By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – The First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City is celebrating 125 years of service in the OKC metro area.
An anniversary celebration was held on November 25 during the 11 a.m. service that included readings from previous ministers, and details of events and other remembrances which impacted the church through the years.
Following the service, despite the unusually blustery Oklahoma weather, a tree was planted and dedicated on the front lawn of the church in recognition of the event.
“I’m thrilled to begin my ministry at First Unitarian Church in the same year as it celebrates its 125th anniversary,” said Rev. Dr. Diana Davies. “Part of my discernment process in accepting the call to serve this church was reading its history. Two things, in particular, stood out for me: 1) the way people in this community care for one another; and 2) the way this congregation has engaged with the larger Oklahoma City community.”
Davies received her Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School in 2017. She completed a two-year internship at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore and was ordained jointly by First Unitarian in Baltimore and the UU Congregation of Princeton (New Jersey).
Earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Rochester with concentrations in Russian and Spanish, Davies has served as Director of International Programs at the University of Iowa and as Vice Provost for International Initiatives at Princeton University. A registered yoga teacher with training in trauma-informed yoga, Davies taught incarcerated men and women at the Prison Yoga Project in Maryland.
Established in September 1893, First Unitarian is the oldest Unitarian congregation in the southwest (Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Southwest Missouri, and Memphis, TN.) 1UC congregation were first held downtown in a hall at the corner of Robinson and Reno. Over the next three decades, the church convened in a variety of locations, including the old opera house, the McCann Building on Broadway; and in a venue over the Frederickson-Kroh Music Company on Main Street.
In November 1916, the United Presbyterian Church building at 9th and Broadway was purchased by 1UC, then sold in 1928 when the congregation had outgrown that location.
A new facility was built at the corner of NW 13th and Dewey in the Midtown area of Oklahoma City. The church 1UC calls home today, was dedicated on October, 1928.
In April 1946, there was a city-wide push for residents to be screened for venereal disease. Under 1UC minister Alfred Von Stilli’s leadership, First Unitarian was the only church to welcome the mobile testing unit and encourage its members to have their blood tested on a free, voluntary and confidential basis.
About the event, a reporter from LIFE magazine wrote, “Last week Oklahoma City was in the midst of the biggest medical carnival that ever hit the Southwest. Urged on by announcements on the radio, billboards and posters, the city was responding by the thousands to a mass test for venereal disease. The minister of the First Unitarian Church opened his church as a testing station. All persons between 12 and 50 were offered free examinations. At the end of 15 days more than 13,000 had been examined throughout Oklahoma City, with an infection rate of about 2 percent.”
There have been 21 ministers in the Oklahoma City church’s 125 year history. During Rev. Frank O. Holmes tenure, (1948-1967) First Unitarian nearly tripled in membership and its budget increased from $12,000 to $71,000. Other ministers include Rev. Richard L. Allen, who served the Oklahoma City church for 14 years; and Rev. Mark Christian, who served from 2001 – 2016.
Following Christian, Rev. Greg Stewart led First Unitarian for two years. The Stewart family, including Greg’s husband, and their five adopted at-risk boys, are featured in the PBS program “In The Life,” and “Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who are Changing the World.”
“First Unitarian helped to launch the local Pride Parade and the annual Peace Festival, as well as programs and organizations that promote social justice and support marginalized people,” Davies added. “This tradition continues today in our programs and affiliated groups that address everything from ESL (English as Second Language) classes for the local immigrant community, to support for LGBTQ youth.
“It’s also exciting to be part of a community that places such a high priority on life-long learning — all kinds of learning, including spiritual seeking, personal growth, and education about issues ranging from reproductive justice to climate change,” she said.
“This is an auspicious time for First Unitarian, not only because of our 125th anniversary but because of the role that we can serve, in a time of societal division, in being a place where people of different beliefs and backgrounds can engage one another with respect and kindness.”
1UC is a founding member of VOICE (Voices Organized In Civic Action), a local faith-based organization promoting civic engagement. The First Unitarian Church Alliance holds a monthly luncheon and speaker program, and provides a variety of fundraisers during the year to benefit the church. The Social Justice Committee promotes social engagement within the community, the state, and globally.
Upcoming anniversary celebrations include a dinner theater on February 16, dramatizing events in the church’s 125 year history. Anniversary concerts featuring the Oklahoma Flute Society and a historical program are scheduled for April.
Today, the First Unitarian Oklahoma City congregation has a membership of 325 individuals. A complete religious education program for pre-K through adult is provided.
The 1UC website states, “Our non-creedal church requires no particular set of beliefs or practices. Rather, we covenant to support one another on our individual spiritual journeys. All are welcome, without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity, race, age, disabilities, or religious background.”
For information, visit 1uc.org.