BUC: 70 Years of History, Short Version
Birmingham Unitarian Church has its roots in two Detroit congregations—The Universalists and the Unitarians. The Universalists established their first church in Detroit in 1846. They constructed their first building, Church of Our Father, in 1880. In 1916 they moved to a second new building on Cass and Prentis, which they called First Universalist Church (Church of Our Father).
The Unitarians organized in Detroit in 1850 and four years later built First Unitarian Church, an outstanding Romanesque Revival red sandstone structure on Woodward and Edmond Place.
In 1934, the widening of Woodward forced the removal of the front of First Unitarian. During construction its congregation joined the Universalists at Cass and Prentis. Although they intended this situation to be temporary, the two congregations got on so well that they decided to merge— nearly 30 years before the Unitarians and Universalists did so nationally. The church continues to exist as the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit. It was some members of this joint congregation who formed our church.
BUC was spawned when 19 of those people met in a Birmingham living room on September 21, 1948, to share their vision of a liberal religious community in the northern suburbs. The result of that meeting was a monthly gathering with guest ministers in the Birmingham Community House.
Within two years the group began holding weekly children’s classes at the Apple Orchard Nursery School. Eventually the adults began to meet weekly, as well, with services led by member Bob Dearth based on printed sermons from Unitarian ministers. In the fall of 1952 adult services were moved to the Birmingham YMCA and led by the Rev. Merrill Bates-- part-time, unpaid minister, church member, and board president. The following year the fledgling congregation hired Russell Lincoln half-time as their the first paid minister.
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Only five years after the fellowship had formed, the church had grown to 146 members. It joined the American Unitarian Association and adopted a constitution. In 1955, adult services and the church school were finally combined in one location at the Upton School in Royal Oak. During this period the Women’s Alliance, Laymen’s League, and youth group (LRY) were founded, the choir was formed, and the Rummage sale came into being.
At last growing and thriving, the congregation purchased land for a building at Lone Pine and Woodward and was able to hire Rev. Lincoln full-time. Lincoln was succeeded by the Rev. Walter Pedersen in the fall of 1958. Pedersen led the groundbreaking for the new building on September 21,1958, ten years to the day of the first organizational meeting.
The Board hired eminent architect Minoru Yamasaki, later famous for his design of the World Trade Center; and work progressed quickly on the design and construction of the new church. The congregation held its dedication service—you’ve got it—September 21, 1959. Sadly, the beloved Rev. Pedersen was not able to officiate, having suffered an untimely death the previous May.
The next minister, Lester Mondale, served from 1959 – 1962. Many church members were dissatisfied with Rev. Mondale’s ministry, creating a schism in the congregation and convincing Mondale to step down. A group of angry Mondale supporters left BUC and went on to form the Emerson UU Fellowship in Troy.
Robert Marshall, labor and civil rights activist, journalist, and bookstore owner, became BUC’s interim minister. He was so popular that the congregation overrode the UUA edict of not retaining an interim as a settled minister to insist on calling him in 1963. He would remain a popular, colorful minister until his retirement in 1984.
Growth continued, and a second Sunday service was added in 1964. A number of church members became deeply involved in civil rights issues in housing, education, and voting. In 1965 Rev. Marshall and several members participated in the Selma-Montgomery march. As the decade wore on, many BUCers became leaders in abortion reform, women’s rights, school integration, and ecological issues.
In 1972 our Pavilion was added after nine years in the planning. In 1975 a bookshop was opened, an Outreach Committee formed, our first woman president elected, and male-only pronouns were deleted from the constitution and hymnals. In 1976 Bob Marshall earned a citation in the Guinness Book of Records and much local press by preaching the world’s longest sermon, a feat which took 60 hours and 31 minutes. The outdoor foyer was enclosed. The Commons and additional office space were added in 1980.
When Bob Marshall retired, Josiah Bartlett took over as interim minister, followed by settled minister Douglas Gallager in 1986. Under Rev. Gallager’s leadership the congregation grew to more than 600 members and in the winter of 1996 fulfilled a 40-year dream by dedicating our new sanctuary. Enclosed gallery, additional classrooms, and elevator were added, as well.
During Gallager’s tenure we became a year-round church, and we launched BUC’s participation in the South Oakland Shelter and Whitmer School. We established a governance model having a separate board of trustees and program council. We achieved Welcoming Congregation status in 1996 and in 1998 dedicated the Memorial Glen. To keep up with growth, church offices were remodeled, the social hall expanded, and conference rooms and commercial kitchen were added. Shortly thereafter we completed the outdoor family recreation area.
In 2006 we retired our mortgage, which allowed us to hire an Associate Minister, Mark Evens. Mark left in 2008, and Douglas Gallager retired that same year. We had two interim misters before we hired Kathy Hurt as our consulting minister. Kathy and we took to each other so well that we decided to call her as our permanent settled minister in 2011. Kathy retired in June of 2017, and we called the Co-Minister transition team of the Rev. Patricia Shelden and the Rev. Daniel Budd to minister to the congregation as we searched for our settled minister. In 2018, we called the Rev. Mandy Beal as the seventh Senior Minister of our congregation.