The chapel in 1909

The chapel in 1909

This photo, taken from the American Unitarian Association Annual Report for Fiscal Year 1908-1909 shows the exterior of the small chapel that Unitarians met in for about 15 years. The A.U.A. purchased the lot on Cedar and Forest streets in 1907 for $1,500 from the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company. They built the chapel in 1909. An addition for Sunday school was added on the other side of the house years later. The house was sold in 1925 after the society disbanded.

Bellingham Unitarian chapel interior, Forest and Cedar streets

Bellingham Unitarian chapel interior, Forest and Cedar streets

This photo, taken in 1909, is of the interior of the First Unitarian Society of Bellingham chapel on Forest and Cedar streets in Bellingham. The building, which still stands but is now a residence, was built in 1909. The lot which it sits on was purchased in 1907 by the American Unitarian Society. At the time, the society didn’t have enough money to build the chapel, so they held onto the property until they could afford the building. This is a photo of a photo that appeared in the 1908-1909 Fiscal Year Annual Report prepared by the American Unitarian Society.

The Nugents help war-torn refugees from Central America

Most of you may not know of Frank and Ann Nugent. They’ve not attended BUF since the end of the 1980s. But the work they did on behalf of BUF and war refugees passing through Bellingham in the mid-1980s mark another chapter in BUF’s interesting history.

In 1980, a civil war erupted in El Salvador not long after the assasination of President and Catholic Archbishop, Oscar Romero. Leftists in the country sought to take control of the country. The U.S., concerned about the spread of communism in Central America, stepped in to help the existing government. The result was a 12-year war that left tens of thousands of people dead and a wave of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.

This brief, oversimplistic description of the conflict sent thousands of refugees through Bellingham as they sought to immigrate to Canada. Local activists and faith-based organizations in Bellingham got together to try to find a way to help these refugees with food, temporary shelter and immigration assistance into Canada. The organization they formed was called CARA — Central American Refugee Assistance. CARA was a local response to a national movement called the “Sanctuary Movement” in which churches and religous organizations to provide assistance and shelter to refugees.

At the time, that meant breaking immigration laws. The refugees were here illegally and could have been detained by immigration officials without the help of locals such as Frank and Ann Nugent. Ann was a member of CARA and represented BUF at CARA meetings, and tried to get BUF to declare itself a Sanctuary Church. Besides attending meetings and trying to get BUF involved, she and Frank took in refugees in their home overnight and drove them over the border into Canada.

At the time, that was illegal and they risked imprisonment for doing so.

Other members of BUF who also did this were Ann Stevenson and Michael Berres and Todd Jones.

As a fellowship, however, BUF could not come to an agreement as a whole and ended up not becoming a Sanctuary church.

Refugees that the Nugents, Stevenson and Berres and Jones assisted were traumatized from the war. The refugees witnessed murders, beatings and other atrocities. Many refugees had to leave family behind in order to escape with their own lives.

BUF’s lack of will in getting involved was a major disappointment for the Nugents, who eventually left BUF for this and other reasons. They began attending another church.

The war ended in 1992 and CARA eventually disbanded because it was no longer needed.

In my book, I will go in much greater detail on the refugees who stayed with the Nugents, Stevenson and others. But for now, consider this an introduction to the topic.


Faith in Action.

Yesterday I met with Rev. Doug Wadkins, minister of the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship to interview him for this history project. As everyone at BUF should already know, Doug is leaving us at the end of this church year. So I wanted to talk to him about “social action–” what it means, what role it plays in unitarianism and at BUF. It was really an interesting interview.

I need to transcribe the interview and will post some comments from him at some point, but I haven’t had a chance to do that yet.

My thinking was this: Unitarian was and still is a theology of doing good works. Yes, there are the seven principles, but one thing we often hear and say is the phrase “putting our principles into action.” What exactly does that mean?

According to Doug, it means different things to different people.

I asked if social action has been a problem at BUF over the years, because he’s spoken on the topic several times. His answer was that the congregation has gotten better at finding things that are important to them and acting on them. That has been his hope.

Social action doesn’t necessarily mean leading or organizing protests (my words, not his. I’m just providing an example). He said it can be something that inspires one person to reach out to another person in any way that helps them or helps the community.

If you look at the history of Unitarianism it is steeped in social action. There are many examples around to demonstrate that fact. And it fits in with what Rev. Fred Alban Weil said a century ago when he was minister at the First Unitarian Society of Bellingham — Unitarianism is a theology of doing good works. That’s how people are judged by God in the end. Thought not a Christ-centered theology now, Unitarianism is still big on social action, and it’s not about salvation. It about trying to make the world a better place to live in.

One of the things I’ve been so intruged about with people at BUF who have been active in the community is this: Where does unitarianism end and “doing what comes natural” begin? The answer, I’ve found, is that the two are intertwined and cannot be separated.

That “stuff” is what Ann Steveson said inspired her to help El Salvadoran refugees into Canada during the war in El Salvador in the 1980s. It’s what inspired Frank and Ann Morrow to help conscientious objectors into Canada in during the Vietnam War. It’s what inspired Drew Betz to become a member of Lydia Place’s board of directors. It’s also moved people to do smaller things that may go unnoticed by most people.

It’s all about connecting to other people and making the world a better place through good works.


A roadmap from the past to the future.

The Pacific Unitarian, Volumes 12-13

Please take the link above to an article entitled “Pierre Barlow Cornwall.” It may take a minute or so to download. This is an important article about Mr. Cornwall, who played a really big role in shaping Bellingham.

His company, the Bellingham Bay Improvement Company, owned a lot of the land around Bellingham, including the land that the First Unitarian Society of Bellingham purchased in 1908 at Forest and Cedar streets. The Society built a chapel there in 1909 and the building still stands today.

So why is he so important to us? Because Cornwall was a Unitarian. Though he died in San Francisco in 1904 and wasn’t part of the First Unitarian Society of Bellingham, Cornwall shaped the future city of Bellingham.

One of the things I’ve been so impressed by with Unitarians is the role that they’ve played in shaping our nation. I mentioned A. J. Craven, the Bellingham society member who was a member of Montana’s Constitutional Convention. And we’ve heard of other, more famous Unitarians such as Susan B. Anthony, Ralph Waldo Emerson, President Howard Taft and Thomas Jefferson. All of these people have left their mark on us, as well.

One of the things I hope to do with this book is to show how members of present-day BUF continue to shape the course of things here in Bellingham. Some members are involved in trying to stop the coal trains coming through Bellingham. Others established the Bellingham Food Bank. Some members helped Conscientious Objectors and draft dodgers over the border into Canada during the Vietnam War. Others helped refugees from the War in El Salvador in the 1980s into Canada. Some helped establish Lydia Place. These are a few examples of how Unitarians here made and make their mark in the world. That is why I am working on this project. And understanding the link between the past and the present tells us something about oursleves. We’ve been handed a very important legacy, and I think it’s worth telling the story of how that legacy came to be and how it  is being passed on.



Lost somewhere in Google e-books

It seems that I have once again stumbled into a trove of information. For the last few days I have been in Google’s e-book section looking for info on the First Unitarian Society of Bellingham. I found some information in some books called “The Pacific Unitarian,” which is an old monthly periodical that’s gone on under different names over the years. Well to make a long story short, I found out there are more than 30 volumes covering 30 years from about 1892 to 1922. This is good news and bad news:

Bad news first: There are 30 volumes covering 30 years! They each volume has 12 issues — one for each month!! That would be 360 issues!!  Thank God google allows me to do keyword searches on the site!! It would be terrible trying to read through all of that material to find information! Some of the books are more than 1,000 pages long.

Good news: The keyword search allows me to find the topics I am looking for (Rev.’s McCleary, Weil, Baker, Nelson, Brown, Bellingham and Whatcom) I’ve found quite a few references, so I am copying and pasting articles into Word. It’s a slow process, but I don’t want to just type notes. I want to see the clips for accuracy’s sake and have them at my beck and call whenever I need them.

Here is an example of the type of thing I am finding. Go to this link: The Pacific Unitarian, Volume 30 and look at the last paragraph in the first column. It’s a short blurb about Rev. W. E. Powell taking charge of the pulpit in Bellingam. Some of thing things I’ve found go on for pages. But this gives you an idea.

So, once again, I am back to copying articles with the intention of reading them later. I don’t know how many I will end up with. Not near as many as the newspaper articles I found online, but still, I should have quite a few.

The great thing about these articles from “The Pacific Unitarian” is that they are generated by the churches and the Unitarian Assoication. So they will have interesting details and information that the newspapers won’t. That alone will make this search worthwhile. I’m looking forward to getting past this tedious stage of copying and pasting.  I have more than 20 books to search through.

After that I will wait to hear back from the Harvard library on info about ministers. After that? Well, it seems to me that I may have enough info to start some writing about the beginnings of the Bellingham society.

One other thing: I am trying to reduce the numbers of posts, and I am not posting links to this page on the BUF page anymore. I’ve been hogging the BUF page lately, so I thought it was a good time to stop.

Thanks for tagging along!


Google Books a great history source!

With each passing day I am finding new information. This time the developments are coming through Google Books, a Web site that has within it many old books which have gone beyond their copyright dates, so they are open to use by the public with no copyright restrictions. There are a number of volumes of “The Unitarian” at this site from different years. By typing in different keywords, I’ve come up with different volumes that can be downloaded in their entirety (even books 1,000 pages long!).

I just found one interesting reference in one of these books to a person named Rev. W. E. Copeland. According the book, he gave sermons in Fairhaven and New Whatcom in 1890, a year before Samuel Foster McCleary! This will have to be investigated further to see if I can find other sources that can corroborate this claim.

I’ve also found writings from William Greenleaf Eliot Jr. that talk about Foster McCleary and his work here.

I feel very lucky that all of this information is actually coming to me rather easily at this point. And the information I’ve gotten seems to give a pretty well-rounded snapshot of how things were like back then. At some point, though, the well may run dry and I may still have questions. That’s when things get challanging. Anyone who has reseached their family history knows what I am talking about: sources dry up and you hit a brick wall. Thankfully, that has not happened yet. Let’s hope that’s not going to be a problem!