Towson Unitarian Universalist Church is a relatively young congregation, given the deep roots of Unitarianism and Universalism in the United States. Universalism began in England in the mid-17th century, and had migrated to the colonies in America by the mid-18th century. Unitarianism goes back even further, with its origins in Poland, Transylvania, England and Wales, reaching our shores somewhat later, with the first Unitarian congregation being formed in Boston in 1782. The first building in the United States to be constructed specifically for a Unitarian gathering was designed by French architect Maximilian Godefroy and erected in 1818 at the corner of Charles and Franklin streets, where it still stands and continues to serve a thriving congregation. It was originally called the First Independent Church of Baltimore, but is now known by the name it adopted in 1935, the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. Only a year after the building was finished, the church was the site of William Ellery Channing’s famous “Baltimore Sermon” of May 5, 1819, which set out the basic tenets of Unitarianism (and is still re-enacted each year).
By the mid-1950s, a number of the congregants at First Unitarian had moved from the city out to the burgeoning suburbs. In these days before 696 (the Baltimore Beltway) and 83 South (the Jones Falls Expressway), traveling back and forth for services and events became increasingly burdensome. In 1958-1959, a seven-member task group was formed by First Unitarian to explore the possibility of establishing Unitarian Fellowships in Towson and Catonsville. The idea was agreed to, at least in concept, by the congregation, and a meeting of 75 people was held in August 1959 at the Lutherville Elementary School. About half of this group continued to push for a Fellowship in the Towson area. The first service was held in January 1960 in a building owned by the Towson Women’s Club. This building, still standing at the corner of Allegheny and Bosley Avenues, was built in 1908 as a Methodist church, but had been sold to the Women’s Club in 1954. Initially, it suited the needs of the budding Unitarian congregation adequately, even if a number of compromises were necessarily accepted. From the very first service, there was a choir and a Sunday School. Services were lay led, and everyone chipped in to accomplish the many tasks that needed to support their activities, from cleaning the building to typing and mimeoing the newsletters and programs.
The presence of the Unitarians was limited to Sundays, however, as the rest of the time it was being actively used by the Women’s Club. Paying the rent consumed the majority of the money collected each Sunday. During a mediation period one Sunday, children in Sunday school, singing “Three Blind Mice,” disturbed the congregation, so it was decided to move the Sunday schools to another location, ultimately dividing classes among three separate buildings. This arrangement create severe complications, especially for families with children in different age ranges. To bring families back together again, the church moved to renting a large house at 117 Allegheny Avenue. (To pass inspection, a fire-escape to the second floor had to be hastily erected, so hastily that it was made out of wood, a rather impractical choice in case of a fire.) It was increasingly clear that the church needed to buy its own home, but money was scarce and suitable options took time and careful planning to arrange. In 1961, the congregation purchased 7 1/2 acres of property at 1710 Dulaney Valley Road, for $32,000 (raised by a combination of funds borrowed from that national UU organization and from bonds purchased by members). The special arrangements were possible because the developer had no plans for the awkward tract of property, running close to the side of a stream, and had used the site as a place to dump the rubble of other buildings in the development. It would be another decade before the construction of a church could be realized.
In 1962, the house they had been renting was scheduled for demolition, to make a parking lot, so the congregation was obliged to move to 406 W. Pennsylvania Avenue. Subsequent years involved various moves and arrangements with the Towson YMCA and Timonium Elementary School. A series of designs for a potential building on the Dulaney Valley lot were proposed and rejected due to cost. An annual service was held outdoors on the site, encouraging the congregation to feel a connection to the land, and to keep up hope. Eventually, a new and practical design was suggested by a group of TUUC member led by member Mark Beck, who was also an architect. The first design had to be modified to include space on the ground floor for a Sunday School program. The proposed building was small, but finally there was a plan that could be approved. A ceremonial ground-breaking was held on September 1, 1971 and the new building was completed in time for a dedication in the first service held there, on September 10, 1972. As the congregation continued to grow, the building was expanded in 1989 by three bays, and the parking lot was also enlarged.
Numerous changes have taken place over the years. Gallery Unicorn, featuring the work of local artists being displayed around the walls of the main meeting area, was established in April 1980. In the mid-1980s, a second service was created to allow for more members without having to further expand the facilities. A Memorial Garden, which had been proposed as early as 1973, was dedicated in April 2007. The Grove was created in 1982, and the Pettijohn Nature Trail in 1984 (named after Francis Pettijohn).
A Legacy of Social Action
Unitarians and Universalists were prominent leaders in the abolition movement, and in fighting for civil rights and women’s suffrage. TUUC has continued this legacy with a long and storied history of social action. In 1963, its first minister, the Rev. McPherson, along with several other religious leaders, was arrested for participating in a sit in at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, which did not allow African Americans. He also led a small group of church members to the Martin Luther King March on Washington, and actively protested the Vietnam War. In 1966, TUUC member Peggy Herriott founded the East Towson Child Development Center, which became Baltimore County’s first Head Start program. In 1968, TUUC joined Project Equality, an organized attempt to encourage equal employment opportunities, and started the Fair Housing Committee of Greater Towson. More recently, TUUC has been in the forefront of efforts concerning Equality in Marriage, Health Care Reform, Darfur, and a number of other issues with serious social implications. With active support for Earl’s Place, the Assistance Center of Towson Churches, Our Daily Bread and a range of educational and community projects, TUUC is committed to embodying the principles of Unitarian-Universalism, and being an active force for good locally and internationally.
- 1962-1975: The Rev. David Hicks McPherson
- 1975-1976: The Rev. Marriane (Marnie) Politte (interim minister)
- 1976-1986: The Rev. Douglas Gallagher
- 1986-1988: The Rev. Arthur B. Jellis (interim minister)
- 1988-1998: The Rev. Matthew McNaught
- 1998-1999: The Rev. Richard Nugent (interim minister)
- 1999-present: The Rev. Clare L. Petersberger
TUUC, the First 50 Years Video: