A Liberal Oasis
The People’s Church, affiliated with the Unitarian-Universalist Association, took root in Kalamazoo almost in spite of itself. In 1855, when missionary Rev. D. A. Russell rode in on horseback to conduct services in Fireman’s Hall and the courthouse for the scant handful of followers he served, other denominations in the city barely took notice. In a community of primarily conservative Protestants who barely acknowledged the Catholic Church as the dark left hand of the Pope, Unitarians weren’t considered a church at all.
New Church Building
By May of 1863, however, the congregation had grown, and a new church building, known as First Unitarian Church, was dedicated on the east side of Park Street between Lovell and Cedar Streets. The building was largely constructed by its members. Services had been held in the unfinished building until the dedication.
To understand how this church was viewed, some mention must be made of its beliefs. Unitarians consider themselves a forum for ethical living, which is the heart of religion as they understand it. It provides its members the means to develop their own belief system, whatever that belief may be…atheist, deist, or something in between. Its humanism poses a direct challenge to orthodox Christianity and is considered heresy to the generally accepted beliefs of Christianity, according to Roger Greeley. Greeley was the minister of the People’s Church in Kalamazoo for 28 years until his retirement in 1985. When asked how the Unitarian Church can be called a church when no prayers are uttered, and there is no profession of belief, Greeley responded, “…the answer to that is that the hands that plant are better than the lips that pray.”
Caroline Bartlett Crane
When Reverend Caroline Bartlett arrived in Kalamazoo in 1889 to become the minister of First Unitarian Church, she found a congregation she described as “…a small, weak, discouraged, faction-torn, almost annihilated society, which had had no regular services and no Sunday-school for three years…The faithful few had stayed by the church through bright days and dark days…They were loyal and brave, but there was little forward looking.” Bartlett, who later married Dr. Augustus Warren Crane, a pioneer in the field of radiology, embraced much of women’s activism between the 1880s and the 1930s, including temperance and the national suffrage movement. She continued this work during her tenure as the minister of The People’s Church (a name she favored and supported calling the congregation).
Under Crane’s fever-pitched leadership and innovation, the church formed a weekday kindergarten that would become the model for local public schools, a gymnasium to encourage physical exercise for working women, the Frederick Douglass Club, a reading group for Blacks, Sunday kindergarten to allow parents to attend church (any church), an Audubon Society, manual training for men and boys and household science for women and girls.
Second Church Building
During her tenure, a new building was constructed near the site of the older building. This building would remain at Park and Lovell Streets for 74 years. Crane retired from the church in 1898, but continued her career as a social activist.
After a series of short-term ministers and in the midst of the Great Depression, People’s Church once again was on the verge of disappearing. In June 1934, however, the members decided to engage a minister for one more year. They chose Edwin C. Palmer, who revitalized the church, sometimes at considerable hardship to himself and his family, and remained there until his death in 1956. He firmly believed in investing in people and was well-known for his service to the community as well as for his “cheerful leadership” of the congregation.
Park and Lovell Site
In 1968, the structure at Park and Lovell and the six-year-old church school at the rear were sold to the Kalamazoo Telephone Answering Service Company. The church was razed and replaced by a parking lot, but the school continues to be used by the company as its headquarters.
Third Church Building
While the new People’s Church was under construction on 10th Street in Oshtemo, the congregation met in rented space in the West Main School. The building was finished in 1969, complete with the organ from the original church. In 1981, during the celebration of the congregation’s 126th year in Kalamazoo, the organ was the second oldest in Kalamazoo, the oldest being an 1810 organ at Nazareth College. The tornado of May 1980, which drove planks through the roof of the new church, chose to spare the old organ. The organ was built by a Detroit company, Farrand and Votey, shortly after they constructed the organ destined for the Chicago World’s Fair.
Final Words from Roger Greeley
Roger Greeley, probably the most colorful and outspoken minister of People’s Church, summed up the church’s philosophy this way, “You have the right to determine for yourself whether you shall or shall not believe…We don’t all dress alike, we don’t all look alike, why should we all think alike?”