Pittsburgh creates congregational history model

The Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, Penn., has a long and storied history and now much of that history is posted on the congregation’s website. With the help of a grant from the Unitarian Universalist Funding Panel, the congregation has posted a collection of letters and sermons dating from 1825. The letters describe the state of religion in western Pennsylvania in that early time and the difficulties encountered by Unitarians.

The letters include some from Martha St. John, wife of a minister, describing church life in the 1890s from her perspective. There are also many sermons from the congregation’s long line of ministers.

Kathleen Parker, coordinator of the project and a member of First Unitarian, said several factors came together to make it happen. “First, there were people in our congregation who knew enough to save valuable records over time. Second, I’m a historian and I was open to a new project.” Parker is editor of the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History.

Parker spent six years writing Here We Have Gathered: The Story of Unitarian Universalism in Western Pennsylvania, 1808-2008. She catalogued the records of the six area congregations. The collection is now housed at the Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh. She also had 65 photos enlarged into photo panels for an exhibit. In addition to the book, the collection of paper records, and the photo exhibit, a fourth part of the project was to put some of the sermons and other documents online.

She explained why her congregation’s history means so much to her. “When I stand in the congregation of my church and we are singing our favorite hymns, or listening to the choir, I often look around at our 110-year-old sanctuary and consider the many generations of congregants who met in the same space and shared the same liberal outlook that we hold today. It’s important to realize that, yes,  they were here––and the photographs and documents that remain remind us of the reality of their presence and the words they wrote speak of their devotion to liberal religion and what it meant to live out that ideal in their time.”

She added, “The documents that church members of the past left behind are precious keys to the vital heritage we have inherited and should preserve––a heritage we cannot know unless we search the lessons found in these valuable records.”

The UU History and Heritage Society invites congregations to contact it for help in collecting their own histories. Its webpage includes the following: Tools for Creating Congregational Histories. An InterConnections article on creating congregational histories is here.