorgensen
19. Peter Jorgensen
20. Priscilla Kepfield
21. Annette Laitinen
22. Janet Lambert
23. Bill Musser
24. Sue Otte
|25. Janelle Pavlovec
26. Betsy Peirce
27. Mona Quinn
28. Kathryn Reed-Maxfield
29. Janis Rockabrand
30. Liz Rog
31. Harlan Satrom
32. Sonja Satrom
33. Thea Satrom
34. Mike Vermace
35. Shirley Vermace
36. Jim Wolfe
Charter Member Sunday participants with guest minister
Maryann Caudill-LoGuidice at the front, far left.
LEGAL NAME, DOCUMENTS, & LEADERSHIP
On December 5, 2003, a special business meeting was held to approve a legal organizational name, to elect Trustees and officers and to adopt Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws proposed by Bill Musser. The name was changed at that time to Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Officers elected were as follows: Sue Otte, Chair; Bill Musser, Vice-Chair/Chair-elect; Shirley Vermace, Secretary; Betsy Peirce, Treasurer. General Trustees elected were Darrel Hoff, Ruth Jenkins, and Janet Lambert. The Articles and Bylaws were approved with the recommended name change and minor modifications made later; adopting the proposed bylaws, the group chose to conduct business and make decisions by a consensus process rather than by majority rule.
The Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship was officially incorporated on December [23?], 2003, received its certificate of incorporation in January 2005, and was accepted into association with the national Unitarian Universalist Association on January 23, 2005, at the meeting of the UUA Board of Trustees.
FIRST PERMANENT LOCATION
The group investigated a number of options for a permanent meeting location, exploring the possibilities of shared spaces with other religious groups, existing unused church structures, storefronts/office buildings, Luther College meeting areas, and other community spaces. A number of factors (e.g. availability, cost of making space usable, size and nature of space) prohibited the group from choosing any of them. While the search continued for a long-term meeting place, the group appreciated the hospitality of Jon and Karen Cowan and their family who offered their home for services beginning in October 2003 for several months of Sunday meetings, and then Ruth Jenkins who opened her home as a meeting space beginning in March 2004. The Decorah Senior Center at 806 River St. became the regular location for services beginning September 26, 2004.
The first child to be dedicated by the group was Søren Jans Darling, infant son of Dennis and Brenda Darling, on April 24, 2005.
BANNER & OUR FIRST DELEGATE TO THE UUA GENERAL ASSEMBLY
We were proud to display our new banner for the first time at the national UUA General Assembly in Dallas, TX, in 2005. The banner includes the UU flaming chalice symbol and letter graphics created from photos of our members and of northeast Iowa scenes. Thanks to the committee members who designed it and to Darrel Hoff, who carried it on our behalf as our first delegate to the General Assembly.
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More About Margaret Olmstead
Margaret Olmstead, one of the pioneer women ministers of the Universalist Church in the Midwest, was a minister in Decorah's Unity Church from 1903-05. She was part of a group of women in the Midwest (called "The Sisterhood") who became leaders of Universalist and Unitarian congregations.
Following are excerpts from a book called Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 by Cynthia Grant Tucker (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1990) that tell about Rev. Margaret Olmstead:
Margaret Titus Olmstead (1860-1950)
Brought up as a Hicksite Quaker until her family became Universalists, Margaret Titus was ordained to the Universalist ministry in 1894 and shortly thereafter married Rett Olmstead, a fellow minister. The two worked successfully as a team and, after 1900, joined with the Unitarian women in leading small churches in Iowa. After a son was born, the problems of trying to tend both family and church became increasingly difficult and eventually too much for Margaret. Feeling that she had been failing at both and was now also letting the sisterhood down, she resigned from parish ministry in 1908 and left the state with her family.
-- p. 239 (“The Sisterhood’s Biographies”)
Following are additional references to Margaret Olmstead in the body of the book:
p. 66-67: Margaret Olmstead, who also aspired to being a first-class mother as well as a good pastor, ended up feeling defeated on every front. Writing to [her colleagues, Mary] Safford and [Eleanor] Gordon in strictest confidence, she said that, after attempting to ‘do it all,’ she was forced to admit that she had not only neglected her son but been a ‘failure in the ministry’ and unworthy of the trust her sisters has placed in her. ‘Some women could manage a house, a family, and a church all at once successfully, but I can’t,’ she wrote apologetically when she bowed out in 1907.
The secretary of the American Unitarian Association at the time of the sisterhood, Samuel Eliot, “voted against women’s suffrage when it was put to a vote in Massachusetts and just as confidently opposed women having a voice in the pulpits.” (p. 150)[this information relates to the following excerpt]. p. 152: Eliot’s methods of operation and staffing practices made it clear that, in his estimation, women were poor professional risks, being creatures designed for private life and supportive roles and therefore naturally prone to abandon careers for marriage and domesticity. In such a climate, a woman like Margaret Olmstead, who did find that being a wife, mother, and minister all at once was too much for her to handle, was all the more reluctant to ask for the leave that she felt would be best for everyone. While Olmstead had wanted to drop out of ministry for a time when her son was born, she held on for another eleven years so as not to injure her sisters by seeming to prove their detractors right about their lack of commitment. Not even when her boy had been hospitalized for several weeks and she had had to leave her pulpit to the care of her minister husband had she been able to bring herself to bow out.
Only in 1908, when the return on her preaching to near empty pews in dwindling Iowa parishes could no longer justify the time away from her family, did she write her letter of resignation, and even then shuddered at the reaction that she knew it would get from the regional settlement officer. “I did not say to him that I considered myself a failure, you may be sure,” she told her sister Gordon, “but between you and me,” she went on apologetically, “I wish I had not felt it necessary to ask him to secure my successor, for … I know his attitude in general toward the woman minister, and when she drops out of the ranks, for any reason, or even temporarily, I imagine him thinking, along with some others, ‘I told you so.’”
p. 213-214: While the pastors had always reminded their people that war was at best a necessary evil that should never be courted or glorified, only after public enthusiasm for doing so rose alarmingly did this become their pulpits’ major emphasis. When expansionist appetites at the end of the century dragged the country into the Spanish-American War and later bloodied the Philippines, and when the British colonialists in South Africa worked their own horrors on the Boers, the pulpit sisterhood quickly locked step with the ecumenical movement to stop the gun-running imperialism and launch a new era of peace. Even before Samuel Eliot asked Unitarian clergy in 1904 to help the international peace effort, the sisterhood were airing the issues and trying to muster support. The previous year, Margaret Olmstead, summing up what her group had been preaching, wrote in [the Unitarian publication] Old and New that the recent “wars, just and unjust, sanctioned by Christian nations” showed a shameful “thirst for cheap glory,” aggression, and greed that would not go away unless those who claimed to be Christians followed Jesus’ teachings of love.
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