MDD History

MDD logo color with textSo what is this Mountain Desert District (MDD) anyway?

It is more than 50 UU congregations in eight states, grown in closeness 30 years of workshops, and other gatherings.

We are a district which measures distances in hours rather than in miles.

Until 1990, the Mountain Desert District was made up of two official bodies; the Rocky Mountain Area Conference and the Desert Conference.

The American Unitarian Association had a strong national office and divided the country into regions, several unwieldy in size. Colorado Unitarians, for instance, were members of the Western Unitarian Conference which covered most of the central United States from Western New York and Pennsylvania to Salt Lake City.

The Universalist Church of America was organized in state conventions. First Universalist Church in Denver, the only congregation of the denomination in the entire region, stood alone. Although there were many hundreds of Universalist churches in the 19th century Midwest, migration further west was not as intense.

Prior to 1960, the year of the Unitarian Universalist merger, the two denominations had quite different forms of institutional of the UUA.

Legends, Stories, Facts and Opinions

We are a people who gather in many communities as Unitarian Universalists. Some of us have developed a strong UU identity over long years; others, new to this family of faith, are not certain what it means to know ourselves as Unitarian Universalists. Like all families, DUs have many branches.

This district is an administrative structure within the larger association of Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America. But it is also our branch of the family tree. and defines our cultural within the larger UU tradition. In the mountain and desert west, the geography and the course of our have developed in us unique characteristics, some warm and open, a few and frustrating.

In these pages we attempt to relate some of our MDD past, to convey the vitality of our present, and to imaging the future. The tales and information included here have been gathered from scores of sources. They tell of faith, and persistence, heroes, and scoundrels; they tell of our work and our vision, our failures. Their accuracy is as dependable as memory and point of view allow. Thanks to all of you who have shared the adventures of our past and the hope of our future with use . – Ruth Hucks & Nan Hobart, eds.

What Are Mountain Desert Unitarian Universalists Made Of?

F_ParkmanThis is a tale of our religious roots, of the people and events — some legendary, some even factual — that planted and nurtured our movement for some 150 or so documented years in this region of sand and cactus, blue sky and high country. Colorful figures began the Unitarian and Universalist trek west. The came with the discovery of gold and silver. They came with the construction of the railroad. In the 1840’s Francis Parkman (right), scion of an aristocratic Boston Unitarian family, found his way to the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte River — the site that would soon become Denver. He was traveling and gathering notes for his history, The Oregon Trail.

The Mountain Ute Tribe was visited in 1871 by the Rev. Jabez Nelson Trask. The Harvard School graduate was sent by Massachusetts Unitarians to serve as government agent to the tribe at Los Pinos, near Gunnison, Colorado. during that period many Protestant denominations pressured the U.S. government into allotting official posts to missionaries. Extremely confident of his righteousness and comfortably narrow in his view, Trask did not get along with the Utes, though they found him a great source of amusement because of his customary garb: large green goggles and flared trousers. Neglecting to spend any of the monies granted for the benefit of the Ute, Trask was removed from his post after one year. Following Mr. Trask was one General Charles Adams, whom the New England Unitarians were horrified learn was a Roman Catholic. Through political shenanigans the good general, well-liked the Ute, was soon succeeded by the Unitarian, Rev. Henry Bond. Mr. Bond left quickly when a shortage in the cattle fund was uncovered; he resurfaced in Wyoming in the late 1870s.

The Western Unitarian Conference

In the 1830s and 1840s, the American Unitarian Association realized that attention needed to be paid to liberal religion in the rapidly expanding West. “The Frontier,” defined in those times as anything west of the Allegheny Mountains, was demanding ministers for its new congregations, but Harvard was unable to provide enough graduates even for New England pulpits. In 1844 a school to train ministers “ready to preach in a church or a shed or a canal boat” (James Freeman Clarke, 1840) was founded at Meadville, Pennsylvania.

In 1852 the Western Conference included cities as far-flung as Buffalo, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Denver, and Salt Lake City. The independent attitudes of westerners was welcoming to the less traditional philosophy of the post-Civil War leadership of the Conference which stressed an ethical foundation for faith with no requirement of a creedal acceptance of theism.

Jones-Jenkin-LloydThe Secretary of the WUC during the time of Unitarian expansion to the Mountain West was Jenkin Lloyd Jones (left). The Rev. Mr. Jones not only supported the birth of MDD’s oldest Unitarian congregations, he was instrumental in bringing women ministers to the region. During the period from the late 1870s until the turn of the century, more than twenty Unitarian and Universalist women served churches across the prairies and plains.

Although the Western Unitarian Conference no longer exists within the UUA, a body with representatives from all the districts of the old WUC continues to meet as the Midwest Unitarian Universalist Conference (MUUC). The most important task of the group is to distribute the earnings from funds remaining from the WUC and from the old Universalist Conferences of the region. A portion of our District revenue comes from this source MUUF (Midwest UU Foundation).

Colorado Saw the First Churches Built:

Union Colony, up north on the Platte, had been founded by 1869, with a newly built Unitarian church in place shortly after. The colony would in time be renamed Greeley, to honor Universalist and benefactor Horace Greeley, the New York publisher.  Although the church would eventually disband, these liberal colonists founded the forerunner of the University of Northern Colorado. Unitarian Universalism in Greeley was reborn in 1961 when two couples went door-to-door and advertised in the Greeley Tribune to stir interest.

Meanwhile, Denver’s Unity Church (First Unitarian Society) was meeting for the first time in May, 1871, with the Rev. J. E. Beckwith, newly ordained, of Boston, who became the congregation’s first minister. Incorporated in August of that year, Unity met at several sites, including the Baptist’s “Dugout,” before building the first of its three structures. The first Unity Church was described as “resembling the average public library with streaks of variations.” The financial storms of the 1870s threatened the young congregation until the Ladies Aid sponsored a series of city-wide “sociables.” Freshly prepared food was made possible by transporting the Belden family stove to the festive site.

Up in the foothills, Boulder Unitarians of the 1870s and 80s a congregation, topping out at 50-plus members, including Quakers and Mennonites. Distinct Unitarianism was eventually subsumed by the formation of the Progressive Religious Group. After some years Unitarianism was resurrected when a Fellowship (the first in the nation) was formed in 1947. The Fellowship soon grew into a church and was joined by a new fellowship in 1979. The two congregations provide a rich diversity of religious liberalism in a university town.

Universalists, the other liberals, were also in Colorado, having had a building site on the Denver city map some 20 to 30 years prior to the congregation’s incorporation in 1892. First notice in Denver news columns is of St. Paul’s Universalists meeting in the Odd Fellows Hall in 1891; the congregation incorporated as First Universalist Church on April Fools’ Day, 1892. The tale is told of the Rev. Richard Sykes, minister in the mid-1890s, who pledged his wife’s wedding ring to obtain funds for church expenses. He threatened to resign after having to pay many church bills from his own $2,000 salary.

On February 22, 1891, All Souls Church of Colorado Springs was incorporated, describing itself as a Christian Church, underlined to make clear the intention of members that they be considered Christian, albeit liberal and not trinitarian. Then as now there was theological controversy among Unitarians and their churches. On July 2, 1892, the cornerstone for All Souls was laid; it remains the Mountain Desert District’s only century-old Unitarian congregation still meeting it its original edifice.

In 1898 Fort Collins, Colorado was a very small town, little more than the rugged Army post that preceded it. Agriculture was its lifeblood, and the reason for the establishment of the land-grant college there in 1870. In that setting a small group of people representing the college, the business community, nearby farms and ranches gathered to found Unity Church. Struggling through most of its early years, the small congregation merged in 1931 with Fort Collins Congregationalists to survive the Great Depression as First Congregational-Unitarian Church. In 1968, after the national body of Congregationalists merged with the Evangelical and Reformed to become the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarians merged with the Universalists, the two groups ended their affiliation and formed separate congregations.

Pueblo was home to a body of Unitarians before the turn of the century, but the congregation eventually disbanded. Modern Unitarian Universalism reached Pueblo in the late 1950s. The Fellowship built its present structure in 1963. The small congregation has always valued religious education for children, but recently has created much interest with an R.E. program for adults. During the week, the Fellowship building is rented to a Montessori School.

In Grand Junction, near the Colorado National Monument, membership seems to be tied to the activities of the Department of Energy (AEC). When DOW is busy on the Western Slope, membership is up; when things are lax, membership goes down. Established in 1955, the UU Fellowship meets on Sunday evenings in a Congregational Church. They added new energy and a new name in 1995.

Jefferson County was the location of much of Metro Denver’s growth in the late 1950s. As members of the downtown First Unitarian Church began moving west, the church sponsored and deeded a new congregation in Golden: Jefferson Unitarian Church. Chartered in 1960, the new religious community shared a building with a Congregationalist Church, eventually buying the building, its present home.

Four people in Durango invited the UU minister from Colorado Springs to meet with them in 1962. They, and others, often from the college, met for some years in various homes.

A year-round Fellowship in Aspen was founded in 1978. The small congregation of ten or so meets in one another’s homes. During the ski season their meetings take place in the evenings.

Columbine UU Church, Colorado’s newest congregation, began meeting in its own building in September 1992. Now, worshipping twice on Sunday mornings, they hope to grow to ninety or more members, and appointed an extension minister during the winter of 1993.

In Utah, Far Across the Mountains:

Unitarians in Salt Lake City were establishing the first congregation in the land of the Mormons. Denver’s Unitarian minister, Mr. Eliot, introduced the liberal message to Utah in 1890. The church was incorporated in 1891 and promptly set about shaking the establishment. The Rev. David Utter, first minister, organized an ecumenical round-table to exchange theological views, arranging for the group to meet in the Jewish temple. Participants included a rabbi, a Mormon bishop, a Presbyterian clergyman, and two Unitarian ministers, Mr. Utter and Rev. Joseph H. Crooker of the Unitarian church in Helena, Montana. In 1897 the congregation installed a joint husband/wife ministry with the Rev. Rezin A. and the Rev. Mila T. Maynard who served the church for three years. Tom Goldsmith is now the congregation’s minister.

In Ogden after many years of meeting on Sunday evenings, Unitarian Universalists began regular Sunday morning services in the fall of 1991. They celebrated their Charter Sunday in January of 1992, with 56 members, and affiliated with the UUA in June with 70 members. The Ogden Church appointed Rev. Sarah Lammert as their minister in 1994.

Park City and Logan are Utah’s newest UU communities. Meetings began in Park City in April 1991. The 35 adults and 15 children of the congregation are now beginning to meet weekly. Nearly 40 people attend twice monthly services at the Cache Valley UU Society in Logan.

Up in Montana, Big Sky Country

Billings, Helena, and Great Falls have a Unitarian history dating from the late 1800s. Billings was noted for its Montana Industrial School of Indians, founded on the Crow reservation by the Rev. Mr. Bond, late of Los Pinos, Colorado, and the Mountain Ute Agency. The school was established as “Bond Mission” in 1886.

The Helena Unitarians built “a fine $21,000 stone church” in 1902 and were one of four Unitarian congregations served by the first of the state’s circuit preachers, the Rev. Leslie Willis Sprague.

The Skirt Minister was the affectionate title for Milma Lappala, bestowed by her Finnish Unitarian Church at Red Lodge, the last of the Unitarian’s Montana churches, all of which failed during the economic crises of the 1920s and 30s.

The Unitarian Revival in Montana brought renewed life to Helena, Great Falls, and Billings, and welcomed new societies in Bozeman (1959), Missoula (1962), and Kalispell (1964).

A Second Circuit Minister, the Rev. Mary Scriver, rode the Montana highways in the 1980s in her Montana UU Ministry, “crossing the Continental Divide in [my] travelling parsonage, a 1970 Ford van with the license place UUA.” The original Unitarian church in Helena, now the Grand Street Theatre, was lent to the UUs for Scriver’s ordination and installation in 1983.

Postwar Years Bring UUs to Desert

An Albuquerque schoolteacher wanted to start a liberal church in 1949. Representatives from several liberal denominations (including Unitarians, Universalists, and Quakers) were invited to meet with the prospective “founders.” The Unitarians must have made the best impression, for they incorporated the small group as a Fellowship in 1949. The schoolteacher’s career was done no good by his association with religious liberals, but the Fellowship quickly grew into First Unitarian Church, a multi-building facility; and today, at 549 members, is the largest congregation in the district. A separate Fellowship, Albuquerque UU Fellowship, spun off in 1993; and in 1995 the Church covenanted support for the new Albuquerque Westside Congregation.

Santa Fe’s colorful history, begun in 1952, included an early reputation for having a hippy flop house at its first rented facility (there were times when the “respectable” Unitarians wondered who was in charge), and a ghost secreted in its second home (she never interrupted services). A building purchased from the Mormons, now newly enlarged, has become its permanent home.

The Unitarian Church of Los Alamos began in 1953 when a small dedicated group decided to start a UU community in this secluded town on the Pajarito plateau a few miles west of Santa Fe. Meeting at first on Monday nights, they nevertheless began a Sunday School almost right away. Soon they rented and then bought a WWII officers’ dormitory. Remodeled during subsequent years, the building continues to serve both the congregation and the Los Alamos community.

A Discussion Group in Las Cruces, made up of New Mexico State University students, got together in the early 1950s. Other liberal thinkers got involved, and they formed a Unitarian congregation in 1954. After meeting in a house for many years they bought a church building from a Lutheran congregation in 1977 where they continue to meet. After years of part0time ministry, they called John Trantham as their first full-time minister in 1981. He was succeeded by Rosemarie Carnarius in 1994. Like many “sun-belt” churches, Las Cruces has a lot of active retirees as members. They keep things lively.

In the early 1960s, the local Presbyterian minister in Alamogordo lost favor with his congregation. Those who considered themselves Unitarian Universalist called a meeting and established a UU Fellowship. For twenty-five years they met in such rented spaces as an armory (complete with cannon), the Women’s Clubhouse, and a local bank. In 1980 they made a commitment to their future and purchased a small house. Fire and subsequent remodeling only served to strengthen their resolve to maintain their presence as a force for betterment in Otero County.

A group of UUs formed a Fellowship in nearby Deming which meets and the newest member congregation of the MDD is the UU Fellowship of Silver City, New Mexico, which was certified at the General Assembly in 1995!

Founded in 1974 by six families, the Farmington Fellowship met in homes and at San Juan College until it acquired its own property in 1978. The approximately twenty-five families of the Fellowship share annual events with Durango UUs. The membership, many of whom are related to local colleges, takes a great interest in American Indian concerns and maintains a good relationship with the various ethnic groups in San Juan County.

Two West Texas congregations belong to the Mountain Desert District:

Religious liberals in Lubbock were visited in 1952 by Monore Husbands, evangelist for the Fellowship Movement. In 1954 a Unitarian Fellowship was founded. The congregation built slowly ot a part-time minister in 1964, a building in the 1970s, and a second building in 1982. Several of the founding members are still active.

In El Paso, the UU Community grew from a schism during the 1950s at a Congregational church causing the minister and a large part of the congregation to form a Unitarian church. After meeting in borrowed sanctuaries, the congregation purchased a corner lot on the UTEP campus where it built a small stone structure. Yet another schism formed in 1960, this time over ministerial versus congregational authority. Despite the loss of the entire board of trustees and most church school families, the UU Community survived, and continues today.

Religious Liberalism in Wyoming

In Laramie, a university/cowboy town, a few religiously independent sorts began meeting in a rented house in 1955. In 1963 they moved into their first permanent location and voted on their first real budget. In 1977 the congregation joined the Mountain Desert District. Following growth in the late 1970s, they built their landmark “Pyramid on the Prairie,” a tetrahedron whose south side of solar panels faces Interstate 80. After raising a tetrahedron, the congregation was able to call a part-time minister, Rev. Alan Shaw, in 1995.

On Palm Sunday in Ceyenne in 1961, three mothers started a Sunday School. By 1962 they were able to rent the Christian Science Hall, which they purchased in 1964. For a number of years the adults met on Sunday evenings, though the children attended Sunday School in the mornings. In 1979 they began to meet alternate Sunday mornings, and in 1982 they began worshipping every Sunday. In 1986 the congregation celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with the ordination and installation of the Rev. Catharine Harris as its first minister. Rev. Judith Brown-Osgood was called to serve in 1994.

It’s not easy being a UU in Casper. Some years ago a liberal religious group existed in Casper, but its everyday struggles were compounded by the group’s disagreement over the Vietnam War. The congregation languished until 1980 when an advertisement was put in the paper “looking for Unitarians.” They were just waiting to be found, for in 1983 the group affiliated with the UUA as the Casper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and called Rev. Irwin Brandjord as part-time minister in 1995.

How Does Our District Work?

Congregational Polity

Congregational polity is the form of government practiced by the historic congregational churches, including those now associated with the UUA. We share this polity with churches in the Baptist, Congregational (UCC), and Disciples of Christ traditions among others. Dating from the Protestant reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, it is the form of church government of the Puritan and Pilgrim immigrants. Congregational polity establishes the source of its power at the grass roots; it is non-hierarchical. Like all forms of government it is both bureaucratic and relational. In this context bureaucracy is not a dirty word; it describes what is formal, rational, and necessary. It is concerned with the institutional structures, offices and bylaws that allow religious communities to function. The relational side is concerned with the relationships among the people who have freely chosen to enter into the covenant of membership together. In these dynamic religious relationship each person has the right to be heard and the obligation to listen. Only in this kind of moral, spiritual, and ethical dialogue can we discern the creative and transforming ways of our religious heritage and community.

Who Does the Work?

District Board of Trustees

A seven member board carries on the business of the district on an ongoing basis, meeting at least three times each year. Members are elected to two year terms by the delegates at the Annual Delegate Assembly from a slate chosen by an elected nominating committee. Efforts are made to select a slate that is representative of our geographically expansive district. The board is made up of four officers and three trustees-at-large.