The Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin has been a staple in the local community for over 150 years. Over that time, the congregation has been in several different buildings, has been several different sizes, and has had many different ministers.
First Free Christian Congregation
The Elgin Unitarian Universalist Church was founded in 1866, but the Elgin liberal religious movement began in the year 1843. A Unitarian missionary minister from Geneva, IL named Augustus Hammond Conant was the one who brought religious liberal ideas to Elgin, whose population at the time was only 300 to 500 citizens. Every second Sunday, Reverend Conant came to preach in Elgin. In 1846, the predecessor of the current church was formally organized as the First Free Christian Congregation of Elgin. Although the nationwide merger of the Unitarians and Universalists did not take place until 1961, this first small congregation was composed of both. Twenty members of this church signed the charter with “every member left to the free exercise of his own understanding and conscience.”
In 1848, the first building was completed from money raised in New England. Reverend Conant was hired for $150 a year to preach one service each Sunday. He continued until his departure in 1852, after which the movement soon lost momentum and that building was sold in 1854. The congregation was disbanded, but some members continued to gather in fellowship and plan for another church.
In 1857, the First Universalist Society of Elgin was organized, and many of the same families from the original movement became members. The Reverend Otis Skinner served as the full-time minister, preaching each Sunday to audiences of fifty to seventy-five. Seven months later he left Elgin to become president of Lombard University at Galesburg. Again the congregation was without ministerial presence except the occasional itinerant ministers.
At this time Elgin was suffering a decline following the Panic of 1857. As the population decreased, a citizens’ committee was formed to attract industries to the town. Several Universalists were part of this committee, and their efforts resulted in the advent of the Elgin National Watch Company, which shaped the pattern of Elgin life for a century.
As a result, both the town and the church experienced a revitalization. A Sunday school was organized in 1865. In 1866, the Society was reorganized and Rev. Holmes Slade was settled as pastor. That year began work on a new building which was dedicated March 28, 1867. In 1870, the building was lifted and a basement added. By 1890 it had become too small for the growing church, with the society at more than 350 members. The 1866 building was renamed Unity Hall and moved to the back of the lot.
The new church building was constructed at the front of the property in the shape of an old-time “hunting-case” watch, in honor of the Elgin Watch Company in 1892. The watch factory superintendent George Hunter was on the building committee, and instrumental in the design of the church. It housed the pulpit at “12 o’clock”, curved pews that followed the contour of the building, a hand-crafted tracker organ, as well as beautiful chandeliers and stained glass windows.
The Reverend Everett D. Ellenwood was the minister during the 1916 celebration of the church’s Golden Jubilee, and records indicate there were 398 members at that time, with 138 enrolled in Sunday School.
Throughout the years, members of the church were active in society, politics, women’s rights, and the general welfare of the community. As a result of the sometimes radical viewpoints, the church received its share of vilification and vandalism from the community.
In the late 1950s, there was a split in the congregation over the minister’s, Reverend Albert Harkins, political views. As a result, the minister resigned and several members left to form a fellowship that would later become the Countryside UU Church of Palatine.
The late 1950s was also a time when national discussions were being held on the potential union of Unitarians and Universalists. The church voted in favor of the merger in 1959, and the national Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961.
Closer to home, Reverend Paul Bicknell was called as minister in 1959, starting a decade of activism and community involvement. The local Mental Health Clinic was born in our church, and the Community Concern for Alcoholism had its initial meetings in our building. The church and its members were active leaders of social change in issues of women’s rights, support of abortion reform, open housing, civil rights, and the American Indian rights movement.
On October 31, 1965, the name was officially changed from the First Universalist Society of Elgin to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin to reflect the integration of both Unitarians and Universalists. In 1966, the church held its Centennial Celebration, with 100 involved pledging units.
During the Vietnam War, church facilities were loaned for peace groups and draft counseling. These controversial activities led to a bomb being planted in the church in 1970. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the damage was minor. It would take nine years, but eventually responsibility for the bombing was placed on a right wing extremist group operating out of neighboring communities.
In 1972, Reverend Bicknell resigned as minister, and from January of 1972 until December of 1973, the church functioned without a minister, relying on services conducted by members and visiting speakers.
The Reverend Leonard O’Brian began his ministry in January of 1974 and a period of calm marked the next few years. However that calm was shattered on January 19, 1977 when a fire broke out in the middle section of the church complex. The damage was estimated at $90,000, since firemen had to cut holes in the roof and floor of the sanctuary. Although much of the main building only suffered from smoke damage, there was enough destruction to render the building unusable for Sunday services.
The congregation began meeting the following Sunday in the chapel of the nearby Congregational Church. Members rallied loyally and donated almost $10,000 in additional contributions to be used for emergency repairs. That money paid for repair to the furnace, and made it possible to board up the damaged areas so that services could return to Unity Hall in May of 1977. However, damage in the main building went unrepaired while an ad hoc building committee studied the available options. The cost of repairing and remodeling the 85 year old building were too high for the congregation to afford, and in spring of 1978, the congregation voted to sell the downtown building and relocate.
Randall Road House
The church bought a 5-acre site on Randall Road with a large brick farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings. On October 1, 1978, the very first service was held in the house on Randall Road, led by the Reverend William Metzger. Fifteen days later, a final farewell service was held at the old church, the last to be held there by UUCE. The Villa St building was sold in 1979 to a commercial firm, and is now a focal point of the Elgin Historic District.
In 1980, the building on Randall Road was remodeled to increase seating and make the space more appropriate for church functions. Basement and upstairs rooms were transformed into spaces for Religious Education, and a minister’s study. Painstaking renovation and careful maintenance created a fitting new meeting house for the congregation.
Upon Reverend Metzger’s resignation on December 31, 1986, a Ministerial Search Committee was formed, and on January 17, 1988, the church called the Reverend Dan Brosier.
With a new minister in place, the church began to address its needs for more worship, religious education, and parking space. In spring of 1989, after forming a committee to explore the options, the congregation voted to build an addition onto the main building, and create a new parking lot. Both of these projects were completed that summer, and the following summer the brick garage was converted into two classrooms. However, even as the new classroom space was being completed, it became clear that the church was outgrowing its current space.
In spring of 1992 the congregation voted to sell the current property, buy land, and build a new church by reconstructing the 1890’s barn from the Randall Road site. The barn was dismantled, the timbers saved, and property was purchased on Highland Avenue. By spring of 1993, the Randall Road property was sold, and the congregation held its last service in the building that June. For the next two years while the new building was being constructed, the church met in Dundee Middle School.
While most of the work on the new building was handled by contractors, congregants completed some of the work in order to reduce expenses, with the minister acting as general contractor. The largest of these projects was the installation of the floor decking on all three stories, but the congregation also stained the exterior siding, painted the interior, laid the tile floors, and installed all the door and floor trim.
In the fall of 1995, the congregation moved into its new home on Highland Avenue. The congregation had only raised enough money to finish the first floor on the three-story building, so services were held in the multi-purpose room on the first floor. At this time, the building also held a kitchen, bathrooms, three classrooms, and the minister’s office (which was also used as an RE classroom and general church office).
In 1996, work began to landscape the beds around the church using only native plants, and establish a prairie on much of the remaining property. In 1997, the 90-foot Earth Wisdom Labyrinth was built on the property with stones donated by Neal and Mary Harris of Barrington when neighbors complained about the labyrinth in their backyard.
Also in 1977, sufficient money had been raised, along with a loan from a church member, to allow construction to begin on the second floor, including an addition which housed the elevator and second stairway. It was finished just in time for the wedding of Paul and Susanne Hanifil’s daughter. The second floor was dedicated on February 22, 1998 and in the fall of 1999, the second floor was completed with the addition of restrooms, two offices, and a library.
The early years of the new millennium saw UUCE grow in community and outreach. In 2000 after a period of exploration, education, and implementation, UUCE officially became a Welcoming Congregation. Considerable attention to our seventh principle also led to the church becoming a Green Sanctuary in 2003. In 2004, Reverend Dan Brosier announced to the congregation that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, but he would continue serving the congregation as long as he was able.
In 2005, ten years after the dedication of the building, the third floor of the church was completed with the addition of two classrooms. That same year, as a precursor to future growth, the congregation investigated new ways of managing the business of the church, and adopted a Policy Governance style.
2006 saw the installation of the stained glass chalice above the center of the main entrance, created and donated by a member of the congregation. All of the stained glass that appears in the entrance and sanctuary was donated by members of UUCE.
Nine years after his announcement to the congregation, Reverend Dan Brosier resigned as minister in June of 2013. In August of 2013, Reverend Lise Adams Sherry began her interim ministry to the church, helping the congregation learn what it was looking for in a new minister after one of the longest settled ministers in the church’s history. The new minister was called in 2015, and in October of 2016, Reverend Leslie Mills was ordained and installed in our church.
In 2018, Rev. Leslie Mills decided to leave the congregation, and after almost a year without a minister, Rev. Leland Bond-Upson was hired by the Board of Trustees at the beginning of 2019. In 2020, the global pandemic closed our building and drove our worship online. Although it became harder to maintain community while distanced, UUCE persevered and reopened on October 31st, 2021. Because of the financial constraints of a smaller congregation, Rev. Leland Bond-Upson finished his ministry at the end of October 2021, and UUCE continues on as a lay-led congregation while we focus on rebuilding the foundations of our community.
Ministers of UUCE
- 1843-1852 Rev. Augustus Conant
- 1857-1858 Rev. Otis Skinner
- 1866-1871 Rev. Holmes Slade
- 1871-1877 Rev. William Stevens Balch
- 1877-1878 Rev. Holmes Slade
- 1878-1879 Rev. Dr. D. M. Reed
- 1881-1884 Rev. Lyman D. Boynton
- 1884-1886 Rev. Leonard Warren Brigham
- 1886-1897 Rev. A. N. Alcott
- 1898-1900 Rev. Charles Henry Rogers
- 1900-1905 Rev. Eugene Landon Conklin
- 1905-1910 Rev. Augustine N. Foster
- 1910-1912 Rev. Clark S. Thomas
- 1913-1919 Rev. Everett Dean Ellenwood
- 1920-1923 Rev. Frank D. Adams
- 1923-1926 Rev. Orin Crooker
- 1927-1944 Rev. William Rainey Bennett
- 1944-1949 Rev. George Lapoint
- 1949-1958 Rev. Albert Harkins
- 1958-1972 Rev. Paul Bicknell
- 1974-1978 Rev. Leonard O’Brian
- 1979-1986 Rev. William F. Metzger
- 1988-2013 Rev. Daniel Sam Brosier
- 2013-2015 Rev. Lise Adams Sherry
- 2015-2018 Rev. Leslie Mills
- 2019-2021 Rev. Leland Bond-Upson