Third Unitarian celebrates 150 years of inclusion, activism

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The Third Unitarian Church will celebrate its 150th year as a congregation Nov. 11 with a special service that will be attended by Unitarian and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.

Minister Colleen Vahey will lead the service in commemoration of the church’s history of social activism in Austin.

“It really is a tremendous history, and I think it would be hard for people 150 years ago to imagine how the church has grown over these 15 decades,” Vahey said. “It’s a unique congregation to have such a long history on the West Side of Chicago.”

Vahey said Sunday’s service, which also feature the Austin Neighborhood Children’s Choir, will also serve as the first in a series of forums during which elder members of the church will share their life stories and experiences.

“This is an opportunity to retell some of the history of this congregation and to point the way forward for next steps for our congregation,” she said.

The forums will be recorded and added to the church’s archives.

To commemorate 150 years of worship, a pamphlet has been assembled telling the history of the congregation, which held its first meeting in 1868.

Interior of the Third Unitarian Church, which moved to its current building in 1936.

The pamphlet was compiled by longtime church member David Boulanger using archives discovered in one of the church’s closets. The archive consists of about 50 boxes of photos, scrapbooks, newsletters and sermons; some of the long-time congregation members were not even aware the materials were there.

In the pamphlet, Boulanger included notable events like when TUC invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the church during a time many churches were reluctant to do so; the creation of the ongoing Austin scholarship program in 1976 that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars; TUC’s joining of the International Nuclear Free movement in the 1980s; and more.

The pamphlet also includes information about a vote cast by the mostly-white congregation to leave the neighborhood in 1979, as white flight continued to sweep across Chicago’s West Side. Boulanger, who was a member at the time, said safety became a concern after the church had been broken into.

Ultimately, the congregation decided to remain in Austin, but some members left to create a new church. Tensions eventually settled in the church, and Boulanger said activities like the scholarship program and community garden integrated TUC into the changing neighborhood.

“We believe our presence in Austin is really important, and we try to be of service in the community in many ways,” he said.

“Social action and involvement in the issues of the day is a larger portion of what the church is about than even in the past,” Boulanger said. “Over the years, we have developed a very positive relationship with the community, so I don’t think we’re seen as alien at this point. We’re seen as part of the community.”

John Leeker, the associate director of library and archives Unitarian Universalist Meadville Lombard Theological School who assisted Vahey in organizing the archives, said the church’s long history is unique, given its location in the Midwest.

He added that while churches on the East Coast like in Boston may date back to the 1600s, such history is less common in the Midwest.

Leeker said he also found TUC’s archives interesting in that they documented the daily lives of the congregation members rather than focusing on the ministers.

“Some archives tend to emphasize the stories and experiences of minister but not the lived reality of congregants,” Leeker said. “And looking through the photographs and the scrapbooks and hearing them talk about it, it was really interesting how this archive uniquely did a good job of documenting the day-to-day reality of the community and the members.”

The public is invited to Sunday’s service, which will be held at 2 p.m. at 301 N. Mayfield Ave.

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