The Early Years: Building a Church
Although a Unitarian church did exist in Palo Alto from 1906-1929, the present congregation began on April 13, 1947, when a charter membership roll was signed by 27 people. Initially, the small congregation was served by the minister of the San Jose Unitarian Church, whose support contributed significantly to the success of the Palo Alto group.
The congregation’s first settled minister, Rev. Felix Danford (Dan) Lion, was called in June 1949. Lion looked upon his role of establishing a liberal church in a college community as a challenge and an opportunity. In his words, “Those early 50s were days of political regression and repression, with Senator Joseph McCarthy bamboozling the American people…we as a church managed to raise aloft the standard of freedom to which many could repair.” Principles went into practice in 1952 when the Board of Directors refused to sign the loyalty oath required for a tax exemption.
The congregation first met in the Women’s Club building and then in the Palo Alto Community Center. In 1954, without outside financial assistance from outside denominational sources, the five-acre Charleston Road site was purchased for $30,000.
The present buildings, designed by the noted architect Joseph Esherick, were proudly dedicated on October 14, 1958.
The initial plan was to build a sanctuary after the original debt was paid off, but when the time arrived the congregation voted to put its money into people and the community instead of adding to its real estate. Therefore, the Main Hall with its soaring arches and natural cedar walls continues to be used as a place for worship, meetings, dinners, concerts, dances, weddings, and memorial services.
This film was shot by Donald Borthwick and William Kellogg from March to July 1958. It features the groundbreaking and construction of the church main hall and buildings. In 2007, Rae and Elton Bell had the 8mm film digitized and transferred onto a DVD to show at a UUCPA celebration.
The 1950s and 60s were times of rapid growth for the congregation, which was primarily made up of young families. Before the church could occupy its new site, church school attendance swelled to over 400 children. In 1956, double sessions of classes were held to correspond with the two adult church services. In 1959, a third class session needed to be added. As the membership increased, the church fostered spin-off congregations in San Mateo, Redwood City, and Sunnyvale. (Much later, in 1992, UUCPA was one of three sponsoring churches for the new Mission Peak congregation in Fremont).
1960s – 1980s: UUCPA and Social Unrest
U.S. involvement in the war in Southeast Asia was a burning issue in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1972, the congregation joined three other local churches to offer housing and subsistence to persons “acting according to dictates of their consciences in opposition to civil or military actions.”
During this time, UUCPA played a key role in the development of organizations serving young and old. In 1965, the church sold a critical piece of land across-the-creek at below market price which made possible the construction of the first federally assisted low-income housing for senior citizens. Several church members were instrumental in making Stevenson House, now our next-door neighbor, a reality.
Through the efforts of church members the Ellen Thacher Child Care Center, named for a former Director of Religious Education, was established on the church campus in 1971. Though it now operates as a separate organization, church members still receive priority for enrollment, and UU Sunday school children benefit from the joint use of Thacher’s classrooms and playground.
When Rev. Lion resigned in 1972 to become Associate Minister of the Community Church in New York, active membership stood at 620. Following Lion’s resignation, Rev. Sydney Peterman served as Interim Minister. Because the church wished to try a co-ministry experiment, in January 1974, Rev. William R. (Bill) Jacobsen was called to serve with Dr. Ronald Hargis, who had been ordained by the congregation in the fall of 1973. Hargis had served as Minister of Religious Education at the church since 1971, and he continued to serve until 1977. Jacobsen became sole minister in 1978, remaining for sixteen years until his resignation in 1990.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, church membership ranged from 375-400, and only one Sunday service was held. The number of children in the religious education program declined, largely due to the changing demographics of the time.
As the congregation celebrated the 25th anniversary of its physical plant in 1983, U.S. intervention in Central America became an issue of concern within the church. After much debate, UUCPA joined the South Bay Sanctuary, a coalition of local churches dedicated to providing protection, advocacy, and support for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees. In 1988, the congregation voted to participate in an effort by the Urban Ministry to house a number of homeless people in local churches on a rotating monthly basis. Named for a Palo Alto police chief of the 1930s, “Hotel de Zink” is a temporary shelter program that continues at UUCPA each September.
The 90s: Expanding Leadership
Rev. Ken Collier
Following the resignation of Rev. Bill Jacobsen, Rev. Sam Wright served as Interim Minister from 1990-1991. On May 5, 1991, Rev. Kenneth W. (Ken) Collier was called to be the fourth settled minister.
In the mid 1990s, a Worship Associate program was instituted. Worship Associates work with the ministers in planning and conducting the service, lighting the chalice, and presenting original or specially selected readings.
An Intern Minister program, a year-long student apprenticeship coordinated with the Starr King School for the Ministry, was instituted in 1995. Our interns have included Tom Rhodes, Duane Fickeisen, Paul Daniels, C. Elizabeth (Liz) Brown, and Pam Allen-Thompson.
From 1998 to 2001 Erinn Melby served as UUCPA’s first Community Minister and directed a Pastoral Associates program. Jean Heriot served as Community Minister from 2001 to 2003. Our current Community Minister is William (Scotty) McLennan.
Social action continues to be an important part of congregational life. In 1994, UUCPA began the process of becoming a Welcoming Congregation. Members attended a series of classes culminating with official recognition as a Welcoming Congregation by the UUA in 1998. Principles again went into practice in 1999 when the congregation voted unanimously to oppose the Knight initiative that bans same sex marriages in California.
In 1997, UUCPA joined with other area churches to form Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA). The congregation decided to focus on education and initiated RIPPLES, a program which provided church volunteers at an elementary school for before-school story reading, and tutors for the after-school students at Besse Bolton Kids Club. The tutoring portion of the program is completing its eighth year in 2005, and the congregation continues to work with PIA on affordable housing and health care.
Rev. Darcey Laine
Through the years the Religious Education program has been the life-blood of the church. In the 1990s the number of children enrolled in RE grew steadily, the youth group was reestablished and thrived, and adult RE classes were reinstated. Edith Parker served as Religious Education Director from 1988 to 1998. The Reverend Til Evans was Interim Minister of Religious Education from 1998-99 and in 2000 UUCPA made a major commitment by calling the Reverend Darcey Laine as the settled Minister of Religious Education.
Religious Education and Music: Centering the Community
Committees work with the Minister of Religious Education to plan and implement programs for children, youth, and adults. In 1998-99, the congregation played a leading role in developing a district-wide Coming of Age program for youth in grades 8-10. Eleven UUCPA youths participated, more than any other congregation in the district. The program is repeated every two years.
In January 2000, the children’s RE program made an unsuccessful attempt to go from one to two sessions. We now have one session, held during the second service and offer a grade specific curriculum. The two-year cycle begins with a Chalice Year, studying UU values and identity, and alternates with a Rainbow Year, focusing on diversity and world religions. Children’s Chapel is held every Sunday, with the exception of once a month when families attend service together. High school youth meet together with the UU Fellowship of Redwood City. The annual youth-led service continues to be one of the most popular services of the year. Offerings in adult religious education are led by lay persons, a minister, or a team of both.
Music continues to be an extremely important part of the worship experience. Our choir was formed in 1955. In the 1990s, the 20-30 voice group was led by director-composer Alva Henderson. Michael Paul Gibson became the director in September 2001. Michael moved on in May 2004 and after an extensive search we found Henry Mollicone to lead our choir. We are fortunate to have Veronica Agranov-Dafoe on our staff; she is an accomplished pianist who not only accompanies the choir but also serves
frequently as a soloist in our outstanding Sunday morning guest musician program.
The 21st Century: Building a Church Continued
The congregation has completed a major building renovation. In 1999, a capital drive raised over one million dollars in pledges to fund a new administration building, replace the building where the youth group and others hold meetings, and renovate existing buildings. Unfortunately, in order to get a permit from the City of Palo Alto, we needed significantly greater resources to meet city requirements such as new fire hydrants and a new drainage system for the parking lot. In 2003, the congregation decided to defer construction on new buildings and use the money in the capital fund to change the configuration, improve and renovate existing buildings. In the midst of the normal chaos of construction our congregational administrator, Barbara George died very suddenly, adding poignancy to our May 2004 celebration of the renovation’s completion.
New Parish Minister is Called
Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern
In 2001, the Reverend Ken Collier decided to leave UUCPA and accept the call to be the settled minister of another congregation. UUCPA was fortunate to have the Reverend Kurt Kuhwald as its interim parish minister from September 2001 thru August 2003. In May of 2003, UUCPA voted to call the Reverend Amy Zucker to be its next parish minister. In August 2003, Reverend Zucker became UUCPA’s fifth settled parish minister.
Associate Minister of RE
In 2006, UUCPA started recounting its history as a prelude to the 60th anniversary of the signing of the church’s charter.
UUCPA Early Members
Below are the names of current church members whose names also appear on membership lists during the first 20 years of our congregation (1947 – 1967). This list was compiled for the 60th Anniversary Party.
- Elizabeth Harris
- Mary H. Johnson
- Mona Miller
- Elton & Rachel Bell
- William Frye
- Ursula Moore
- John Cone
- Lindy Peterson
- Helen Price
- Herbert Vanderbeek
- Bonita Botts (Chandler)
- Kathleen Kells (Davenport)
- Mary Elizabeth Van Patten
- William Chandler
- Sara Hay (Newcomb)
- Sylvan Rubin
- Edwin Zebroski
- Hurd Twombly
- Marilyn Wiebenson
- Frances Hamaker (Perry)(Junior Member)
- Elaine Hatfield
- Robert & Mary P. McLean
- Emmy Lou Miller
- Ellen Nachtrieb
- Marilyn Terman
- Ely Brandes
- Grace Frank
- Jane Glauz
- Harold & Lena Hance
- Robert & Barbara Murray
- Elizabeth Seike
- Jean L. Walker (McFadden)
- Charles & Sara Botsford
- Marcia Conklin
- Robert & Barbara Greider
- Mary Magill (Whinery)
- Joan Paulin
- Marion Conley
- Arthur & Helene Barnes
- Fred & Janet Buelow
- Edward Freiberg
- Diana Steeples
- Sylvia Whitcher