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A History of Our Congregation

2017 marks Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church’s 65th anniversary serving the Unitarian Universalist community of Southfield and southeast Michigan. Here is a look at the history of our congregation, from 1952 to today.

An exterior view of Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church in Southfield, MI.

In 1952 a small number of families at Church of Our Father (now First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit) voiced a need for a church closer to their Northwest Detroit homes. With the blessing of the parent church and financial assistance from both the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association a new society was established. Our church, Northwest Unitarian Universalist, is believed to be the first society to be chartered as a Unitarian Universalist church, years before the merger.

Northwesters, as the parishioners came to be called, met in a series of public buildings. In the fall of 1953, NWUU called its first minister, Frank Dana Gentile. He was destined to minister to this congregation for 31 years.

1960s

In November, 1960, the congregation of 180 men and women committed themselves to the task of building a church home. An architect among them, Suren Pilafian, designed a structure that met the needs of the congregation. Hand-in-hand with their young minister, the men, women, and children provided much of the labor that went into the building. Among the innovations these skilled people brought to the church are walls that came down to turn into tables, opening up the main meeting room, foyer, and a classroom to an all-purpose room that seated more than 200 at tables and even more in theatre style.

In the fall of 1961, the commitment of those individuals made their dream a reality — the first service was held in their new building.
Several years later the congregants tackled another project, the faceted glass window which long served as a symbol of NWUU. Thirty-six families met weekly in 1965, designing and fashioning separate blocks. Each block had much to say of the family that created it. One has an incongruous spot of blue because that was the young son’s favorite color. In the spring of 1966, the window was dedicated. The images on this page show a few of the blocks from that window.

1970s

The “Gathering Service” of our Sunday mornings began in the late 1970s. Children (K-12) and adults meet together for the first 30 minutes every week. There is usually a story for the children that relates to the sermon topic. A child may read the story or a poem or perform live music during the Gathering Service, as well. Children and adults share their “Joys and Concerns.” The Gathering is concluded when a child from each class carries a flame lit from our communal candle to each classroom. As the children leave the meeting room the adults sing, “Go Now in Peace.”

Our unique Chalice Lighting ceremony was started about the same time to meet the needs of a Jewish family who belonged to NWUU when one of their children was turning 13. Working with the minister, they developed a rite of passage for our UU youth which has become a cherished tradition of our church.

Second-hour discussion groups have always been a part of the Sunday morning program at Northwest. Following the formal service and a short break for coffee, many NWers meet to discuss subjects ranging from the sermon to politics, local concerns, social responsibility, and gender issues.

An annual Rummage Sale, benefiting both our coffers and the community around us, began during the 1970s. Yet another fundraiser, our annual Service Auction is the highlight of the church’s social calendar. People look forward to it all year.

1980s

In 1982 a Memorial Garden was added in the yard of the church. Names of members and family members whose ashes are interred there are inscribed on individual plaques. In recent years the Memorial Garden has been tenderly landscaped by Northwesters, becoming a place of solace and beauty.

The untimely death in 1984 of the Rev. Frank Dana Gentile (two years short of his announced retirement) tested the principles on which the church was founded — community, interdependence and connectedness. In surviving, the church has been strengthened and renewed.

Vernon Nichols spent a year and a half at NWUU as Interim minister, from September, 1984, through January, 1986, when he left to head the UU United Nations Office in New York. Vern brought dignity and healing to the wounded congregation.

Our next settled minister, Michael Boblett, came in September, 1986. During his 5-year ministry, NWUU began an emphasis on adult education with a wide breadth of evening classes, which were well attended. Our Membership Committee started two new programs: Circle Dinners, which brought together intimate groupings of NWers for monthly potluck suppers, and Getting to Know UU, quarterly get-togethers where new members and friends of the church meet with the minister and others to learn more about the church and the denomination.

1990s

In 1991 we began serving the homeless and hungry in Detroit through St. Leo’s Church Soup Kitchen. Four times a year we provide the food and personnel for a Saturday lunch for 200-300 people. In addition, NWers have for years put together food baskets for Headstart families at our annual Thanksgiving worship service. And for five years, we have provided complete outfits (head-to-toe, underwear to outerwear) for 12-15 youngsters at Christmas.

Many NWers support other social action activities as individuals as well: peace organizations, Planned Parenthood, sanctuary, literacy programs, etc.

Following the two-year interim ministry of the Rev. Anne Buehler (September, 1991-August, 1993), we welcomed our third settled minister. The Rev. Lisa Presley (September, 1993-August, 2001) encouraged the renewed sense of energy and commitment currently felt at Northwest and provided us with a steadying influence. Under her leadership, we undertook a successful capital campaign to renovate and beautify our church home.

2000s

In September, 2001, we welcomed the Rev. Katie Stein Sather as our interim minister. And in April, 2002, we called the Rev. Kimi Riegel to be our next settled minister.

With our new minister — and new spirit — we began a capital campaign in 2004 to allow us to complete our building, adding a sanctuary and turning our courtyard into an atrium. Our goal was to create a new space that would feel and look like a sanctuary, but would be available for other activities as well.

In late 2007, we occupied our new space. Our sanctuary has more “elbow room” and a soaring ceiling. A solar tower brings light and fresh air into the building. A bioswale collects storm water runoff. The sanctuary roof is oriented so we can add solar panels in the future. A flat roof will someday become a green roof.

When the building project was nearly completed, we began making other improvements, including upgrading our sound system, building a riser for the sanctuary, adding interior signage and focusing on energy-saving projects in our original building.

2010s

The one last element of our building campaign was finally installed in May, 2010, when our chalice artwork was hung on the building’s exterior. For years, our building was nearly hidden behind a hedge, and now it is highly visible to the community.

This congregation has grown and nurtured itself for more than 50 years. The church building has become a home, filled with memories of marriages, children growing and learning, laughter, tears, chalice lightings, and memorial services. In 1952 the members of this congregation provided a foundation for the future. They dreamed. And they worked to bring their dream to fruition.

Our challenge now is to insure that we, and our children, and others to come will have a spiritual haven as we have had. With our commitment, there will be more marriages, more chalice lightings, and many more dreams shared within this church home.

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