A Short History of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (see photo gallery)
By John Ballance
As one would expect, the origins of UUCNH are intertwined with the history of the Pittsburgh area. The North Hills began to grow rapidly in the 1950s, spurred by the strong economy that followed World War II. As the North Hills population grew, the only option for those seeking a liberal religious community was an arduous drive into town, to either the Allegheny Church on the North Side or First Unitarian Church in Shady Side. But folks did indeed make the drive in from the North Hills, with the larger fraction going to First Church. By the late 1950s, First Church was challenged by the success of its attractive theology, resulting in a serious problem of crowding on Sunday mornings. Among the possible ways to ameliorate this challenge, the route taken by First Church’s minister, Reverend Irving Murray, was to convene a meeting of congregants from the North Hills to urge them to consider creating a North Hills Branch.
A large group of folks from the North Hills took on Rev. Murray’s challenge. This fledgling group promptly started gathering frequently and organizing themselves, with the first gathering in the home of Harold and Lee Johnson on June 8, 1958. In less than two weeks, the group selected the North Hills YMCA as the location for weekly services; that Y has since been replaced by commercial buildings. The first meeting of the North Hills Branch of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, as it was formally named, was held on September 14, 1958, with Rev. Murray speaking in person. After that inaugural service, services from First Church were piped in via telephone to the Y. Thus began the tradition of the “visual theme” still exercised every Sunday at UUCNH—someone decided to put flowers on or beside the intercom to offer relief from staring at the intercom while disembodied voices from “the mother ship” beamed messages and music to the North Hills from First Church.
The activities of the pioneering group during the years 1958 – 1962 were focused and effective. They established operating structures designed to operate a fledgling church in a rapidly changing environment as it grew from a concept to a viable liberal religious community, with much uncertainty in almost all aspects, but with the clear aim that the North Hills Branch would evolve as rapidly as possible into a new, separate church. Recognizing that the Y location was at best a temporary solution, the group searched diligently for a permanent home, and in March 1961 the defunct Bellwood Dairy Farm, said to have the largest dairy barn in western Pennsylvania, was proposed as the site for the church. The tops to the two silos were partly caved in, and much work would be necessary to convert the barn into a functional church. The proposal elicited strong debate and concern, but in the end the decision was narrowly made to pursue renting the property with the option to buy, and $25,000 was borrowed to renovate the barn. Members pitched in and cleaned and refurbished the barn.
On July 5, 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills was incorporated as a separate organization and the congregation petitioned the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), formed earlier that year by merger of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations, to be recognized as a member of the new denomination. In October 1961, Charles Ehrmann, then President of the Board of Trustees, received a telegram from the UUA informing him that UUCNH had been accepted as a new, separate congregation.
On September 17, 1961, the first service was held in the barn, which at that point had been only partly renovated, the service was conducted in person by Rev. Edward Cahill, at that time the newly called minister of First Church. The startup years were yeasty times, with members using imaginative ways to sustain a suburban church that inherently faced a very different environment than First Church. Sometimes the arrangements, particularly with respect to financial matters, were complicated and creative…whatever it took to launch the new venture. Initially the new congregation leased the property with an option to buy, but by the end of 1962 exercised its option to buy the property, for $80.000.
Membership during these early years grew rapidly, reaching 150 members by the mid-1960s. Membership since has ranged between 150-200 members, where it remains today in 2012. From the beginning, the UUCNH congregation has experienced persistent problems of inadequate space, particularly for the religious education classes. Planning in the late 1980s resulted in a large addition which was dedicated in 1992. It was for this occasion that Jim Mooney created his history, titled “A Brief Look Back.”
The construction of the new sanctuary made a major improvement in the facilities for holding Sunday services and other events, but religious education classrooms remained seriously cramped, and the kitchen had limitations. In 2006, UUCNH launched a capital campaign to enable another major renovation which turned the upstairs into religious education classrooms, expanded the social area (Friendship Hall), and enlarged the kitchen; these new facilities were dedicated in 2007.
In addition to building renovations, church archives are rich with information about the range of religious, theological, and spiritual issues that the congregation has addressed in various ways over the years, and current members would recognize sermon topics from 30-40 years ago that resonate as immediately with Unitarian Universalists (UUs) today as they did with our founders. Inescapably, the history of a congregation’s theological and spiritual life also involves the comings and goings of ministers. Jim Mooney’s 1992 history captures the tenures of the ministers up through Liz Parish, but the minister-congregation relationship is well beyond the scope of this history. The uplifting challenge that will always remain for UUs, as expressed early in UUCNH history by Rev. Jesse Cavileer, is the belief that “we agree, not that we must think alike, but that we will endeavor to walk together” in each person’s search for truth and meaning.
And so here we are at the outset of the next chapter, seeking to assure that our community is set to thrive for the next fifty years. Our settled minister, Rev. Scott Rudolph, has been with us since 2011. The church is alive with energy, is growing in numbers and in depth, and we are envisioning what the church will become in the years ahead.