Towanda Universalist Unitarian Fellowship

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Our History

Everlasting – Ever loving – Ever Evolving

Clement F. Heverly, Bradford County historian and member of the Towanda church, wrote that The Towanda Society
was recognized in 1844 but did not formally organize until 1866, when it was accepted into fellowship in the North Branch Association of Universalist churches.

At that time, there were ten churches in the association. Today only Towanda and Athens/Sheshequin remain, along with new member, Brooklyn, Pa.When the North Branch convened in Orwell in 1844, there was the first mention of the Universalist Society of
Towanda. It was then that the Society was unanimously accepted into the fellowship of the N.B. A. Services were held in the Court House.

In 1866, it became incorporated under the name of the First Universalist Society of Towanda. There was talk of building a church that same year but not until 1875 was action taken.
The Society deemed it more important to get the building erected than hiring a minister. The Rev. L. T. Porter was employed for six months for the purpose of raising funds to construct a church.

On August 31st of 1876, his son, J. G. Porter, was called as the first minister.
That same year, the trustees were empowered to purchase the site and make necessary contracts for the construction.

The building was completed early in 1877. Dedication ceremonies with distinguished speakers from Philadelphia, PA, Newark, N.J. and Brooklyn, N.Y.  extended over three days. When dedicated, it was christened The Church of the Messiah.

It is interesting that in the May 4th, 1894 Bradford Republican the congregation is referred to as Church of the Messiah and in the same paper on June 1st, same year, it is referenced as The Universalist Church.
The cost of the building was $12,000, causing some to call it the House of Folly. Nevertheless, the church was free from debt in less than ten years’ time.

Major additions include the pipe organ in 1897, an addition to the basement room in 1929, and lots behind the church in 1960. The original steeple was taken down.

In 1961, with the merger of the North American Unitarians and Universalists, the congregation became known as the Universalist Unitarian church of Towanda.

Today, recognizing the diversity within our group, we call ourselves the Towanda Universalist Unitarian Fellowship. Already on August 30th, 1895, the Bradford Republican noted that the Rev. B. G. Russell preached on a brief history of religious intolerance, and that an earnest plea for toleration was the theme of the sermon.

Echoes of this sermon reverberate in our sanctuary today as we happily pursue plural spiritual paths. In addition to being a member of the North Branch Association, the Fellowship is affiliated with the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention, the Joseph Priestly District , and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

According to the Bradford Republican, Rev. Q. H. Shinn gave a short, but earnest and interesting talk on Union work when the Universalist convention met in Towanda on June 12, 1897. As the paper reported, he was very enthusiastic in all his remarks, and did not believe in leaving all the church work for the pastor.

Shinn said the very best Unions were where there was no church or pastor. He thought we should all develop more self reliance, the article said. “Build your churches and have meetings even it you don’t have [a] minister.”
That message resonated through the years when it was difficult for the congregants to hire a minister. They kept the church going by holding lay services.

 At the 25th anniversary, there were 125 members. A quote from that date: “We are not a large church when measured by our numbers as membership but I believe that our influence for promotion in Towanda is second to none. We feel a just pride in our charities and in the willingness with which our people have ever responded to the needs of our town. May our past be an inspiration, yet, let us not forget that we live in the present and must build for the future, year by year, day by day, hour by hour.”

Among community endeavors which have benefited from the church’s interest have been the Mills Community hospital and its successor, the Towanda Memorial hospital, the Packer Hospital in Sayre, the Towanda public library, and the Girl Scouts. It consistently supported community religious observances such as Brotherhood Week and Union Thanksgiving Services.

Prominent outstanding church members were Clement G. Heverly, editor of the Bradford Star and curator of the Bradford County historical society, Donald MacNeal, nationally known geologist, Helen Rockwell Godcharles, state library organizer, and Theresa Patterson, active in the French Azilum project. Located in Bradford County, PA, French Azilum was a planned settlement for refugees fleeing the French Revolution.

Among the first trustees were a state senator, an associate judge, and a Major in the Union forces in the Civil War. There were nineteen ministers prior to the arrival of Rev. Doug Sterns. One Mr. Helfrich served thirty years, and one Mr. Trowbridge twenty.

The Universalists were the first denomination to open their clergy to women. The Towanda church sponsored Myra Kingsbury of Sheshequin in 1879.

On the 100th anniversary of the Towanda Universalist church in 1966, it was stated, “We are looking forward to playing our part in a denomination which wishes to minister to needs of the individual in our community who wants a liberal approach to religion, with democratic organization, free inquiry concerning matters of belief and practical service to their fellowmen.” Echoes of this sermon reverberate in our sanctuary today as we happily pursue plural spiritual paths.