Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship History

By Del Dickey

Approximately twenty individuals met in September 1958 to explore the possibility of forming a Unitarian Fellowship in the Port Arthur/Fort William area of Ontario, They moved swiftly to affiliate with Unitarian Church headquarters in Boston, and on January 7, 1959 received the Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship (LUF) charter. Rev. Philip Petursson, Minister of the Winnipeg Church, and the Field Service Officer for Western Canada, led the first formal service in the Odd Fellows Hall.

By January of 1959, there were thirty-six members from three different strands of the community - New England Unitarianism, the Icelandic tradition (well known in Manitoba) and dissatisfied United Church members. In addition to wanting a church with doctrinal freedom, they wanted the U.U. religious education program which, compared to Protestant Sunday Schools, offered a breath of fresh air.

From 1959 to 1963, members met in rented quarters and private homes while pursuing a permanent location. The 64 members considered 5 options: buy land and erect a building, buy land and wait, buy an existing building, rent a permanent facility, and/or hire a minister. By April 1964, the members investigated the cost of available lots and prepared sketches of a permanent building to accommodate 180 persons with Religious Education space for 100 participants.

Enthusiasm ran high. The building fund grew rapidly, but by 1965 plans were on hold. Key families moved away but agreed to leave their contributions in the building fund. The young energetic president, elected in 1966, died in a car crash. New families helped to maintain membership numbers, but the momentum and financial base dwindled. The building fund became a savings account.

Meetings continued in various locations: the Odd Fellows Hall, the Fort William Y, the cafeteria of Gron Morgan High School, the lounge of Confederation College, as well as meeting rooms at the Venture Inn and the Prince Arthur Hotel. Lugging hymn books and R.E supplies to and from the meeting spaces was a major chore, especially discouraging to the dedicated R.E. teachers. The children's program faltered in the 70s as youngsters moved beyond primary grades and no new students replaced them. Finally, meetings dwindled to every second week, and reached the low point of one Sunday meeting (at a rented location) and one Social Saturday evening at a private home each month.

The Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship, in the newly renamed city of Thunder Bay, reached its lowest ebb, and faced disbandment in the late 70's, but the reality of folding entirely prodded everyone to try again. The thought of giving up just could not to be contemplated! The past president agreed to return as president, if others accepted definite responsibilities. The most important goal was to find suitable accommodation and return to Sunday Services.

There were false starts, but in 1982 we found a space at St. Joseph's Heritage that suited the adults, and there were classrooms for the children and storage space for the R.E. program materials. With a piano available, we started the tradition of live music and visiting musicians, a tradition that continues to flourish. In November of 1983, the 25th anniversary celebrations provided the momentum we needed to look again for a permanent location. Throughout our struggles, membership in the Western Canada District helped keep us on track, and many of our members served in executive positions on that board.

In November 1983, the 32 members of the Fellowship, in a leap of faith, revved up the building fund account. The building committee arranged mortgages at favourable rates through the UUA and the Veach Foundation, added in the rent of the apartment in the building we wanted, and purchased the Finnish Pentecostal Church in the downtown area of the former city of Port Arthur. Members took possession in January 1984, worked on the building for the next few months, and then opened for services every Sunday. Every Sunday! A huge undertaking at the time.

129 S. Algoma Street was the catalyst we needed. Membership doubled. The RE program expanded. Community groups used the building for their meetings and events. Soon activity was out-pacing the ability of volunteers to do the work. In 1986 our first employee was the R.E. director and a part time secretary. Growth continued, and with the help of Western District consultant, Rev. Jack Loadman of Calgary, and later Rev. Stefan Jonasson, the membership considered ministerial leadership.

Rev. Meg Whittiker-Green was our Minister-on-Loan (Feb 17 to Mar 26, 1987). From Sept 1990, Jane Bramadat spent half of each month with us and returned to her family in Winnipeg for the rest of the month. When she left in July 1991, to become minister of the London Unitarian Fellowship, we were sad to see her go but wished her well. From this experience, we recognized the value of professional leadership.

Our next professional ministerial experience was ministerial internship. Heather Lynn Hansen, from the U.S.A., came to Thunder Bay from January to August 1993. Her supervisor was Rev. Karen Gustafson of Duluth, minister of the congregation which is geographically closest to Thunder Bay.

By November 1993, we were using all the space of the former apartment for R.E. and office purposes. Even with two part-time employees, an R.E. Director, and a Clerk of the Fellowship, as well as many volunteers, we were again at a crossroads. After serious consideration of the options available to us, in 1995 members opted for extension ministry, and welcomed Rev. Louise Ulrich in September 1996. This move was financially premature and ended in the second year of the three year program.

In March 2003, with 98 members and 180 names on the mailing list LUF was still operating with a Clerk of the Fellowship, an R.E. Director and a paid Summer Services Coordinator (8 services). Average Sunday Service attendance was 65 to 70. Finding additional space dominated discussions during the summer and autumn of 2003. The Redwood Alliance church on Edward St. was on the market and an LUF committee worked to build enthusiasm for this purchase. The Rev. Karen Gustafson came not only as a visiting minister but also as an advisor for the Redwood committee. She led one Sunday Service at Redwood. Finally, at an emotion filled meeting a few weeks later, the congregation voted down the Redwood purchase. No new building!

Church life continued through this exciting time and afterwards, with its usual activities - chalice circles - meditation group - men’s group - our twice yearly Adopt-A-Highway clean up - the empty bowls project - a shelter house meal every 2 months - fund raisers and fun activities. When possible we invited visiting ministers for Sunday Services, but there were bruised feelings about the failure to buy Redwood.

At the beginning of 2005 we started again, with focus group meetings about capital funding for a building. Ministry became a reality thanks to Rev. Gustafson who mentioned to Julie Stoneberg, from Minnesota, that LUF might be the kind of congregation she was seeking as a newly graduated but not yet ordained minister.

Under Julie’s two year leadership as a part time minister [Aug. 2005 - June 2007], the board and congregation recovered its enthusiasm for planning for the future. The Way Forward Task Force researched the situation and recommended a path to follow to keep the two goals of a new building and a minister in active consideration.

By the time newly ordained Rev. Stoneberg moved on to ministry in Peterborough, the LUF board introduced a plan for ministry at the annual financial meeting in January, 2007. A ministerial search committee chose the Rev. Rick Koyle as interim minister [Oct. 07 - Aug. 08]. Rev. Koyle and the board members worked with guidelines for interim ministry, but it was apparent that LUF was not yet ready for full time ministerial leadership.

LUF members put their energy into hosting the  Canadian Unitarian Council ACM, May 15-19, 2009. After recovering from the demands of conference organization, the membership  considered priorities, including how best to make use of the sanctuary space, and how to maximize professional leadership. During the summer of 2010 volunteers de-cluttered and refreshed the sanctuary and increased the amount of usable floor space.  

We now plan our Sunday services with a combination of professional ministry and local speakers. The church building is busy almost every day of the week with meetings of member interest groups and/or the rental of the space to community groups. Many members are involved in a variety of community activities as well as LUF programs. Sunday services are well attended and there are many children in the Religious Exploration program which meets at the same time as the adult Sunday Services.

Del Dickey, March 30, 2009 (updated Oct. 19, 2012)

LUF and the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium (TBCA)

In the Spring of 1983 my husband Don and I discussed ways to help with fundraising for the Community Auditorium where construction had just started. Don suggested that LUF use some of the Building Fund money (which had been sitting, unused since 1965) to purchase seats at the Auditorium. 

At the 1983 AGM (at Morrison’s camp) we presented a motion for LUF to purchase 5 seats. There were about 30 members at that time and we were not thinking about a building of our own. It was a struggle to even elect a willing executive at that meeting. After a lively discussion the motion passed. Of course, a year later, we found 129 S. S. Algoma and managed to purchase it despite the $2500 donated to the Community Auditorium . Little did my husband and I know that his name would be on one of the memorial seats. 

After the auditorium opened I tried to find the location of the five LUF seats but there was no record of specific locations. This year, quite by chance, I found the seats in row P - seats 28 to 32. There is one seat labelled Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship. The others are memorials to four members: Fred O. Robinson 1903 - 1970 : James A. Leaman, 1933 - 1973: Jack Elwert 1901 - 1979: Donald K. Dickey 1928 - 1984. 

article for the April 2006 newsletter by Del Dickey

 

© 2017 Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship • 129 S. Algoma St. Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada P7B 3B7 • (807) 344-5980