The gospel of Universalism had been proclaimed in the scruffy mill village of Rochesterville as early as 1819, but it took over a quarter-century and a small but determined succession of devoted leaders and followers to establish a permanent organization.
A wave of religious revivals in upstate New York during the bleak 1830’s—which in 1950 would give rise to the designation “the Burned Over District—generated so much local opposition to Universalism that the Utica, NY editor of a denominational paper wrote in 1833, “How many times more, we would ask, is this unfortunate village destined to be scared over with the wildfires of … fanaticism? What have the citizens of Rochester done, that they should be singled out above all people on the face of the earth?”
By the next decade those “wildfires” began to subside, and a phenomenal tenfold population growth resulting from commerce and traffic on the new Erie Canal quickly transformed Rochester from mud-hole to metropolis.
In late 1845 the Universalist faithful, determined to establish a permanent presence in their thriving city, learned that a highly popular clergyman was to pass through Rochester on the train. They posted two of their leaders at the station to intercept him and successfully persuaded him to return and serve as their minister. In May of 1846, fifty-six believers joyfully signed a charter of incorporation, and the church they began building was dedicated, debt-free, the following year.
By all accounts, the life of First Universalist to the end of the nineteenth century was highlighted by modest prosperity and increased tolerance in the larger community. In 1874 a Union Thanksgiving Service was established with Temple B’rith Kodesh and First Unitarian Church which has been observed continuously, with a constantly expanding interfaith outreach, to the present day.
Then in 1907 the congregation was stunned by a generous offer from a developer who wanted to raze their newly remodeled church and build a hotel on the site. Quickly they chose a new location only a block away and hired the visionary architect Claude Bragdon to design their new edifice, which is our present congregational home. A number of stained glass windows were saved from the old building and incorporated into the new one, and a pipe organ was installed which is now known wryly as the Hopeless Jones, a play on the name of Robert Hope-Jones, its controversial builder whose designs were forerunners of the theater organ.
During the 1920’s church attendance peaked in the three and four hundreds, and from 1926 through the 1930’s a major local radio station aired over 10,000 broadcasts of organ music and Universalist sermons to a widespread audience.
Two world wars and the Great Depression had little traumatic effect on congregational life at First Universalist. But wrenching social changes during the 1960’s and 1970’s—including urban decay and violence, a controversial Asian war, bitter confrontations between the city’s racial minorities and its largest employer, and a decline in church attendance overall—generated divisiveness and despair.
In 1966 the shrinking congregation voted to sell their property and relocate. But four years later the plan fell through, leaving a number of remaining members financially and spiritually devastated. “Landmark Church on Death Row,” reported the Rochester Times-Union in 1971, as members—many with sorrow and a few with relief—began soliciting bids for its demolition.
But Fate had not reckoned with the spirit of First Universalist. Beginning in the autumn of 1979, three successive ministries of nine, ten, and six years respectively drew on the congregation’s inherent resilience and love of life to bring about personal and institutional transformations that the embattled members of days gone by could barely have conceived. A massive $750,000 capital campaign during the mid-1980’s ensured the continued survival of the building.
A popular concert series with the Eastman School of Music begun in 1995 has enhanced the visibility of both music (including the “Hopeless Jones!”) and Unitarian Universalism in the wider community.
And in 2002 the congregation returned from summer hiatus to a refinished religious education wing, a completely remodeled Clara Barton Room, with a ramp leading up to the new door cut out of the east wall to the outside, and a newly installed lift elevator.
We rejoice in all our past ministries have brought us and look forward to the dreams their successors and this congregation, still “downtown” after all these years, can realize together.
As our founding minister was waylaid on a railroad track, so our present-day minister was intercepted on today’s internet highway.