Third Unitarian Church
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The Third Unitarian Church (commonly abbreviated as "TUC") is a Unitarian Universalist church in the West Side of Chicago, Illinois. It was founded in November 1868. Because of its pioneering architecture for its day, it has become much of a landmark in Chicago, and is now an official landmark. The church is liberal and describes itself as "a progressive, welcoming, and diverse congregation". For a long time, it has encouraged gays, lesbians, and bisexuals to join its congregation.
The Reverend Brian H. Covell, was called to be minister in 2003 and was officially installed in 2004.
The church was founded in November 1868 by a few practitioners of this religion interested in having a Unitarian church in what was then referred to as Chicago's "West Division." They placed an ad in the newspaper calling on others that shared this interest to join them in worship. The minister presiding over these early services was Carleton A. Staples and the congregation originally met at Martine Hall, on Ada Street near Madison.
Rev. Staples was officially installed as the first pastor of TUC in June 1869. This significant event included the “extension of fellowship” from Reverend Charles Lowe of Boston, on behalf of the Unitarian Association. The sermon was given by then president of Antioch College, Rev. George Washington Hosmer, D.D.
The church flourished during Staples time there. The congregation quickly grew to over 100 families, and plans were started for a building dedicated specifically to TUC. The congregation bought land at the corner of Laflin and Monroe Streets. The land was purchased for $13,000 and, according to the Chicago Tribune, was “bought on long time and low interest.” This meant the chief initial financial concern was getting the church built. Services and church-related activities were already being held in the above-ground basement of the building before the upper floors were even completed. Construction was slowed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which devastated the businesses of many of the more wealthy congregants. Not only did this reduce the support necessary to continue building, but during this time, the basement was opened up to those displaced by the fire. Nonetheless, the new church was officially dedicated in early 1872.
Rev. Staples resigned in November 1872 to accept a call to lead a Unitarian church in Providence, Rhode Island. In September 1873 the second minister of Third Unitarian Church, Rev. Minot J. Savage, preached his first sermon. January 1875 marked the coming of the third minister, Rev. Edwin P. Powell.
Regarding Rev. Powell’s tenure, the Chicago Tribune reported, “Under his management, the church has been noted as being the most radical in the city, and Dr. Powell has enjoyed considerable of a reputation abroad for his outspoken sermons.” Though the church resolved its floating debt during this period, financial woes loomed.
The church was dormant on an off from mid-1877 through 1880 due to financial issues. Other Chicago Unitarian ministers—Rev. Robert Collyer, Rev. Brooke Herford, and Rev. Forbush—held a service at the church. In addition to rallying the congregation, the hope was to take stock of the financial predicament. Forbush noted a debt of $14,500. The American Unitarian Association had agreed to donate $5,000, provided the church would reduce the debt to $7,000 by borrowing against the church property.
The Chicago Tribune characterized Forbush’s comments this way: “The church was now without a shepherd, but if more sacrifices were not made it was barely possible that the members of the Society would find themselves not only without a shepherd but without a fold. In conclusion, he urged upon his hearers the necessity for again taking hold of the project to revive the church and place it in the position which it ought to occupy in this city.” Forbush went on to say, “The church could be brought out of its troubles by giving, by faith, by prayer, by courage.”
One unnamed Unitarian who wrote a response to this plea in a letter to the editor said, "Potatoes are made to grow by putting them into the ground, and then, after tilling. This planting and tilling is called work. This is the only way potatoes ever were known to be produced, and by the same natural process church debts are paid. Faith prayer, and courage never yet grew a potato or paid a church debt, and it never will.”
After several difficult years, a new pastor, Rev. Edward J. Galvin, took over the reorganization of Third Unitarian Church in early 1880. In 1883, Rev. Galvin was succeeded by Rev. Dr. James Vila Blake, who would preside over the congregation for about 15 years.
Church Fire of 1896
Just as congregants settled in for the 11:00 AM service October 25, 1896, a fire broke out on the lower level. A Sunday school teacher alerted Rev. Blake who was still in his office. Rev. Blake calmly entered the pulpit and asked, “My friends, I have a request to make of you. I want you all to go quietly out the rear way. There is no danger, and no occasion for haste, but I would like to have you move out quickly and without confusion.” This level-headed response prompted the headline—“Pastor Saves His Flock”—in the next day’s Chicago Tribune.
There was enough time to clear the pastor’s office of important books and manuscripts, but most everything else was lost. The fire was out by 12:30 PM, but because it was a frame structure, it went fast. The Tribune reported, “A small tower on the southeastern corner of the edifice alone remains intact. All else is either destroyed or charred beyond avail.” Insurance on the building was $8000 and another $3000 on the organ, which was one of the first in a Chicago church. After the fire, services continued at Lewis Institute at Madison and Robey Streets.
While Blake saved the congregation, he wasn’t growing it at a rate many church members found adequate. In September 1897 Blake resigned. The congregation called Rev. Southworth as an interim minister.
Rebuilding the Church
A ceremony was held in November 1897 to lay the cornerstone of the to-be-built Third Unitarian Church at 3215 W. Monroe Street, near Kedzie.
Several sites were planned for a new building, and in 1936 an acceptable site was found. At the time of its inception, the architecture planned for the church, designed by Paul Schweikher, was unorthodox and pioneering for its day. After the building's construction, an addition was added in 1956. The building was officially declared a landmark by Chicago's city council in 1960.
Convicted murderer Norman Porter, a former resident of Massachusetts who escaped from prison and moved to Chicago, was a poet and an active member of the church for years under the alias "J. J. Jameson". He was arrested in 2005 when police entered the minister's office and Porter was present. He is currently serving two consecutive life sentences and three years in prison, but will be eligible for parole in 2010. A documentary film, Killer Poet, was made about his life.
Founding Minister, Carleton A. Staples
Excerpt from sermon: “Oh, my friends, how easy it is to give ourselves up to one idea, or principle, or teacher, and run on the narrow track of his thought. To say I am a conservative, and then shout, and vote, and pray for whatsoever is conservative, right or wrong. To say, I am a radical, and then shut your eyes on everything not bearing the radical mark; condemning everything and fighting it with relentless bitterness which does not square exactly with the radical rule. To say I am a Parker man, or a Channing man, and then try to walk in his ways, and see with his eyes, and be a mere echo of his opinions. This is servility and narrowness, and intolerance, and slavery. God asks none of these things of us; but to be our selves, to listen with our own ears for His voice, and search with our own eyes for His truths, and reach out in trustful love, and earnest faith, and untiring toil for His goodness. To be men and women in the spirit of Jesus Christ.”
- Third Unitarian Church - History
- "Chicago Landmarks: Individual Landmarks and Landmark Districts designated as of January 1, 2008" (PDF). Commission on Chicago Landmarks. January 1, 2008.
- Chicago Tribune. June 1, 1869.
- Chicago Tribune. January 9, 1870.
- Chicago Tribune. January 28, 1872.
- Chicago Tribune. November 24, 1872.
- Chicago Tribune. September 15, 1873.
- Chicago Tribune. June 10, 1877.
- Chicago Tribune. October 15, 1877.
- Chicago Tribune. October 21, 1877.
- Chicago Tribune. January 5, 1880.
- Chicago Tribune. October 26, 1896.
- Chicago Tribune. September 10, 1897.
- Chicago Tribune. November 19, 1897.
- Brokaw, Leslie (June 8, 2008). "'Killer Poet' shares escapee's journey - The Boston Globe". The Boston Globe. Retrieved April 13, 2009.