Our History

The Hartford Unitarian Association, an organization that has existed with various changes to this day, was organized under its first President, James H. Wells, on April 30, 1830.  By 1844 it had become the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Hartford.  Below you will find a timeline of various events in our history from 1844.

Further details, including our historical roots back to 1830, may be found in the book Hartford Unitarianism, 1844–1994 by Freeman Meyer.

1. Church of the Savior

1844: The First Unitarian Congregational Society of Hartford is founded at the home of Charles Olmsted. The other founders are Seth Saltmarsh, Giles Olmsted, Timothy Allyn and James Wells.

1846: Church of the Savior is dedicated. The building, at Asylum and Trumbull, costs over $20,000, more than twice as much as planned. The first minister is Joseph Harrington, paid an annual salary of $1,000.

1852: Rev. Harrington leaves, to help found First Unitarian Church in San Francisco, but he dies only a few months later.

1853: The Society is served briefly by Frederic Hinckley, a strong advocate of non-credal religion. The financial problems of the Society become acute.

1855: Rev. Hinckley leaves.

1857: The Society’s leadership suspends services indefinitely. For the next twenty years, there are only annual business meeting and occasional “religious meetings” in public halls.

1860: The Society sells Church of the Savior to Charter Oak Bank. The Society’s debts are paid off, leaving a balance of $20,000. (The building is subsequently dismantled, moved and rebuilt as the original Trinity Episcopal Church.)

2. Unity Hall

1877: The Society’s assets have grown to $70,000. Martin Schermerhorn is called as minister for a short time to help revive the congregation.

1878: The Society calls John Kimball as minister.

1881: Unity Church, on Pratt Street, is dedicated. Seating seven hundred people, it also serves as a public auditorium (known as Unity
Hall), and rent is a much bigger source of income than pledges.

1887: The Society passes a resolution formally admitting women to the Society and allowing them to vote. After a controversial sermon by Rev. Kimball, the Society declares that the minister is free to “speak what he thinks the truth on all topics” as a religious principle.

1888: Rev. Kimball leaves the Society.

1889: The Society calls Perry Marshall as minister. (Almost nothing is known about him.)

1891: Rev. Marshall leaves the Society.

1892: Joseph Waite is called as minister. The Society enters a period of prosperity with this very popular minister, though there are some who do not like his outspoken politics.

1894: A branch of the Women’s Alliance (later the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation) is formed at the Society. (This still exists and many of the older women in the Society are active participants.)

1895: The Society formalizes ties with the American Unitarian Association (though the AUA had provided financial and other assistance to the Society since its founding).

1905: Rev. Waite dies.

1906: The Society calls Jabez Sunderland, a distinguished clergyman and theologian in the denomination, known for his work with the British and Foreign Unitarian Association for his work with the Khasi Unitarians in India.

1911: Eliza Sunderland dies. Rev. Dr. Sunderland resigns, returns to India and becomes an advocate for Indian independence. Albert Dieffenbach is called as minister as the United States enjoys the “Progressive Era”.

1915: A bronze tablet is unveiled in Unity Hall in memory of Rev. Waite, sixth minister to the Society.

1917: As the United States enters the war, Rev. Dieffenbach leads many service organizations, some in support of the war effort. Unity Church is sold, though the Society continues to hold services there.

1918: Rev. Dieffenbach leaves the Society, moving to Boston to edit “The Christian Register”, the leading Unitarian publication. The Society calls Charles Graves as minister and enters a time of steady growth. Rev. Graves’ sermons are published in the Hartford Courant and services are broadcast live on the radio.

3. The Pearl Street Meeting House

1921: The Society buys a plot of land on Pearl Street.

1924: The Pearl Street Meeting House is built at a cost of $125,000. The Sunday School meets in the basement while the service is held upstairs, leading to noise problems.

1927: Offerings are not taken during the service to avoid embarrassment to those who are not prepared to give, which leads to an exchange in the Hartford Courant.

1936: A meeting of the Unitarian Layman’s League is postponed due to almost eight feet of water on the lower floor of the building.

1941: Rev. Graves retires at the age of 72, becoming the Society’s first “minister emeritus”, continuing to attend services and vocally
criticizing his successor, Payson Miller.

1942: The Sunday School honors those members of the Society on active duty in the war. Rev. Miller devotes a column in the “Monthly Communication of the Minister to the People”, over which he has strict editorial control, to “Men [and Women] in the Armed Forces”. Rev. Miller hand-picks many of the Society leadership himself.

1943: The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom establishes a Peace Center at the Meeting House.

1945: With the Society a leader among historically white churches in the racial desegregation movement, a few black families join.

1946: The Society buys a parsonage on Girard Avenue for the Miller family. Rev. Millers’s salary is $4,000.

1948: Rev. Graves dies. Mildred MacDougald becomes the Society’s fourteenth President and the first woman to head the Society.

1951: The Society amends its constitution to make the minister’s term of office indefinite, subject only to recall or resignation. One prominent  family leaves because they fear that it will not be impossible to remove an unpopular minister.

1958: With overflowing attendance and a growing Sunday School, the Society votes to move to a location out of downtown Hartford.

1959: The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America formally approve a merger of the two denominations. Despite good relations with the Universalist Church of the Redeemer in West Hartford (now the Universalist Church of West Hartford), Rev. Miller and many other Unitarians oppose the merger.

1960: Hartford Unitarians vote to approve the merger. Rev. Miller announces plans to retire.

1961: The Greater Hartford Council of Churches adopts a statement of purpose that excludes Unitarians, Universalists and Quakers. The
Society buys six acres for $50,000 at the corner of Bloomfield and Albany. Victor Lundy is chosen to design the new Meeting House. The
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is formed.

1962: The Pearl Street Meeting House is sold to Congregation Ados Israel for $85,000. The plans for the new Meeting House — more theologically-inspired architecture than sound engineering — are unveiled and immediately prove controversial. The cable-hung roof is a major objection, but the plans are approved. Rev. Miller attends a service to mark the denominational merger at the regional level. He dies a few hours later.

4. The Bloomfield Avenue Meeting House

1963: Nathanial “Nat” Lauriat is called as eleventh minister, the first to have been born a Unitarian. While the new Meeting House is being built, services are held at Hartford Seminary.

1964: The Bloomfield Avenue Meeting House is dedicated. The chapel is named in memory of Rev. Miller.

1971: Women first serve as ushers for Sunday services.

1978: Joanne Papanek is ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry by the Society.

1982: Judy Deutsch is hired for two years as an associate minister, catalyzing the involvement of members in community affairs, particularly the fight against homelessness.

1985: Rev. Dr. Lauriat resigns, becomes minister emeritus to the Society and retires to a small, building-less congregation in Arizona. (Nat continues to visit Hartford once a year and deliver a sermon to the Society.)

1986: After a year with interim minister Peter Sampson, the Society calls Rev. Jon Luopa as minister.

1991: A Memorial Garden, south of the Meeting House, is established.

1992: Rev. Luopa takes a year’s sabbatical.

1994: The Unitarian Society of Hartford celebrates its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. A commemorative quilt is made by members of  the Women’s Alliance and others.

1996: With impetus from Rev. Luopa, the Society finalizes its plans for the Social Justice Ministry for Children and formalizes a relationship with Center City Churches.

1999: Rev. Luopa leaves for the University Unitarian Church in Seattle. A year with interim minister Joan Kahn-Schneider begins. The  Memorial Garden is developed further with a paved area. The minister from the Society’s sister church in Romania visits.

2000: Terasa Cooley is called as thirteenth minister. Following inspiration at General Assembly, the Society begins a program of Small Group  Ministry. Greater Hartford Unitarian Universalists Against Racism is founded. Denise Ackeifi is hired as Youth Advisor and a cardboard-box sleep-out by the youth raises over $1,300.

2001: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church joins with Greater Hartford Unitarian Universalists Against Racism to develop the latter into  Congregations United for Racial Equality and Justice. Peggy Geiger, Director of Religious Education, resigns.

2002: A Strategic Plan for the Society is finalized and approved. A Web site is launched for the Society. Cheryl Leshay is hired as Assistant Minister for Religious Education. A special memorial service, combining worship with Small Group Ministry, marks the anniversary of 9-11.

2003: The forty-second General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association is held in Boston and is attended by over forty Society members and youth. The Society becomes a member of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice. A proposal for a new governance structure, in keeping with our lingering position between program and corporate church models, is presented to the Society. A wheelchair lift finally makes the Chancel accessible. The Society votes to become a Welcoming Congregation and holds a joint celebration  with the Universalist Church of West Hartford and the Unitarian Universalist Society: East of Manchester.


A Century of Ministers

1918–1941    Charles Graves (#9)
1941–1962    Payson Miller (#10)
1962–1985    Nat Lauriat (#11)
1986–1999    Jon Luopa (#12)
1999–2000    Joan Kahn-Schneider
2000–2005    Terasa Cooley (#13)
2005–2006    Arline Sutherland
2006–2011    Barbara Jamestone (#14)
2011–2012    Katie Lee Crane
2012–2014    David Johnson
2014– 2021   Heather & Cathy Rion Starr (#15)
2021- 2022   Terry Cummings, Interim Minister

2023-present Robert Janis