History of People’s Church (1855-current)
The church congregation now known as People’s Church has been in existence since 1855. At first they were brought together by a missionary sent out “west” from Boston to try to organize a “liberal” church; but by December of 1858 they had hired a permanent minister, Samuel Benjamin Flagg, and called themselves The Union Congregational Society of Kalamazoo. In 1860 they reincorporated their group as the First Unitarian Society and were busy planning their first building, having held their meetings before that in Fireman’s Hall and the Court House. They dedicated that first building, which was located on Park Street a little south of the corner with Lovell, in 1863. Baptisms and communion were offered every other month and the membership reached thirty-five. In 1864 Clark Howland succeeded Mr. Flagg and served the church as minister for the next sixteen years during which time a new Bond of Union was adopted. Twice during his tenure Sunday services were suspended for a few months due to lack of funds, though the Sunday School continued to operate. Ahaz Alcott served the church as minister from 1881 to 1884, during which time still another Bond of Union was adopted and signed by 55 people. Charles Ellis followed him in the pulpit but served only one year, 1887-88.
The church was at a very low ebb when the congregation, wishing to keep the society alive so there would be someone to conduct funeral services for the church founders, decided in 1889 to hire a young woman minister, Caroline Bartlett, who was then serving a congregation in Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory. She resigned that pastorate because she wanted to study at the Chicago Theological Seminary and thought she might be able to carry on studies there while serving the Kalamazoo church. She started her ministry with a great deal of energy and found it was a job requiring all her time; she gave up her intentions to be a student too.
She said “.. this church cannot be a place where we are merely to come together once a week and enjoy our doctrine and congratulate ourselves that we have a faith free from superstition. We must do something for others, as well as for ourselves. And the more we have done for others, the more in the end, we shall find we have done for ourselves.” She promoted a seven-day church with social programs for all people, regardless of race or creed. Sunday services were held morning and night and the evening attendance was so large that the group had to use the new Academy of Music building.
In 1892 Silas Hubbard, a long-time member of the church, donated $20,000 to build a new structure. He said, “I am inspired to make the donation because this church has influenced me to give up tobacco and alcohol, which has probably saved me twice the amount of the gift.” He also specified that the church name should be changed to “The People’s Church” to recognize the nature of the community activities to be carried on there. The new building stood at the corner of Park and Lovell Streets and was used by the congregation for the next 76 years. A free public kindergarten was opened to the community; a women’s gymnasium was instituted; a school of household science taught cooking, housekeeping, home nursing, and sewing using as teachers vocational school graduates from Chicago. There was a manual training class for men and a literary club named The Frederick Douglass Club for Black people. Caroline herself taught a course in Eastern Religions.
The church received a great deal of publicity in 1896 when Colonel Robert Ingersoll, a well-known orator who was very critical of conventional Christian theology, visited Kalamazoo and, at Miss Bartlett’s invitation, visited her “institutional church.” He said afterwards to the press “If all churches were like this, I would never say one word against them or religion. If I lived here, I would join this church, if it would have me.” There was much discussion about whether this meant that the Colonel had been “saved,” an event that the Epworth League had been praying for. The Chicago Tribune featured an article about the event and Caroline explained enough about the theology of People’s Church to dampen their hopes.
On New Year’s Eve of 1896, Caroline Bartlett married Dr. Augustus Warren Crane in a surprise ceremony at People’s Church. He was an early proponent of the use of radiology in Kalamazoo and founded the organization now known as Kalamazoo Radiology. He was ten years younger than Caroline, who was 38 at the time of her marriage. During 1897 there were about 118 meetings a month held at the church. The next year Caroline began to experience some health problems. She resigned the pulpit in June of 1898. She remained a member of the church until her death in 1935 and never missed an annual meeting. She also worked in the Sunday School and served on committees.
After the Crane ministry, the church thrived for a dozen years, though it was served by four ministers during that time. It continued to offer services to the community, notably starting a nursery school on the north side of the city to serve working mothers, though it never attracted a very large clientele. Four people left bequests to the church in gratitude for the services that were being provided there, constituting the “Hubbard-Henika Fund” which contributed to a number of community projects; including furnishing a surgical ward at the new Bronson Hospital, contributing to the support of a visiting nurse, and helping maintain a “free-bed” at Bronson Hospital.
The church also ran the Evening Rest from 1905 to about 1912. It served working women who often lived in rooms in which they could not entertain friends and where they had to buy their meals. The Evening Rest opened the church from late afternoon, with the parlors available for socializing. The women could use the gymnasium equipment and the church library. A hot meal was served every night except Sunday for ten cents, though it cost an extra two cents to have dessert. By 1909 it was announced that 25,400 meals had been served. A Saturday nursery and kindergarten were also offered to serve country women who came into Kalamazoo to shop, and a delicatessen was tried for six months but was not very successful.
Dr. Joseph P. MacCarthy was minister from 1905-1910. It was in 1906 that the celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of People’s Church was held. 1906 was chosen because it was believed that 1856 marked the beginning of the tenure of the missionary who started holding services in Fireman’s Hall. It was not until many years later that records were found that established that such services were actually being held in 1855, and that a continuous presence was maintained up to the present. It was this discovery that determined the date of the 150th Anniversary.
At the time of the First World War, interest in the church was declining. In 1920, with a recommendation from Caroline Bartlett Crane, People’s Church hired a young woman minister, Julia Budlong, who seemed to have energy and vision similar to that Caroline had shown thirty years earlier. Unfortunately, she contracted polio a little over a year into her tenure and was severely affected by it. Her mother, Minna Budlong, who was helping take care of her was a well-educated and capable woman. She was sent by the church to the General Assembly meetings, and on her return was asked to serve as minister in her daughter’s place. She was ordained and served for one year before she accepted a position as Field Secretary of the Women’s Alliance in Boston.
A month or two later, in December 1923 a proposal of merger was received from First Congregational Church of Kalamazoo. Three committees from each church started meeting to work on the union proposal. Caroline Bartlett Crane and the Congregationalists’ Reverend Phelps were working on the Bond of Union; but Caroline resigned from the committee saying the identity of People’s Church must be maintained. This ended the merger effort.
Dr. MacCarthy agreed to return and served as minister for the next three years until 1927.
In December of 1925, the Congregational Church burned down (one in a series of church conflagrations in just a few months’ time). The People’s Church congregation offered to share their building, charging only the extra cost of the increased number of meetings. This amounted to $25 a week, but $30 in the weeks the Congregationalists had evening gatherings. The sharing of the building lasted until January of 1928 and involved a complicated schedule to accommodate the activities of both churches.
William Gysan became the People’s Church minister in the fall of 1927. There was much optimism. Evening forums were held. Mr. Gysan was politically active, interested in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the World Court, and opposition to capital punishment. During his five-year pastorate, 97 people signed the Bond of Union. He resigned in 1932 to be minister of a student group in Boston.
The Great Depression was really making an impact by then and the church was so discouraged that they did not even canvass for pledges in 1933. A young minister, Mr. Lapp, filled the pulpit but asked to work part-time and live in Ann Arbor during the week, coming to Kalamazoo only Saturday and Sunday. The average Sunday attendance was 25. There were only eight children in the church school.
In June of 1934, 27 people at a congregational meeting voted 20 yes, 4 no, and 3 abstaining to hire Edwin C. Palmer for the next year at an annual salary of $1200, $300 of it being underwritten by Boston. (Mr. Gysan had been paid $2700 a year plus $100 moving expenses when he came seven years earlier). Mr. Palmer remained minister of People’s Church for the next twenty-two years. The oldest members of the church joined during his ministry and remember him fondly.
Mrs. Palmer, Margaretta, conducted the Sunday School at first. Church dinners were held each month and Mr. Palmer instituted Monday night worknights at which time men of the church scrubbed, plastered, painted, cemented, wired, and made tables, screens and storm windows for the forty plus year-old building. A new heating plant was installed. To save on rent, the Palmers with their two children moved into the church building in 1938 and Mr. Palmer also did the janitor work.
The college roundtable met every Sunday evening with Mr. Palmer in the study and enjoyed refreshments supplied by Mrs. Palmer. Their daughter, Betty, was a student at Western State Teachers College and a member of the group. Mr. Palmer chose poetry he liked and set it to hymn tunes. He composed a “cover essay” every week for the front of the Sunday program. It usually was inspired by some personal experience or an event of public interest and was expressed in imaginative, contemplative style. There is a compilation of those essays in the church library.
In accord with his idea that the church should take an interest in Kalamazoo as a community, he served as president of the Kalamazoo Council of Social Agencies and served on the Central Trades Labor Council as well as on the Recreation Council. He also led a series of discussions at Meadville Theological Seminary. In December of 1943 he announced that his printing press was ready to run, and for the rest of his pastorate he printed the handsome Sunday morning programs each week.
A long list of organizations held meetings in the building. No rent was charged. and if offered it was returned, suggesting that the gift be given to some organization such as the Girl Scouts that also used the building. At the end of 1944, the church was out of debt for the first time in memory. In 1946, Mr. Palmer’s salary reached $2000. It would be 1952 before he was paid $3000 a year, just barely more than Mr. Gysan’s salary in the 1920s.
After the end of World War II, many young families moved to Kalamazoo to work at Upjohn and at Western. The church grew rapidly. In 1954 Irene Garrett was hired as the first paid Religious Education Director to organize the seven classes and nineteen teachers for the 112 children enrolled. In 1956, the one-hundredth anniversary of the church was celebrated with an address by Mr. Willis Dunbar attended by l50 people. The Palmers, who were still living in the church building, bought a house to retire in (Mr. Palmer was 65 years old). On the day after Christmas, Mr. Palmer suffered a fatal heart attack.
Credentials of five applicants for the post of minister were considered. Roger E. Greeley, who had been teaching history in Battle Creek and attending People’s Church with his young family, was chosen. He came from a Unitarian family, performed the studies prescribed by the denomination’s credentialing board, submitted to their oral examinations, and was ordained and installed in September 1957. Roger had served in the Marines in WWII and was of the same generation as the young families who were flooding into Kalamazoo. He was full of energy, knew everyone’s name, played with the children, worked with the men and women who came to worknights every week, and his passionate sermons (dissertations, he called them) concerned national problems of the day, biographies of Free Thought pioneers, problems of everyday living, and history of Unitarianism and the nation’s founders.
From the membership total of 185 reported in January of 1958, the total had climbed to 234 by 1960 and the church conducted its first every-member canvass. That was also the year the members produced their first “musical,” an activity that continued for a dozen years and was greatly enjoyed by participants and enthusiastic audiences. Annual campouts were also very popular. A Sunday School annex was constructed behind the old church and was very much enjoyed by the large RE population which reached 253 registered students in 1967. A recreation program called 60+ for retired persons was being held in the church daily, and its total attendance was reported as 18,000 by 1966. In May, the tenth anniversary of Mr. Greeley’s ministry was celebrated.
In 1968, the decision was made to move and a seven-acre lot was purchased on 10th street. The parking had become very difficult downtown, especially for weekday meetings; and the old building, though large, wasn’t configured to accommodate the activities being carried on. Strict building regulations were in effect in the downtown area about thickness of walls and distance from lot boundaries. During the year and a half of construction of the new building, church and Sunday School were held in West Main School with the office occupying a store front nearby. The old People’s Church was demolished, and the new Sunday School annex was sold to the telephone company, which used it for an answering center before it, too, was demolished. The site where the church once stood is now a parking lot owned by the Ladies Library Association.
Fifty-seven people signed the Bond of Union in 1970, the first year in the new structure; members and friends numbered 355. Some 180 people attended the annual meeting in 1971. That year, the Religious Education department started organizing classes by interest group rather than age group. Twenty different groups were offered from macrame to Asian religions. Many church members planted trees on the church grounds, in memory of loved ones. During the first five years in the new building the unfinished building was painted, cabinets built, and rugs installed.
There was a rear projection screen at the front of the Commons used by Mr. Greeley for showing montages which enhanced the message of his dissertations. He and David Curl, a People’s Church member and an audiovisual media expert, made dozens of these montages which were enjoyed by the members during the rest of the Greeley ministry.
Roger was granted a sabbatical leave during the 1975-76 church year. These were the first services he was not responsible for in his eighteen years as pastor, except for a religious education Sunday each year. During this year the pulpit was filled by People’s Church members and community people. An administrative manager took charge of the office. When Roger returned, a Lay Services Committee was established to arrange one service a month with a member of the church planning and presenting the Sunday morning program. Extended Families began in 1975 with 150 members participating. The forum began in 1979.
At the January 1978 Annual Meeting, Roger proposed that the name of the church be changed to People’s Congregation of Kalamazoo County, but the suggestion was not adopted by the congregation. During 1979 the roof which had been leaking was repaired and insulated, but in May of 1980 the tornado which hit Kalamazoo did extensive damage to the church building; twelve windows were out, and the roof was gone as was the storage shed. Ceilings, doors, AV equipment were damaged, and the rear projection screen was in tatters. Hundreds of hours were spent by the members cleaning up the mess and securing what remained of the building.
The anniversary of Mr. Greeley’s 25-year ministry was celebrated in the spring of 1982. The final payment on the mortgage for the building was made that same year; but the next year it was necessary to rebuild the roof, replacing much of the flat area with a pitched roof. A sabbatical leave for part of the 1982-83 year was granted. When Roger returned, he proposed changing the church name to People’s Society, but again the congregation failed to accept the proposal. Roger retired in September 1985 after a 28-year pastorate, the longest in the church history.
After a one-year Interim Ministry by Brooks Walker, the Ministerial Search Committee recommended Davidson Loehr to become the new permanent minister. After his week of candidacy, the congregation voted 206 to 6 to call him. He was finishing a doctorate in theology from the University of Chicago, and People’s Church was his first ministry. David had a wonderful facility with words, both written and spoken, and he attracted large audiences on Sunday mornings. He invited children to participate in a part of the Sunday service which featured a children’s story that mirrored the sermon to come. He also took part in a number of community activities: Torch club, speaking on cable access, at WMUK, and Kalamazoo College, offering the invocation at a City Commission meeting, and participating in Grace Luncheons all in his first year with the church. The parking lot became overfull on Sunday mornings and a second one was added; and by his fifth year as minister two services were being held each Sunday morning.
David instituted evening presentations such as Bill Moyers’ “World of Ideas,” with local experts commenting on the filmed comments and the audience participating. The Memorial Garden was landscaped, many Adult Education classes were offered and well attended, and the whole committee structure was reorganized. People’s people served as mentors in the Kalamazoo Area Academic Achievement Program, worked on Habitat for Humanity houses, sold Ministry with Community candles, provided Christmas food and gifts for families on a Department of Social Services list. A fall board retreat in David’s first year became an annual event.
But by 1992 dissension was apparent. David believed that some parishioners sought to impair his freedom of the pulpit. Some in the congregation thought David was insensitive to their strongly held beliefs. Over the next two years, surveys, discussions, and endless talk only exacerbated the differences and David announced his resignation in the summer of 1994, to take effect at the end of the 1994-1995 church year. He left in March of 1995 at which time some church members also resigned and formed another UU church in the area: Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan, located in Portage.
Fred Campbell became the interim minister in September of 1995 and served for two years. A Ministerial Search Committee was elected and an Aesthetic Improvements Committee started work on modifications to the Foyer and Commons. Fred conducted a well-attended Four Faiths adult education course, comparing the answers to universal questions from the point of view of Theists, Mystics, Humanists, and Naturalists. Participants elected one of the groups and took part in answering the questions.
Because the Search Committee had not finished its work at the end of Fred’s two-year tenure, Oren Peterson was welcomed for a year of interim ministry, during which time the search committee selected and recommended to the congregation that Jill McAllister become the next settled minister. Her engagement was overwhelmingly approved. Final plans were also implemented for the building renovation and services were held at Temple B’Nai Israel during construction.
In September of 1998, Jill McAllister, began her pastorate. It was a momentous year with a new minister, a new RE Director, and a renovated building. A new Mission Statement was adopted. Jill and her young family attracted others of her age group and the number of children in the church school increased. She introduced a Sunday morning centering service. Summer Sunday morning services were started in 1999 and continue to the present.
During the next year People’s Church formed a partnership with two Transylvanian churches; and People’s Church YRUU (young people) paid a visit to those churches in Romania. There was a return visit by the minister of those churches to Kalamazoo. An extensive kitchen remodeling was designed, completed, and celebrated. Jill served as President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists and attended meetings in Transylvania, Germany, and Montreal that year. Several fund raisers have been instituted each year, including a Christmas Bazaar, a Service Auction, and others to supplement the funds raised through the Annual Canvass. Diane Melvin, our current director of religious education was hired during Rev. Jill’s tenure.
Dennis McCarty was engaged as an Intern Minister during the 2002-03 church year, with Jill supervising his internship. He undertook visits with homebound parishioners, took the pulpit five times during the year, attended committee meetings, taught in the church school, and took a big role in the church’s participation in ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community) a church-based social action group organized in the community. A food pantry was established in the church as part of the countywide network serving needy people. In the spring of 2005 Jill was awarded a Sabbatical leave until the end of June. People’s Church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2005 with a series of events.
In March 2013, Rev. Jill McAllister accepted a call to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Corvallis, OR. Her ministry ended in July 2013. People’s Church hired two interim ministers to lead for the following two years: Rev. Dr. Pam Allen-Thompson and Rev. Dr. Dave Johnson.
After much hard work by the Ministerial Search Committee, Rev. Rachel Lonberg was called unanimously to be the next minister of People’s Church in the spring of 2015. She is still our minister. With her leadership, encouragement, and support, the congregation adopted its current mission and vision. More people have participated in chalice circles and other small groups. Her tenure with us has been marked by increased community partnerships, including working to help resettle refugees from Syrian and Afghanistan and deepening our relationships to ISAAC. As we navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, People’s people have responded with generosity, patience, flexibility and creativity.
Read more about People’s Social Justice history here.