The story of Neighborhood Church of Pasadena, California, actually has two beginnings, one Congregational, the other Unitarian.
The Congregational roots go back to 1885, at a time when the land boom in Pasadena was transforming the village with its dusty roads and acres of oranges and vineyards. Early settlers had built a chapel on the south side of Colorado Street near Orange Grove Avenue, attended by both Presbyterians and Congregationalists. However, as the center of town moved east, the Presbyterians decided to build a new church “closer to the action.” Some forty-two Congregationalists who had worshipped in the original chapel voted to stay in the southwest part of town, and to build a new church.
November 8, 1885: The initial service of the First Congregational Church was held.
1886 – 1887: A lot at the corner of Pasadena Avenue and California Street had been chosen, and the distinctive church with its tall steeple and beautiful stained glass windows was completed in 1887.
1894: The church had a membership of 317, a Sunday School, Ladies’ aid and women’s Missionary Societies, and a Chinese Mission, among other activities.
1902: The arrival of a new minister, Dr. Robert Meredith, whose ambitious plans for growth led about two-thirds of the membership to decide to build a new, larger facility further to the east. Once again, some members wanted to stay in the western neighborhood, and a third of the congregation organized into the West Side Congregational Church, raising $10,000 to purchase the existing facility.
1922: The Unitarian Church in Pasadena held its first service, with 120 persons in attendance. Later that year, the Rev. Bradford Leavitt began his ministry with them, though the members were still meeting in the home of a local resident, which had been purchased by the American Unitarian Association. Dr. Leavitt had an impressive background: graduate of Harvard and Harvard Divinity, with prior Unitarian ministries in Vermont, Washington D.C., and San Francisco.
1923: The West Side Congregational Church, with 120 active members, voted in support of forming an inter-denominational church with the Unitarians. One major reason for merger was apparently that the Congregationalists had a building and no minister at the time, while the Unitarians had a minister and no building. After a four-month “trial marriage,” with Dr. Leavitt filling the pulpit, the two congregations agreed to merge and form the Union Liberal Church of Pasadena. Instrumental in effecting this merger was Dr. Robert A. Millikan, Nobel Prize recipient and Chairman of the Executive Council of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
The new church carried full membership in both the Congregational and Unitarian denominations, leaving open the possibility of cooperating with other denominations as well. As Dr. Leavitt put it, “It was to be a church for all Christians of whatever name or sect. It should not belong exclusively to any one denomination, but might contribute to several.” The Bond of Fellowship previously used by the Unitarians was adopted: “In the love of truth, and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of man,” –not a creed, but “an expression of moral and spiritual purpose.”
1929: A Los Angeles Times article refers to the Neighborhood Church congregation as including “many of the outstanding scientists and intellectuals of the city.” Memoirs of members from that period note the presence of educators, legislators, musicians who were later the source of important concert traditions in Pasadena, and many other movers and shakers whose names still grace landmarks of the city today.
1930: Dr. Theodore Soares begins his ministry with this rather aristocratic and intellectually-active congregation. He was a distinguished scholar who had become professor of Homiletics and Religious Education at the University of Chicago Divinity School after receiving his MA and PhD. degrees there. While at Neighborhood, he also served as Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Caltech — one of the many important connections with that institution over the years.
1931: “The Neighborhood Church” name formally adopted. The facility at the corner of California and Pasadena had often been referred to as “The Neighborhood Church,” because it had chosen at each crossroad to remain in the southwest neighborhood.
In 1932, Dr. Soares was joined by a full-time assistant minister responsible for religious education.
1938: Wilbur Chenoweth joined the church as organist and choirmaster, a tenure that would endure until 1962 and begin the tradition of fine music at Neighborhood.
1943: Curtis Beach was called as Assistant Minister in charge of religious education. A graduate of Harvard and Boston Theological Seminary, Rev. Beach was licensed by the Congregational denomination and ordained a Unitarian.
1944: Dr. Soares announced he did not plan to renew his contract, and Dr. Robert Millikan headed a search committee to find a minister who could also serve as Caltech Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, as Soares had. By March 1945, the committee disbanded because they could find no one to handle both positions simultaneously. In April 1945, Curtis Beach was elevated to the position of senior minister, with Dr. Soares named “auxiliary preacher,” and a full-time director of religious education was appointed. With 588 members in the congregation and 276 enrolled in the church school, a building to adequately house the Sunday School was urgently needed.
1955 – 1956: With church school enrollment at nearly 400, construction for a church school began. The Board briedly discussed limiting enrollment! The Robert A. Millikan Religious Education Building was dedicated in 1956. Through the generosity of a member, a beautiful Children’s Chapel was completed in 1954, and additional property was acquired for parking. Along with the already-constructed parish house, parsonage, and sanctuary, the physical plant was complete.
1957: Church membership reached 673. The bylaws were changed to require direct election of officers by the membership. The Board called Noel Vore to be Minister of Education.
1959: Dr. Beach resigned
1960: The congregation called the Rev. John Baker, a graduate of the University of Michigan in science and mathematics, and Harvard Divinity School.With John Baker’s arrival, Neighborhood became more Unitarian. The Congregationalists’ merger with the Evangelical and Reformed denomination had generated much discussion at Neighborhood, and the church had never joined the resulting United Church of Christ. Communion services were still held several times a year, but after the main worship service, and in a separate room. The nature of communion services became progressively more metaphorical and less traditionally Christian.
Rev. Baker was also part of a more activist tradition than had been common at Neighborhood in the past. Certainly the church had contributed to the needy of the community and around the world, and otherwise participated in worthy social causes. But Mr. Baker raised social consciousness and activism to a new level. He participated in the Selma Freedom Marches of 1964, and under his leadership the Social Concerns Committee raised funds to support a group of students who went to Mississippi to promote civil rights. Rev. Baker was deeply involved in local civil activities, as well. He became chair of the housing sub-committee of the Chamber of Commerce, and was a leader in fair housing issues.
1962: Noel Vore was named Assistant Minister of Neighborhood, and a full-time Director of Religious Education, Donald Jacobsen, was added. Wilbur Chenoweth resigned after 25 years as organist and choir director, and Robert Kursinski became Minister of Music.
1963: The roll showed 564 members, and a Church School enrollment of 359. To better accommodate these numbers, double sessions were begun. A more informal service was held at 9:30, with frequent opportunities for sermon talk backs. Coffee Hours were held on the patio between services, beneath a huge pittosporum tree which bore fragrant blossoms in the spring. The late service was more traditional, with choir and hymns. It was a time of special intellectual richness, including such activities as a group discussion series on religious existentialism, co-led by Rev. Baker and humanist psychologist James Bugenthal.
1964: The congregation voted 203 to 10 to take a stand against Proposition 14, a ballot initiative designed to repeal existing legislation banning racial discrimination in housing, and to amend the state constitution to that effect. While the vote was overwhelmingly in favor, the issue was divisive for the church, and some members resigned as a result. For those opposed, the issue was not so much the particular initiative, but their belief that the church should not take a specific political stand.
1964: Edward Low was hired as Director of Music. That year, Mr. Low established a new group associated with the church, the Neighborhood Chorus and orchestra, which presented the first of its yearly concert series, which still continue today. Trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, Mr. Low brought an unusual background in both early and contemporary music to the position. His friendship with Unitarian composer Daniel Pinkham resulted in yearly concerts of Mr. Pinkham’s works (often west coast premieres) preformed by Neighborhood musicians, and conducted by the composer. Mr. Low also strongly supported performances of works written by Neighborhood members and other local composers.
1968: John Baker informed the Board of his intention to resign. He reduced his schedule to half-time in September, with the other half devoted to being a Group Process Consultant for the regional UU organization, Pacific Southwest District. In November, he ended his service to Neighborhood.
1968: The Neighborhood facility was threatened because it stood directly in the path of a proposed freeway. (The decision had been under discussion since 1960, but became final in 1968—although the freeway in question has yet to be built!) The church property was sold to the State Division of Highways for $720,000, an amount that provided a large proportion of the building fund for the new church but did not ease the sorrow many members felt about giving up their beautiful old building. A new site was purchased, just a few blocks north of the location of the original chapel, near the edge of the Arroyo Seco. A contract was signed with architect Whitney Smith (who had previously designed the Children’s Chapel and religious education buildings at the old site) to design a new sanctuary and other associated facilities.
1969: A congregational meeting in December called the Rev. Brandoch Lovely to the Neighborhood pulpit, to commence March 15, 1969. Mr. Lovely had earned his BA from HarvardCollege, and a degree in scientific theology from Harvard Divinity School. In September of 1969, Rev. Tom Towle began as full-time Minister of Education. In December of that year, Neighborhood voted to approve a merger with Throop Memorial Church (also located in Pasadena) to form a new congregation affiliated with the UUA. The proposal failed at Throop, so merger plans were dropped.
1972: Construction of the new sanctuary completed. Congregation voted to render inactive its historic tie with the Congregational denomination, and to reaffirm its affiliation with the UUA, completing that transition. During all of these crises, Neighborhood was superbly served by leadership from its minister and laity, respectful and open dialogue on the issues, and the strong commitment of its members and friends.
1982 – 1987: Another crisis had silently arrived. In November of that year, an emergency maintenance fund drive was started in order to repair termite and dry rot damage in both the new buildings and the beautiful old Greene and Greene house that forms our office facility. Unfortunately, this was only the first phase of several “building emergencies” that have plagued the years since. In January of 1983, the church bell, originally donated by a member in 1887, and hung in a new belfry at the time of the move, fell through the roof, necessitating major repairs. By 1987, a capital fund drive was held to finance major repairs to the sanctuary and construct a new multi-use building. The new facility was put on hold because of the extent of problems in the sanctuary, and a committee began to painstakingly investigate various options, including possibly demolishing and rebuilding the sanctuary.
1991 – 1992: The option of possible merger with Throop church was raised again, and explored during 1990 through an extensive series of joint meetings and activities. Neighborhood decided to merge only if a “super-majority” of 75% of its members voted yes. On January 20, 1991, with 344 of 455 members voting, 62.5% approved, and the merger was defeated at Neighborhood, though it was approved at Throop. Those who had worked for the merger were very disappointed, and healing took time and understanding. With the merger issue resolved, all repairs of the sanctuary and other buildings were completed in 1992. The one exception was the rebuilding of the pipe organ, which was heavily damaged by flooding when the roof was being replaced. This was expected to be completed within the next 18 months. Thus, the congregation could, for the first time in many years feel confident of the sound condition of its physical plant.
1989: Rev. Laurinda (Laurie) Bilyeu called as Associate Minister, with responsibilities both for RE and for broader ministerial duties. The RE program continued to thrive under Laurie’s direction, adding such innovations as Coming of Age ceremonies for junior high youth and special recognition of graduating high school seniors.
1992: Brandy Lovely retired as Senior Minister and became Minister Emeritus. Ken Brown became the Interim Minister. Membership was approaching the 500 mark, and the financial picture was good, especially given the long, serious recession and the building problems. There were 27 committees ranging from Fun & Fellowship to Computers (whose members helped ease the church’s transition into the technological age.) The church was healthy, vital, growing and changing.
1994: The Rev. Dr. Lee Barker became the Senior Minister. Before coming to Neighborhood he was minister of the Unitarian Church of Montclair, New Jersey. A second capital campaign for a new Programs Building was begun in 1996, and raised 1.2 million dollars by 1997. The building was dedicated in September, 2000.
2003: Lee Barker resigns as Senior Minister to lead the Unitarian Universalist seminary Meadville Lombard as President.
2004: Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson is called as senior minister, having served congregations in Costa Mesa, CA and Fairfax, VA. Rev. Nelson has a PhD in religious studies from the University of Iowa, and did his thesis work on Herman Melville. Jim will retire the end of January, 2015.
2005: Sara LaWall is hired as Neighborhood’s first full-time Director of Religious Education.
2007: Rev. Hannah Petrie is called the Assistant Minister for Social Justice and later promoted to Associate Minister. Rev. Petrie graduated from Starr King School for the Ministry in 2004. A lifelong UU, she was affirmed, ordained at her home church, North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, IL.
2015: Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson retires as Senior Minister after ten years of service to Neighborhood. The congregation calls Rev. Lissa Anne Gundlach as their new Senior Minister. A New England native raised in First Parish, Concord, Massachusetts, Rev. Gundlach joins Neighborhood from the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York where she served as Assistant Minister.
2017: Matt Vasko is hired as Neighborhood’s Director of Religious Education