A Brief History of First Unitarian
In 1949 . . .
Louise Pembroke, an Albuquerque resident who taught at Grants High School, and the principal of that school, Felix Arnold, held an exploratory public meeting to see whether there was interest in forming a liberal church in Albuquerque. The resulting group met several times to hear presentations from various denominations and decided to affiliate with the American Unitarian Association as a fellowship—a small, lay-led group. Mr. Arnold lost his job because Grants school members did not approve of his unorthodox religious beliefs, and he soon moved away. Louise and her husband, Ollie, led the small group through its first phase.
The Fellowship Years
Those were very exciting years, meeting in a variety of buildings around Albuquerque, including Temple Albert (in its old downtown synagogue) and a dance school. It was obvious that there was a lot of potential for a Unitarian church in Albuquerque. The small group dreamed of being a “real” church, with a minister and a building, and with the help of a grant from the UUA, they called their first minister, the Rev. Franklin Smith, late in 1952. The group changed its name to First Unitarian Church and began to grow rapidly.
The Early Church
In 1955, the young church purchased property on Carlisle Boulevard. A year later, the congregation moved into what is now the Memorial Hall, the Arnold Room, and the Wesson Room. The late 1950s were a time of rapid growth in the church, especially in the church school. An addition was made to the RE building, but still more children came, soon outstripping the building’s resources.
A Second Ministry and a New Building
The Rev. Smith departed in 1961, and the Rev. Jim Wilkes arrived in 1962. The Rev. Wilkes was a social activist and a fiery preacher who attracted crowds much too large for that first sanctuary. In 1963-64 the church undertook building what is now the Social Hall, which they used as a multi-purpose room and sanctuary. When the Rev. Wilkes was called to serve First Unitarian Church in Dallas after only three years in Albuquerque, it was a great disappointment to the 500-member congregation.
While he was a popular minister here, he has also been accused of sexual misconduct both before and after his tenure here. First Unitarian Church is committed to telling its history honestly and to not hiding from painful truths. Anyone who has had any negative experiences with Mr. Wilkes is encouraged to speak with a minister or to seek professional counseling.
The 1960s and 1970s
The Rev. Leon Fay was called to First Unitarian Church and began his ministry in 1966. Although membership declined, several programs were begun that are still a part of our life together: the extended family program began in the early 1970s; the congregation added the building now used for teens (it was added as an office and used as such until 1999); and church women began a child care center, La Puerta de los Ninos, during this period. The Rev. Fay’s ministry ended in dissension and difficulty in 1977. The church’s fourth minister, the Rev. Daniel Panger, served as an interim minister for three years while his wife was in medical school, and the church recovered itself during those years.
The Rev. Todd Taylor became minister of First Unitarian Church in 1982. During his tenure, the church’s main ministry was directed toward singles—there were often more people in church for the Friday Night Singles Group than for worship service. “Time Out for Singles” served the city’s singles population faithfully through the mid-80s, but the church itself was on a plateau for both membership and energy. Rev. Taylor resigned in 1987.
The Rev. Christine Robinson was recruited to be a change agent for the somewhat demoralized church, and the church began to grow soon after her arrival late in 1988. She was 36 years old, a proponent of UU spirituality, and the first female minister that many in the congregation had ever met. Change was, indeed, in the air! Not all the changes were welcome to all members, and the first few years of her ministry were conflicted. A number of First Unitarian Church members left the church and formed the Albuquerque Fellowship during this time.
By the early 1990s, the congregation had increased in size to more than 500 members. In 1992, the congregation received an unrestricted bequest of $36,000, which the congregation decided to use as seed money to start a new UU church in the Rio Rancho area (the West Side Congregation held its first public meeting in 1997) and to renovate the buildings on the Carlisle property. New youth education and office buildings were constructed in 1999, and numerous other renovation projects were completed.
Growth in the 21st Century
By the early 2000s, the congregation had grown to over 600 members and had decided that they needed additional professional leadership. The Rev. Jim Zacharias served as interim Associate Minister for two years beginning in 2003, after which the Rev. David Grimm was called as Associate Minister in 2004.
First Unitarian welcomed its first ministerial intern in 2003, after which a generous church family donated funds to support five more interns. Ronald A. Hersom came in the fall of 2006 as an intern and remained as Assistant Minister after David Grimm departed in the summer of 2007 to serve a church in New York
Our iMinistry project began in the winter of 2005. Using donated funds and equipment, the group began to videorecord sermons and then began podcasting audio and video sermon files. The Branch Ministry Project began in the summer of 2006, when the church board decided to use this technology to extend our congregation–and the blessings of Unitarian Universalism–to the small towns of New Mexico. Two denominational agencies supported this innovative idea with grant monies, and in March 2007, Roger Hartz was hired to organize these small groups. Our first branch congregation in Socorro began with weekly public worship services in fall 2007. An East Mountains branch then formed in Edgewood with worship services held on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. They now meet every week, and each branch now has a steering committee.
Antonia Won joined us in January 2008 as a ministerial intern. Followed by , Andrew Millard in 2008, Carmen Emerson in 2009, and Bryan Elwood in 2013. During these years the church grew to almost 800 members and 200 children. First Unitarian was named a “Breakthrough Congregation” in 2009 and was invited to bring a video and do a workshop for the General Assembly in Salt Lake City, explaining how we have grown and managed our growth.
In 2010, Angela Herrera joined us, first as Assistant Minister, then as Associate Minister, and now as Senior Minister.
Our continued growth caused considerable crowding in the old sanctuary, and for several years Vance Bass and the band provided music for a third service. Once construction began in 2013, we gave that third service up with relief and folded the contemporary service into the 9:30 and 11pm services the first Sunday of the month.
Meanwhile, In the spring of 2009, a group of people in Carlsbad, New Mexico, expressed an interest in joining First Unitarian. After several conversations and a visit to them by Kristin Satterlee and her husband, Arne Gullerud, the group decided to become our third branch congregation. The group started offering regular Sunday worship services in September 2009, and disbanded in April 2017, remaining long-distance members or visitors of First Unitarian.
In 2013, the building that the Edgewood Branch was renting became available for purchase and the congregation bought it and folded it into the mortgage obtained to finish paying for the new sanctuary, which we moved into in the Summer of 2013.
In the Winter of 2015 a five-year Strategic Plan was completed, recognizing that sometime before the end of that period our senior minister, Christine Robinson, would be retiring and the congregation would have many tasks around ministerial transition to complete. Modest goals were set in areas of Religious Education, Social Justice, Social Bonds, and Infrastructure to complement those tasks, and we continue with energy and good will to live into our size, our new building, and our work within the congregation, out into the community and world.
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