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All News & Views, 175th Anniversary

Citizens of Milwaukee: A Blog for First Church: 175th Anniversary

First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee Building Front

A Great Influence on the Thought and Life of the People

Citizens of Milwaukee: A Blog for First Church: 175th Anniversary

Jim Marten

First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee Building Front

Since August we’ve been commemorating, celebrating, and reflecting on our congregation’s 175th anniversary.  Somewhat forgotten is the fact that this spring marks the 125th anniversary of our church building.  Although there have been hard times for the church since our UU ancestors moved into our stone and wood and stained-glass home, the last century-and-a-quarter has been far more stable than the previous fifty years had been.  During that time, the congregation met in at least eight different buildings, all within a few blocks of the corner of Ogden and Astor.  These included:

  • A room in the old wooden courthouse on the east side of the block now called Cathedral Square
  • Byron Kilbourn’s (yes, that Byron Kilbourn) warehouse on West Water (there was a Water Street and both banks of the Milwaukee River back then) and Chesnut (the stretch of modern-day Juneau located west of the river)
  • Shepardson’s Hall, which may have been the back room of a hardware store on East Water Street
  • the first building owned by the congregation, on the northwest corner of Spring (now Wisconsin) and Second Street
  • Another stint at the courthouse
  • Young’s Hall, a theater on Milwaukee Street, just north of modern-day Michigan
  • The second structure built by the congregation, called “Church of the Redeemer” and located on Cass Street between Division (now the stretch of Juneau east of the river) and Martin (now State)
  • The Athenaeum, now the Women’s Club of Wisconsin.

There was a lot of pride and, no doubt, relief when the congregation finally moved into their new building in 1892.  Designed by Ferry & Clas, the leading architects in the city at the time (other structures designed by the firm built at about the same time as First Church are: the Milwaukee Public Library, the Pabst Mansion, and the tower of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist). The congregation marked the occasion by publishing the first full church history, which came with a complete architectural description.  It began: “The building is executed in buff limestone, and the style chosen is English Gothic, of a quiet and simple treatment of the Perpendicular period . . . “ With some notable exceptions, the church, especially the sanctuary, remains largely as it was described 125 years ago.

European cathedrals and chapels have been used for hundreds of years; Spanish missions in the Southwest and Texas have sometimes been in operation since the eighteenth century; UU churches in the east are sometimes well over two centuries old.  Our church is what passes for old in this young-ish section of a young country. It has welcomed six generations of serious, public-minded, engaged Unitarian Universalists.

Although it was always the people inhabiting the building who made their marks on the community, the building itself has also become a stone, wood, and stained-glass embodiment of our most cherished ideals. It’s the place where our ideas are nurtured, our will to do good is bolstered, our commitment to liberal religion is communicated.

I’ll close this series of anniversary blogs with the last paragraph of the 1892 history, which was intended as a stirring description of First Church’s first half century. But it also offers a timeless call to those modern-day “citizens of Milwaukee” looking forward to continuing First Church’s legacy following this remarkable anniversary:

“The Unitarian Church in Milwaukee has never been large, but it has had a great influence on the thought and life of the people, and has done a work of which it might justly be proud.  It has had many discouragements, but it has had true and faithful men and women who have been loyal to it and the truth for which it stands. There is a larger work yet for it to do, there is plenty of room for a Unitarian Church in Milwaukee. The responsibilities are being bravely assumed. One could hardly ask [for] brighter prospects for the church than the present gives.”


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