The congregation formed as a fellowship in 1949 and by 1952 had gained enough families (50) to become members of the American Unitarian Association. A charter was issued on February 22, 1952, and a plaque with the names of the original members hangs on the wall in the foyer of the church.
The members met on a regular basis, first at the YMCA and then at the recreation building at Beacon Heights, relying on their own resources and guest speakers for programs. Erwin A. Gaede was our first minister. He came to town in 1952 and by dint of hard work, both professional and physical, got things going. At about the same time Erv arrived, the members purchased the old Morris mansion at the corner of Michigan Street and North Shore Drive. It was a large, three-story residence, with the third floor being a ballroom, and had belonged to the prominent Morris family. The mansion was renovated so that there were classrooms and an office for the minister, as well as space for the Sunday morning gathering. In the 50s and 60s, those in attendance dressed rather formally, with all of the men wearing coats and ties, except for Gordon Link. He wore a turtleneck.
John Morgan, our second minister, came to us in November of 1956. Around that time, it was evident we needed additional space and we held a building fund drive that resulted in enough pledges so that a new church sanctuary and social hall could be built. The building, initially an addition to the Manse, was dedicated in 1960. In the 1960s, the addition to the church made it possible for one to walk from the old mansion directly into the new sanctuary. John Morgan was the minister when our group voted to merge with the Universalists on April 12, 1959, and became a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
The 1960s were a tumultuous time. The church provided a liberal religious presence in the wake of the McCarthy hearings and during a national period of political unrest. Our congregation, like sensitive citizens throughout the country in the sixties, became quite involved in our community and in national social action causes. Copies of the church newsletter The Unitarian from this period reflect congregational interest in fair housing, anti-Vietnam war activities, civil rights, and other social issues. Rudolph C. Gelsey was our third minister from September 1960 until December 1963, followed by Joseph Schneiders from January 1965 through 1968. The church political activism increased during this period, with members taking part in marches and demonstrations in our community as well as elsewhere, including the historic march on Selma.
On August 18, 1968, the mansion was destroyed in an apparent arson attack. It was front page news in the South Bend Tribune and the story was picked up also by Time magazine. The arsonist was never apprehended, and there is disagreement over whether the church’s political activism was a contributing factor, or whether the story was sensationalized by the media. In any case, there was an outpouring of support from members of the local religious community as well as the Central Midwest District of the UUA. Several Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations offered assistance and the use of their facilities. The members continued to meet in other churches while the remaining building was put back in order and a new entryway built. The chalice hanging in the church entry was made from stained glass salvaged from the Manse after the fire.
In the summer of 1971, Rev. Joel Scholefield arrived in South Bend from California. He drove a yellow Volkswagen convertible, had fairly long hair, and was generally quite a contrast from our previous ministers. It was the 70s and he had a winning and energetic way about him through his tenure to 1977. In 1979, Patricia Bowen was called as our sixth minister, and her New England roots were evident in the traditional services she conducted, including a silent candlelight recession on Christmas Eve. Susan Weickum was called as our seventh minister in 1984. A recent theological school graduate who was married and in mid-life, she was a solid Unitarian Universalist. She stayed with us until 1989 and then in the spring of 1990, we called John Morehouse. He was an excellent preacher, and his inspired sermons drew many people to the church. Before long, two services became necessary. With his wife, Kathy, as religious education director, the two moved the church forward in a very positive manner. Rev. Morehouse left in 1994 for a larger church in the Washington DC area. After two years with interim ministers, in 1996 the congregation called Rev. Lisa Doege to the pulpit. She was a native Minnesotan who had held various positions within the denomination, and this was her first church ministry. She was with us for 11 years, and left in 2007 to return to family in Minnesota.
After two years with interim ministers, Denise Tracy and Jennie Barrington, we called the Rev. Harold Beu to our pulpit. He helped the congregation transition into an interim home and was active in the Social Justice areas where church members were involved. During the fall of 2010, the congregation sold its building of 59 years to find a larger building in which to grow. As the church settled into a temporary location, a change in ministry brought the Rev. Sian Wiltshire to assist the congregation with its endeavor to find a larger facility with better amenities and access to call our permanent home.
Following the two year interim period with Rev. Wiltshire, the congregation called Rev. Chip Roush as Consulting Minister in 2013. Around the same time, the congregation purchased its current building at 801 E. Washington Street and completely renovated the facility for church use. In June of 2014 the congregation called Rev. Roush as settled Minister. We moved to our newly renovated building in August of 2014.