UUCW History

UU Church West has been an open-hearted, compassionate, justice-seeking spiritual community since 1962, offering fellowship, action, learning, and caring across the generations.  Explore more below, or here.

A Brief History of Unitarian Universalist Church West uucwlogosm.jpg

Our church was chartered as Unitarian Church West on January 1, 1962. But our roots go further back, to the founding in 1842 of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee. When membership increased at that church following the Second World War, their long range planning committee advised the Board to foster the growth of a "branch church" in Milwaukee's western suburbs, where the population of young families was growing. 

On November 15, 1959 the first service of the new branch was held at Underwood Court in Wauwatosa. Thirty-five people attended. C.T. Bluemel, a lay leader, conducted the service, as he was to do many times for the next two years. A telephone line hooked up to loud speakers transmitted the sermon being given by the Reverend John Cyrus of First Unitarian Society downtown. Religious education classes for children were held in two basement rooms.

On September 10, 1961 the "branch church" moved to larger quarters in the Wauwatosa YMCA at 73rd Street and Milwaukee Avenue. On that same day, the members of the branch formally voted to apply for membership as an independent church in the Unitarian Universalist Association, and to call the Rev. Christopher Raible as our first minister. The church also voted that day to purchase a house at 4761 N. 108th St. to serve as a home for the new minister and as a church office. In October the Reverend Grant Butler, a specialist in organizing churches for the UUA, arrived. He worked with us for three months, during which time, on November 7, 1961, our congregation was legally incorporated as Unitarian Church West.Our congregation, now numbering 140 members, became "official" as an independent church on January 1, 1962. Rev. Raible preached his first sermon on February 18th and was installed the same evening, despite an 11 inch snowfall. Unitarian Universalist Association President, Dana McLean Greeley, was the featured speaker at the ministerial installation ceremony.

In the spring of 1962, propelled by the vision and financial leadership of church members Oliver Trampe, Karl Bostrom, and Leon Hamlet, we voted to purchase land and begin plans for a permanent church building. A capital campaign the following fall netted pledges of $68,000. After a number of difficulties a four-acre site at North Avenue and 130th Street in Brookfield was chosen and purchased in March of 1963 for $42,000.The architectural firm of then-church member Ken Kurtz, was chosen to design the building. The report of the Building Development Committee in May 1964 stated, ìWe want our building to have a sense of history. It need not copy old forms and ideas but it should honor the spirit of those whose conscience and conviction made our present attitudes possible ... We want our building to be a place for education in the broadest sense of the term. It should help adults and children to grow in understanding, stimulate them in their own quest for truth, and challenge them to become better, not merely more knowledgeable.

On December 6, 1964 the congregation approved the building plans. A second capital fund drive in March 1965 raised another $76,000 in pledges for the building. At the groundbreaking on May 2, 1965 church members brought shovels and participated. Construction moved quickly, with members playing a major role in finishing the inside of the building. They planted trees as well. The first worship service in the new building was held on February 20, 1966, even though painting and electrical work remained to be done. On March 20th, 287 people attended the dedication ceremony. By this time (1966) church membership had risen to 234 with 175 children in religious education.
In 1966 Jack Osterhaus became the choir director and church choir began to grow both in size and musical competence. In September 1967 we provided a forum for the controversial Father Groppi, leader of Milwaukeeís Open Housing marches. Groppi had been denied access to meeting space elsewhere in the suburbs; seven hundred people attended this event. In April 1968 bullets were shot through four of the churches windows, the door, and some of the parking lot lamps. Our congregation and our minister continued to be involved in civil rights, open housing, and birth control issues. In 1968 we began a draft counseling program.

In 1969 the parsonage was sold and land west of the church was purchased for added parking. At its annual meeting in 1969 the congregation initiated the formation of the Southeastern Wisconsin Unitarian Universalist Conference (SEWUUC). SEWUC was formed to increase communication and co-operation among area UUs, and to enable UU representation on the Governing Board of the Greater Milwaukee Conference on Religion and Urban Affairs (GMCRUA) now known as the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. In that same year Rev. Raible announced his resignation to be effective in June 1970.

In the fall of 1970 we called the Reverend Robert C.A. Moore as minister. RCA, as he was usually called, began with the church in January 1971. He was a creative influence, but his ministry with the church was not without controversy. For example, Moore released materials to the press about the revolutionary new UUA religious education course for teens called "About Your Sexuality" and following a feature article in the Milwaukee Journal about the course, 500 people signed petitions asking the Waukesha County District Attorney to investigate the church for possible obscenity charges. The case eventually was appealed to the Supreme Court, remanded back to the Appellate Court in Chicago, and dropped in November 1974 after the district attorney lost his bid for reelection. The case never was tried on its merits -- but generated much interest.

During 1971 - at the time of the nationwide ecology movement "The Earthlings" -- as the church's 4th, 5th, and 6th grade class was called -- began monthly "recycle weekends" under the direction of their teacher, Helen Klimowicz. Class members gathered glass, metal, and newspapers in the church parking lot. The effort became popular in the community, which had no other recycling facility, but unfortunately there was no easy way to prevent use of the church recycling center outside of the scheduled times. Some neighbors were eager to use it, while others complained about the "mess." In January 1972 the Brookfield Common Council ordered the recycling center closed but decided that the city should open a recycling center of its own! By that time the young "Earthlings" had collected 63 tons of paper, 36 tons of glass and 12 tons of tin, and they continued to help with the city recycling effort in its new location.

The congregation was active at the time in social action in the wider community, particularly in the area of mental health. A theatre group called "Stage West" began in 1972, and continued for more than 30 years. Bob Simile joined the church staff as choir director, and music became a larger focus for us as well.

Rev. Moore's ministry with UUCW ended in 1974, and was followed by interim minister the Rev. William Jenkins, who worked with the congregation for two years. Membership in 1975 numbered 212 adults.

In March 1976 the Reverend Robert Latham became the churchís next settled minister. Funds became available to pay the Religious Education Director, Linda Horton, who had been a long time volunteer. The church hosted the annual meeting of the Central Midwest District of the UUA in November 1976. In 1979, membership was 280, and a year later the congregation ceremonially burned its mortgage, having completed payment on the building.


The Reverend Marni Harmony became the churchís first woman minister in December 1980, and served until 1986. She brought more spirituality into worship through the use of music and imagery and became involved in feminist activities locally as well as in organizations for women in religion. In 1983 church membership numbered 260, with 100 children in the religious education program.

The GroWest Committee was formed during this time, and began to work toward a possible capital fund drive to pay for an addition to the building. The Reverend David MacPherson came to serve the congregation in August of 1987, and the capital fund drive began that year. In 1989 the new church addition including a new Sanctuary, kitchen and classrooms was completed.

Rev. MacPherson served the church for six years. During that time the congregation grew steadily in numbers and faith development. Long range planning efforts took place, both programmatic and financial. In January 1990, long time member Alice Holz died, and left a considerable estate to the church, which was used to pay down the mortgage, establish our lending library, and to add artwork to the church. In May 1990 the congregation voted to change its name to Unitarian Universalist Church West (from the original "Unitarian Church West"), to more adequately reflect the changes in the larger denomination. By 1993 there were 379 members with 203 children.

In August 1993 the Reverend Douglas Strong, the new interim minister, arrived. A whirlwind of energy, he attended many committee meetings and offered many ideas for positive changes.

The Reverend Thomas Yondorf came to serve UUCW in September 1994 and served until 2000. In 1997 a full time Religious Education Director, Maria O'Connor, was hired. A capital fund was initiated which helped replace the roof of the original part of the church building, pay down the mortgage, and fund other needed building related expenditures. In July, 1999 the beautiful wall sculpture in the sanctuary was installed by a group of volunteers from the church. The artwork was donated by the Associated Bank after a combination of creative thinking and hard work on the part of several members of the congregation. Unfortunately, there was conflict at the end of Rev. Yondorf's years with UUCW, which was challenging for everyone.

The Reverend Sam Schaal served three years of interim ministry from 2000-2003. It was a time of healing and reflection for the congregation as they prepared for new ministerial leadership. During this time, Bob Similie, the Music Director of 30 years, resigned -- another difficult transition.

The Reverend Suzelle Lynch was called as minister by the congregation in April, 2003, and began ministry with us in August. Adult membership at the time was around 300. In February or March of 2003, the congregation adopted a Statement of Conscience against the Iraq war, and a sign "Help Create Peace" was added to the UUCW roadside sign. Tanya Antonsen and Ruben Piirainen came on as music staff in 2003, and Ruben became Director of Music in 2005.

In 2004, UUCW began offering two worship services on Sunday mornings to accommodate our increased membership and religious education attendance. We also were certified that year by the Unitarian Universalist Association as a "Green Sanctuary" congregation for our work in environmental stewardship and earth ministry - work we continue to pursue. That also was the year in which we first sent teams of volunteers to Nicaragua to build homes there with the organization "Bridges to Community"; to date more than 100 volunteers have participated in this good work. In the fall 2005, the UUnity Circles Small Group Ministry program began, providing new ways for hundreds of members to grow in spirit and community.

In the spring of 2005, the congregation passed a Statement of Conscience on same-sex marriage, and in spring 2006, after several years of careful preparation and inner work the congregation voted to accept UUA certification as a Welcoming Congregation - a congregation that celebrates the lives of persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities. We also purchased the 2 1/2 acres of land adjoining the church to the east that year, which is now open green space, and home to our Peace Pole and Labyrinth. Long range planning efforts were again initiated in 2006, resulting in the Vision 2012 plan (which is currently being updated by our Board of Trustees).
Over the past seven years we have increased our staffing, adding to our support in the areas of Religious Education, Music, Facilities and Administration. In 2007, a new administrative position was added, the Administrative Coordinator (Sue Wille); and in 2009, we had a part-time Membership Coordinator position for a year.
In 2007 we adopted a system of "policy-based governance" as the framework for conducting our work. The elected Board of Trustees delegates to the Executive Team (Minister, Board President and Treasurer) authority for management of operations. Oversight of programs and activities and staff supervision are delegated to the Minister.

In the spring of 2008, we installed an 8.4 kilowatt solar-electric generating system on the roof of the church - another significant earth ministry achievement, and this year (2010) we have launched a yearlong earth ministry initiative on Food and Economic Justice. In 2009, we began our "Split the Plate" outreach program, in which half of the undesignated offering funds are shared with a different non-profit organization each month.

In November 2010, after seven years of active peace work, the Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network named Unitarian Universalist Church West as the first official Peace Advocacy Congregation.

Currently there are more than 450 adult members in the church, and 200 children registered in the religious education program. We continue to focus on growth in spirit, community, organizational development, social action, stewardship and membership. We are planning toward our 50th Anniversary Year, which will begin in January of 2012.


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