A HISTORY OF THE FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH OF SAN JOSÉ
Unitarian Services in San José were first held in City Hall in November of 1865, with 100 people in attendance. Mr. And Mrs. B.F. Watkins, residents of Santa Clara who belonged to the San Francisco Unitarian Church, were staunch supporters of the women's suffrage movement and organizers on behalf of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which aided victims of the Civil War (and later became the Red Cross). They had decided that there was a need for a liberal religious presence in San José, and invited the Rev. Charles Gordon Ames to speak. Profoundly affected by his travels through the war-torn South, he devoted his first service to the freedom and dignity of all people, a theme that has echoed throughout the years at the First Unitarian Church, and which, at times, had led the church to take stands that were not popular with more conservative sections of the community.
Among the early members of the church were A.T. Herman, a civil engineer who built the road up Mt. Hamilton; Dr. Benjamin Cory, San José's first physician; J.J. Owen, editor and publisher of the San José Mercury; and J.E. Brown, state legislator.
Unitarianism on the West Coast had been greatly influenced by the Free Religious Association, incorporating the philosophy of East Coast transcendentalist Unitarians such as the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Rev. Theodore Parker, as well as the thought of the dynamic San Francisco minister, the Rev. Thomas Starr King (whose statue was until recently in Washington, D.C. along with that of Father Junipero Serra, representing California in the Hall of Statuary). The Free Religious brand of Unitarianism rejected placing the source of religious authority solely in the Bible or in religious hierarchy; rather, it opted for inclusion of the intuitive and direct experience of God, ethical theism, unlimited spiritual freedom, and social activism. Those who embraced this approach were often known as the "Unity Men." When the San José congregation became more formally organized, adopting a constitution and bylaws, they were originally called the Unity congregation (not to be confused with today's "Unity" denomination).
Rev. Ames was active in the struggle for women's suffrage, attending the Woman Suffrage Convention in San Francisco in 1870 and participating in writing the Constitution of the California Woman Suffrage Association. He viewed social activism as a natural outgrowth of his liberal theological views, reflecting a strong tradition of caring and concern within the Unitarian faith.
Building the Church
The current site at 160 North Third Street was purchased in 1888, with the leadership of the Rev. N.A. Haskell, and the cornerstone was laid in a ceremony on September 23, 1891. G.W. Page, who designed several other buildings in the valley, including the Hayes mansion and the Masonic Temple, was the architect. The building was completed a year later at a cost of $29,551.85.
A dedication service was held on September 25, 1892. Approximately 1,000 people crammed into the building and overflowed into Third Street and St. James Park. The church building is currently registered as a California Historical Landmark.
A History of Service
During the past 100 years, the church has maintained a commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person and to its ministry to the downtown community. Here's a short list of some of our participation in community affairs:
- In April 1904, the church called the Rev. Anthony Mills, who encouraged women of the church to form the Good Cheer Club to visit the ill in their homes. They eventually added a nurse to the club to provide more professional help. This effort grew and spun off to become San José Visiting Nurses Association, an organization that existed through the 90's.
- In 1906, the Revs. Mr. And Mrs. A.J. Cruzan were called to the church. With Mrs. Cruzan's leadership, the church founded the first children's Day Nursery in San José. When her husband resigned his post to assume district leadership, she served briefly as our church's first woman minister until a new minister was called.
- During 1910-1915, the church supported a Santa Clara housing project for the unemployed and was very successful in securing jobs for many residents.
- In 1933, the church was one of the few voices that spoke out against the lynching and hanging, across the street in St. James Park, of the men accused of murdering 22-year-old department store heir Brooke Hart.
- The church was also one of the few voices of opposition to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Along with the Quakers, members of the church went down to the train depot from which the Japanese Americans were departing for the camps. They offered coffee, doughnuts, and more importantly, moral support.
- During the McCarthy era in June 1953, the California legislature passed a law that all agencies claiming tax exemption must sign a loyalty oath. The church protested to the tax board, arguing that the loyalty oath provision violated the First Amendment and the freedom of conscience and speech. The church joined six other Unitarian churches in California that decided not to sign the oath, and to pay taxes instead. When the issue finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1958, the court ruled in favor of the churches, and six months later the taxes were refunded.
- In 1965, under the leadership of the Rev. Sidney Peterman, who had organized a delegation of Unitarian ministers to go to Selma, Alabama, the church organized and funded a project that provided host families and summer jobs for black teens from Selma. This effort, while started by this church, broadened to become an interfaith and multiracial project.
- In the late 1960s, the church was part of an interfaith group that organized the Urban Food Organization to feed the hungry in downtown San José. For approximately six years, we provided the space (as well as food and volunteers) for the program, serving a daily meal to about 100 people. Today, the church is still an active participant in community efforts to serve the homeless, through providing meals at the Cecil White Center and Julian Street Inn shelters.
- In the early 1980s, the Rev. Bob Lehman, an active participant in the farm workers' movement, and his wife, Helen Lehman, came to the church. Helen was one of the founders of City Lights theater company; several other church members were also active at its inception. Their first play was staged in our sanctuary. City Lights eventually moved to a space of its own and is still going strong.
- In 1986, the church declared itself a sanctuary for refugees fleeing the wars in Central America, and it has been active in supporting the legal rights, housing, and job needs of refugees. With the leadership of the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, this effort was eventually expanded into an interfaith community organization called CERCA (Comite Ellacuria para Refugiados de Centroamerica).
The church has shown long-standing support for the equal rights of gay and lesbian people, renting its building to the Metropolitan Community Church in the 1970s when other churches refused, housing Alcoholics Anonymous meetings serving the gay and lesbian community, and, in 1985, calling the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, the first openly lesbian minister to serve a Unitarian Universalist congregation in California. Under her leadership, the church has grown considerably and, in 1988, was awarded the prestigious O. Eugene Pickett Award for being the Unitarian Universalist church that showed the most outstanding growth in all aspects of church life.
In recent years, our church has also hosted senior citizen dances, the City Year (AmeriCorps), parent education and English as a Second Language classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, community arts events, community organizing, and much more.
A Disastrous Fire
In 1992, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the church's construction by launching the Second Century Project, a fundraising campaign to save and restore our historic church, expand classroom space, and improve accessibility for people with disabilities. The restoration program was tragically interrupted when, on October 16, 1995, the church was gutted by a six-alarm fire. For three years the congregation met for worship outside the building, moving back into the sanctuary in 1998. Work and fundraising continued until the building was completed in 2001 at a cost of $8 million.
In 1993, we began an intentional ministry to serve Spanish-speaking people who were seeking a liberal religious home. While the growth of the ministry was interrupted by the fire, in 1998, the Rev. Lilia Cuervo, the first Latin American immigrant woman to study for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, was called to serve as our Extension Minister for Spanish Speaking Ministries, offering a weekly Sunday service in Spanish, as well as pastoral counseling and other support services.
For over 100 years, the church building had served, not only as our spiritual home, but as a de facto community center. In the process of rebuilding from the fire, the church kept the needs of the larger community in mind. In 1998 the church founded the Third Street Community Center, a separate non-profit housed in the lower level of the building which has expanded and improved the non-sectarian community use of the building. The Third Street Community Center houses the Don Edwards Computer Learning Academy, an after-school program, and ESL classes serving low-income and immigrant neighbors.
On September 23, 2001, exactly 110 years after the laying of the cornerstone, the church celebrated the completion of the re-building project with a large community celebration, placing the names of those who had helped in this effort as well as a brief history of the project in the cornerstone time capsule. In addition to the church and the Third Street Community Center, many other community groups have been eager to use the facility.
We are very grateful for the broad community support and enormous dedication of the congregation which helped us through our time of exile, and which have allowed us to realize our dream of re-opening our building. We look forward to many more years of serving the community.
Read more about historic St. James Park.