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Our History

Our History

In 2020, First UU observed our 75th anniversary. As part of the celebration, we published a history of the church, Beloved Community: A New History of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio. The book shows how Unitarians, and later Unitarian Universalists, have provided a safe and just environment for San Antonio congregations since the 1890s. Copies of the book are available through the church office. This history is summarized below (click on or mouse over the images to read more).

1892 – First Known Unitarian Service in San Antonio

On October 15, 1892, a notice in the San Antonio Light announced a “Unitarian Society” service led by the Reverend Edwin Wheelock, a Boston transplant who had led the Texas Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War. Spearheaded by women who had formed a local chapter of the Unitarian Women’s Alliance two years earlier, the Society would install a settled minister. However, the Society struggled to establish a church and collapsed by 1900.

1912 – Second Unitarian Church Founded in San Antonio

With the American Unitarian Association’s support, on October 6, 1912, the Reverend George H. Badger was installed as the settled minister of the Unitarian Church of San Antonio. The church grew over the next several years, even acquiring property for a future building and attracting visits from the AUA President, Samuel Eliot. Unfortunately, after World War One, the church struggled to sustain itself, eventually selling its property and disbanding in 1938. Women’s Alliance members once again played a major role in this church; some of these same women (Juliette Brockhausen, Gretchen Goldschmidt, Leah Johnston, and Myra Scott) would help start what would become the permanent church in 1945.

1945 – The Permanent Church is Established

Led by Reverend Robert J. Raible, First Unitarian Church of Dallas, and Reverend Lon Ray Call, Minister-at-Large, AUA Extension Division, a group of 25 San Antonio Unitarians formally established the First Unitarian Church of San Antonio (First UU). Weekly services began in March 1945, led by Reverend Call, in a sanctuary generously lent to First Unitarian by Temple Beth-El of San Antonio. On April 29, 1945, the church was officially established at a vesper service, held at Cos House in La Villita, and elected its first board of trustees. In November 1945, the Reverend Napoleon “Bill” Lovely accepted a call to serve as the church’s first settled minister.

1946 – The Church Gets its Own Building

Numbering about 100 members, First UU purchased its first permanent location: a two-story house located on 217 Pershing Avenue. The renovated space housed Sunday services, youth and adult group activities, and a parsonage. Within a decade, however, the congregation would outgrow this space. Today, this building houses the Circle School, two blocks from the Witte Museum.

1948 – Civil Rights Sunday & Social Action

To mark the occasion of President Harry Truman’s landmark civil rights report, To Secure These Rights, Reverend Lovely declared February 8, 1948 to be “Civil Rights Sunday,” while the church board adopted a resolution calling for the end of legal discrimination and segregation. This marked the start of many years of public activism on behalf of civil rights causes.

1952 – Second Settled Minister: Reverend Philip Schug

Hailing from Illinois, where he had played a key role in a landmark school prayer case, Reverend Schug joined First UU as its second settled minister in March 1952. He would serve in that role for the next twelve years, presiding over a period of significant growth. By 1957, the congregation had grown so large that Sunday services were moved to the Tuesday Musical Club building in Brackenridge Park. The church board began a massive capital campaign for a larger physical space to accommodate the growing congregation. Reverend Schug would later become the church’s first Minister Emeritus.

1961 – The Church Moves to “The Hill”

On September 10, 1961, the church held its first service in its current location, culminating nearly six years of planning, fundraising, and construction. The church at that time comprised four buildings, the present-day fellowship hall and lounge, an administrative building, and two classroom buildings. A dedication service held in January 1962 included a candle-lighting ceremony where the church’s founders symbolically “passed the torch” to church youth. At this time, the congregation served 250 members and maintained a thriving church school.

1966 – Religious Education Grows

In September 1966, First UU opened a third classroom, its first space devoted exclusively to youth religious education, including a full-time Unitarian Kindergarten program. In 1972, the program became independent of the church and was renamed the Discovery School.

1968 – The Civil Rights Awakening

In 1968, the First UU congregation voted to join Project Equality, an interfaith and interracial coalition that pressured San Antonio leaders to act on equal employment and police brutality. Reverend William DeWolfe, First UU minister, also founded and led the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in this period and was an outspoken advocate for civil rights and liberties.

1971 – Musical Services and “The Other U”

On October 3, 1971, First UU’s new minister, Reverend Rolfe Gerhardt, led “Bluegrass Sunday,” the church’s first all-musical Sunday service. Gerhardt was reared in the Universalist tradition, what he often referred to as “the Other U.” During his 13-year ministry, he often emphasized the Universalists’ spiritual and emotional side of the UU faith, as opposed to Unitarianism, which tends to focus more on science and reason. Musical services have grown in number and diversity and continue to enrich the church’s worship experience, reflecting the creative talents of the congregation.

1982 – First UU Expands Its Social Justice Commitments

In 1982, the First UU congregation voted to affiliate with churches all over the city in the Metropolitan Congregational Alliance, an interdenominational group dedicated to social justice. The group later merged with Communities Organized in Public Service to form the COPS-Metro Alliance, one of the most important and powerful local coalitions in San Antonio today. That same year, First UU established its Community Responsibility Endowment Fund (CREF), which annually awards small grants to area nonprofits dedicated to causes aligned with First UU’s values.

1988 – A Second UU Church Forms

First UU once again outgrew its space in the 1980’s, contributing to about 50 families leaving to form the Community Unitarian Universalist Church in November 1988. Community UU would continue until about 2010, with many of its members returning to First UU over time.

1991 – The Severance Era Begins

On March 1, 1991, the Reverend Art Severance answered the call to serve as First UU’s sixth settled minister. His fifteen-year tenure would be the longest in First UU’s history, a period of remarkable stability and growth. During his ministry, the church would recommit to its location on “The Hill,” investing in a new sanctuary building, institutionalize its music program most notably with the hiring of composer Bill Ross as “music minister,” and revive its high school program with the establishment of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU). In 2019, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to name Severance as the second Minister Emeritus in the church’s history.

1995 – The Welcoming Congregation

In spring 1995, First UU formed a “Welcoming Congregation” committee that adopted a curriculum to support equal rights and inclusion for its gay and lesbian members. The church also became more outspoken about local discrimination issues, while the minister exhorted the congregation in numerous sermons. The church has expanded the welcoming circle to include transgender and nonbinary identities.

1997 – The Beacon on the Hill

By the mid-1980’s, First UU’s congregation of over 350 members found itself supporting two Sunday services in a space too small to accommodate even half its own membership. A multiyear effort to raise funds and make plans finally culminated with the opening of a 450-seat sanctuary building in December 1997. Designed by architect Dan Wigodsky, this state-of-the-art building featured a beautiful wooden interior with multi-faceted windows and crystal lighting, reflecting a rainbow of colors.

2008 – Twin Milestones for Church Enrichment

This year saw two indispensable contributors join the church staff: Dr. Susan Dill as Music Director, and Dr. Sheri Phillabaum as Director of Lifespan Religious Education. In building her vision for a “music ministry,” Dill expanded on her predecessors’ work with the choir program, and built new programming for children’s and youth choirs. Meanwhile, Phillabaum has developed age-specific curricula, service projects, and enrichment activities for children and youth, while greatly expanding opportunities for adults.

2013 – The Green Sanctuary

Years of effort led by the Green Team culminated with First UU earning designation as a “Green Sanctuary” in 2013. Only 25% of all UU churches have received this marker from the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), which recognizes benchmarks in sustainable practices such as recycling, rainwater catchment, and ground maintenance.

2020 – A Time of Celebration and a Test of Commitment

The year 2020 marked First UU’s 75th anniversary. In January, the church held a “Homecoming” gala, which welcomed old and new members to commemorate the church’s history. Soon after this memorable event, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the church to close in-person activities and hold virtual Sunday services for the first time in its history. First UU reopened in fall 2021 with a series of exciting celebrations, marking its anniversary and renewing its commitment to its founding ideal of the beloved community.

1892 – First Known Unitarian Service in San Antonio

On October 15, 1892, a notice in the San Antonio Light announced a “Unitarian Society” service led by the Reverend Edwin Wheelock, a Boston transplant who had led the Texas Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War. Spearheaded by women who had formed a local chapter of the Unitarian Women’s Alliance two years earlier, the Society would install a settled minister. However, the Society struggled to establish a church and collapsed by 1900.

1912 – Second Unitarian Church Founded in San Antonio

With the American Unitarian Association’s support, on October 6, 1912, the Reverend George H. Badger was installed as the settled minister of the Unitarian Church of San Antonio. The church grew over the next several years, even acquiring property for a future building and attracting visits from the AUA President, Samuel Eliot. Unfortunately, after World War One, the church struggled to sustain itself, eventually selling its property and disbanding in 1938. Women’s Alliance members once again played a major role in this church; some of these same women (Juliette Brockhausen, Gretchen Goldschmidt, Leah Johnston, and Myra Scott) would help start what would become the permanent church in 1945.

1945 – The Permanent Church is Established

Led by Reverend Robert J. Raible, First Unitarian Church of Dallas, and Reverend Lon Ray Call, Minister-at-Large, AUA Extension Division, a group of 25 San Antonio Unitarians formally established the First Unitarian Church of San Antonio (First UU). Weekly services began in March 1945, led by Reverend Call, in a sanctuary generously lent to First Unitarian by Temple Beth-El of San Antonio. On April 29, 1945, the church was officially established at a vesper service, held at Cos House in La Villita, and elected its first board of trustees. In November 1945, the Reverend Napoleon “Bill” Lovely accepted a call to serve as the church’s first settled minister.

1946 – The Church Gets its Own Building

Numbering about 100 members, First UU purchased its first permanent location: a two-story house located on 217 Pershing Avenue. The renovated space housed Sunday services, youth and adult group activities, and a parsonage. Within a decade, however, the congregation would outgrow this space. Today, this building houses the Circle School, two blocks from the Witte Museum.

1948 – Civil Rights Sunday & Social Action

To mark the occasion of President Harry Truman’s landmark civil rights report, To Secure These Rights, Reverend Lovely declared February 8, 1948 to be “Civil Rights Sunday,” while the church board adopted a resolution calling for the end of legal discrimination and segregation. This marked the start of many years of public activism on behalf of civil rights causes.

1952 – Second Settled Minister: Reverend Philip Schug

Hailing from Illinois, where he had played a key role in a landmark school prayer case, Reverend Schug joined First UU as its second settled minister in March 1952. He would serve in that role for the next twelve years, presiding over a period of significant growth. By 1957, the congregation had grown so large that Sunday services were moved to the Tuesday Musical Club building in Brackenridge Park. The church board began a massive capital campaign for a larger physical space to accommodate the growing congregation. Reverend Schug would later become the church’s first Minister Emeritus.

1961 – The Church Moves to “The Hill”

On September 10, 1961, the church held its first service in its current location, culminating nearly six years of planning, fundraising, and construction. The church at that time comprised four buildings, the present-day fellowship hall and lounge, an administrative building, and two classroom buildings. A dedication service held in January 1962 included a candle-lighting ceremony where the church’s founders symbolically “passed the torch” to church youth. At this time, the congregation served 250 members and maintained a thriving church school.

1966 – Religious Education Grows

In September 1966, First UU opened a third classroom, its first space devoted exclusively to youth religious education, including a full-time Unitarian Kindergarten program. In 1972, the program became independent of the church and was renamed the Discovery School.

1968 – The Civil Rights Awakening

In 1968, the First UU congregation voted to join Project Equality, an interfaith and interracial coalition that pressured San Antonio leaders to act on equal employment and police brutality. Reverend William DeWolfe, First UU minister, also founded and led the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in this period and was an outspoken advocate for civil rights and liberties.

1971 – Musical Services and “The Other U”

On October 3, 1971, First UU’s new minister, Reverend Rolfe Gerhardt, led “Bluegrass Sunday,” the church’s first all-musical Sunday service. Gerhardt was reared in the Universalist tradition, what he often referred to as “the Other U.” During his 13-year ministry, he often emphasized the Universalists’ spiritual and emotional side of the UU faith, as opposed to Unitarianism, which tends to focus more on science and reason. Musical services have grown in number and diversity and continue to enrich the church’s worship experience, reflecting the creative talents of the congregation.

1982 – First UU Expands Its Social Justice Commitments

In 1982, the First UU congregation voted to affiliate with churches all over the city in the Metropolitan Congregational Alliance, an interdenominational group dedicated to social justice. The group later merged with Communities Organized in Public Service to form the COPS-Metro Alliance, one of the most important and powerful local coalitions in San Antonio today. That same year, First UU established its Community Responsibility Endowment Fund (CREF), which annually awards small grants to area nonprofits dedicated to causes aligned with First UU’s values.

1988 – A Second UU Church Forms

First UU once again outgrew its space in the 1980’s, contributing to about 50 families leaving to form the Community Unitarian Universalist Church in November 1988. Community UU would continue until about 2010, with many of its members returning to First UU over time.

1991 – The Severance Era Begins

On March 1, 1991, the Reverend Art Severance answered the call to serve as First UU’s sixth settled minister. His fifteen-year tenure would be the longest in First UU’s history, a period of remarkable stability and growth. During his ministry, the church would recommit to its location on “The Hill,” investing in a new sanctuary building, institutionalize its music program most notably with the hiring of composer Bill Ross as “music minister,” and revive its high school program with the establishment of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU). In 2019, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to name Severance as the second Minister Emeritus in the church’s history.

1995 – The Welcoming Congregation

In spring 1995, First UU formed a “Welcoming Congregation” committee that adopted a curriculum to support equal rights and inclusion for its gay and lesbian members. The church also became more outspoken about local discrimination issues, while the minister exhorted the congregation in numerous sermons. The church has expanded the welcoming circle to include transgender and nonbinary identities.

1997 – The Beacon on the Hill

By the mid-1980’s, First UU’s congregation of over 350 members found itself supporting two Sunday services in a space too small to accommodate even half its own membership. A multiyear effort to raise funds and make plans finally culminated with the opening of a 450-seat sanctuary building in December 1997. Designed by architect Dan Wigodsky, this state-of-the-art building featured a beautiful wooden interior with multi-faceted windows and crystal lighting, reflecting a rainbow of colors.

2008 – Twin Milestones for Church Enrichment

This year saw two indispensable contributors join the church staff: Dr. Susan Dill as Music Director, and Dr. Sheri Phillabaum as Director of Lifespan Religious Education. In building her vision for a “music ministry,” Dill expanded on her predecessors’ work with the choir program, and built new programming for children’s and youth choirs. Meanwhile, Phillabaum has developed age-specific curricula, service projects, and enrichment activities for children and youth, while greatly expanding opportunities for adults.

2013 – The Green Sanctuary

Years of effort led by the Green Team culminated with First UU earning designation as a “Green Sanctuary” in 2013. Only 25% of all UU churches have received this marker from the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), which recognizes benchmarks in sustainable practices such as recycling, rainwater catchment, and ground maintenance.

2020 – A Time of Celebration and a Test of Commitment

The year 2020 marked First UU’s 75th anniversary. In January, the church held a “Homecoming” gala, which welcomed old and new members to commemorate the church’s history. Soon after this memorable event, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the church to close in-person activities and hold virtual Sunday services for the first time in its history. First UU reopened in fall 2021 with a series of exciting celebrations, marking its anniversary and renewing its commitment to its founding ideal of the beloved community.