Orlando Unitarian Universalists can follow their roots back to 1912, when Reverend Eleanor Gordon was first minister to a church formed with 21 members. Building Unity Chapel in 1913, the group shared literary and spirited discussions, fostered by transplanted Unitarians from up North. Property in an orange grove east of town was purchased in 1954. The congregation moved from Lake Eola to Robinson and Hampton once children’s religious education classrooms and a social/worship hall were built in 1958. Gore Hall was completed in 1963, and served as a worship facility for many years. The current modern Sanctuary was dedicated in January of 1995.
In 1905, Unitarian minister Rev. Mary Safford officiated at the marriage of Caroline Groninger and Mahlon Gore, a former mayor of Orlando. Caroline had been involved in the Unitarian church in Sioux City, Iowa, where she met the Rev. Safford and Rev. Eleanor Gordon. Moving to Orlando, she missed her Unitarian church. Rev. Gordon visited the Gores at their home in Orlando (at that time the house was at 211 Lucerne Circle – it was moved and is now on Waverly Place) during the winter of 1910. When “Addie” Gore confided her longing for a liberal church, Eleanor suggested they hold a worship service. “I always carry sermons with me,” she said.
On Jan. 8, 1911, in the library of the Gore home, 17 people gathered for worship. The next week they gathered with 35 in attendance. The next week, there were 52. It was time for Rev. Gordon to return to her home in Indiana. In 1911, Orlando was a sleepy town of just under 4,000. Yet there was clearly a shared desire to establish a home for religious liberals.
After the first few services in the Gore House, the President of the American Unitarian Association wrote to Rev. Eleanor Gordon asking her if she would return to Orlando the following winter to try to establish a permanent church. She agreed to do so for a weekly salary of $20 plus traveling expenses.
On Tuesday evening, February 12, 1912, 24 people met at the McNeill home, and our church had its formal beginning.
By the end of the evening, 21 charter members signed their names in the first membership book, coming from such places as Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa; Pittsburgh, PA; Madison, WI; Vineland, NJ; and a host of other residences. Many spent only winters in Florida.
The earliest formal worship services were held at the Lucerne Theater. The janitor stirred up the dust each week before services, and the rats were so plentiful that they seemed like members of the congregation. In fact, it was a rat that became the catalyst for our first building! During one service with a guest speaker, a rat could be seen scurrying back and forth on the stage. And that very afternoon, several members went out to search for a site for a permanent building.
The lot on this corner was purchased and a contract was let January 1, 1913, to build a “plain little wooden chapel for $1,800.”
On February 16, 1913, six weeks later, the first service was held in the chapel, with 85 people in attendance. An article appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on the occasion of this first service and offered this quote from Caroline Gore, “Unitarians are relatively small numerically almost everywhere, but they leaven the loaf.”
The chapel was formally dedicated on March 16, with the Rev. Gordon recalling that, “No stately service in a Cathedral ever meant more to the assembled worshippers than our simple service meant to us.”
In those days, worship was held only during the winter months, so services ended on March 30. But activities did not cease completely. Rev. Gordon began a Poetry Hour on Monday mornings. And her friend, the Rev. Dr. Mary Safford, though not serving the church officially, was involved and active in her own right. She had been leading the women’s suffrage movement in Orange County, and in November of 1913 she was elected president of a new statewide organization, the Florida Equal Suffrage Association.
In our second year, we began to operate a Sunday School, Unity Circle, and the Women’s Alliance. The Alliance met for a weekly program and supported many causes. In their early years, they helped organize the Orlando Day Nursery and the Young Women’s Community Center.
During the church’s third year, the Round Table Club formed with Sunday night programs. The church programs expanded, and “the little church that looks like a house” became a hub of activity that included suppers, concerts, lectures, and other events.
Eleanor Gordon retired (for the second time) in 1917. Reflecting on those first years of our church, Eleanor wrote, “The record of my seven years of Unity Church is like the record of a life. It is in turn hopeful, despondent, confident, and doubtful.” There are many references to cordial words of appreciation; also many times the pages are clouded by the sentence: “I am utterly, absolutely, altogether discouraged.” “Eleanor Gordon continued, “But no matter how dark the outlook, never for one moment did I lose faith in the ultimate success of Unity Church. Never for a moment did I question the belief that Orlando was destined to be one of the large cities of the South, and as such, it was most important that a liberal religious center should be established (here). No matter how hard the struggle, we must hold on. We never could have done this if at any time certain loyal men and women had lost their faith.”
For the next 37 years (until 1954) our congregation remained on this site, staying together through good times and more difficult ones (which, of course, included the end of one war, the Depression, and WWII). Church “mother” Caroline Gore died suddenly in 1923, and a Parish House was added to the Chapel in 1924 and dedicated to her memory. (The site of our current “parish house,” Gore Hall, still carries her name.)
Unity Chapel was used by many community groups for meetings. Our history tells of only one organization requesting use of our facility that was turned down: the Ku Klux Klan. (They wanted to come masked and in full dress to hear the Rev. George Badger, our second minister, preach.)
A parsonage was built on this lot of what was then Livingston Ave. The lot was bought and the house was built for a total of $6,000. A housewarming was held for Rev. and Mrs. Badger on October 22, 1920. The Rev. George Badger served as minister for 18 years from 1919–1928. Board Secretary Alice Kollock wrote of an unfortunate event in the minutes of the January 25, 1922, meeting: “Only one of (our) scheduled services has been omitted. On New Year’s night an automobile descended on our beloved pastor, and our hearts are rejoicing that we still have him with us, though still somewhat the worse for the encounter. Through January, the church knew him not, except for his benign influence…”
By 1954, it was clear that the congregation was outgrowing the site of Unity Chapel, and the little wooden building itself has seen better days. As one member put it, “If the termites ever stop holding hands, this building will fall down.” An Expansion Committee was formed and resulted in the church purchasing, for $23,750, the three-acre orange grove that then stood on the corner of Robinson and Hampton.
An interesting note puts our historical efforts in context. Our church is, in fact, the oldest Unitarian Church in the state of Florida. In 1954, when the congregation made the bold move to buy this property, we were one of only 11 Unitarian churches in eight states from Virginia to Florida and from the Mississippi to the Atlantic. There were only 11 Unitarian churches (and a total of nine ministers) in the entire southeast U.S. The Southern climate has never been especially hospitable to liberal religion!
Realizing the importance of the younger generation, the church school buildings were completed first. Beginning in 1954, first came the NW wing, then the NE wing, and finally the Assembly Room, which became the site for the congregation’s first worship services.
It was not until 1959 that ground was broken for the church building that houses Gore Hall, the library, and kitchen. In 1963, the Religious Education (RE) Complex was expanded to its current size; in 2017 , now called the Enrichment Center, it was completely remodeled to include the church offices, move the location of the nursery, and update everything to current needs.
The Gore Hall Complex was dedicated on November 27, 1960, with the Rev. Philip R. Giles, General Superintendent of the Universalist Church, speaking on “The Liberal Imperative.” The congregation listened.
From the mid-50s on in our new location, we continued to be active in the community and on behalf of larger social justice issues. In the late 1950s, Rev. John Fuller shocked many in the congregation by refusing, along with other Unitarian ministers, to meet at a racially segregated hotel in Lido Beach. In October 1960, the Board of Trustees approved (by majority, not a unanimous vote) a resolution to send a letter of congratulations to Mayor Bob Carr on his progress with the integration of downtown lunch counters. During the early 60s, our LRY (Liberal Religious Youth) included several Jewish teens as well as several black students from Jones High School. One evening, they found themselves the focus of an angry crowd when, as an integrated group, they tried to get a table at Ronnie’s Restaurant (the former deli several blocks from the church). When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) held its annual meeting at the church, our church found itself attacked in the media as “Communists.” During our long history, we’ve not shied away from hosting controversial speakers.
Through the years on this site, our church has offered meeting space to many groups (who sometimes were not welcome in any other facility) sympathetic to our Principles. Among the groups that have shared our home here: Head Start, several pre-school cooperatives, Spouse Abuse, Sierra Club, NOW, Planned Parenthood, Hope and Help, Joy Metropolitan Community Church, Delta Youth Alliance, Orlando Gay Chorus, Central Florida Wiccan Cooperative, and several Twelve-Step groups.
From the time we arrived on Robinson St., the congregation had planned to complete the campus by building a Sanctuary, but it took 30 years for that to happen. Long Range Planning begun in 1989 led to the congregation’s commitment to growth and the process of determining how that could best happen. After discussions in small groups, the help of several consultants, congregational interviews, and a significant surprise bequest, the congregation excitedly voted on October 11, 1993, to proceed with a building program. During the period of the capital campaign, architectural design, and construction, two new UU congregations formed in Central Florida. It seemed that the time was right for the growth of liberal religion.
On July 31, 1994, the misty-eyed congregation gathered for the first service in our new sanctuary. Rev. Marni Harmony’s sermon offering a “theology of homecoming” closed with these words: “To all of the Beloved Community gathered today I say, WELCOME HOME. Bring your fears and concerns and fiercest commitments, bring your hurts and your joys, bring your love and let us be homemakers together. Keep your ears and eyes open here, for we are not here to escape the demands of God but to be home with our understanding of them. Let these walls hold with time the bones and echoes and memories of our visions and deeds.”
Note: This article was compiled from writings by Rev. Marni Harmony and First Unitarian Historian Sharon Hiett.
Over the past few years, First Unitarian worked toward an upgrade of our 3+ acre campus. There were many twists and turns on the journey, yet we continued to move forward.
This was a robust renovation of two of our three buildings – Gore Hall and the Enrichment Center (which was formerly called the RE Complex). These were the first buildings constructed when the congregation moved from their old site on the shores of Lake Eola in the late 1950s. We didn’t add new space with this renovation; rather, we reclaimed and re-purposed our existing space and unified the campus as a whole.
Thanks to the February 5, 2017, unanimous congregational vote to accept the plans and financing package for the Campus Renovation as proposed by the Building the Dream Team, we moved ahead. On February 12, 2017, First Unitarian Church of Orlando held a joyful Groundbreaking Ceremony.