Liberal religion came to southwest Michigan when the AUA sent a missionary to Kalamazoo in 1855. Services for a small group of interested people were held in the Fireman’s Hall and the courthouse for several years. The group formally incorporated as the Union Congregational Society of Kalamazoo in 1858 and hired Silas B. Flagg as their first minister. Work was begun on a small building in 1860 and the group’s name was changed to the First Unitarian Society. The new church, built with the labor and funds of the members, was dedicated in 1863.
The church was at a very low ebb when the congregation decided in 1889 to hire a young woman minister, Caroline Bartlett. She started her ministry with a great deal of energy and soon the evening services were so large they had to be held in a different building. She promoted a seven day church with social programs for all people, regardless of race, color or creed: “…this church cannot be a place where we are merely to come together once a week and enjoy our doctrine and congratulate ourselves that we have a faith free from superstition. We must do something for others, as well as for ourselves. And the more we have done for others, the more in the end, we shall find we have done for ourselves.” She wrote a new Bond of Union which is still used today.
In 1892 Silas Hubbard, a long-time member, donated $20,000 to build a new church. He was inspired to make the donation because the church had influenced him to give up tobacco and alcohol which he figured had saved him at least twice the amount of the gift. Miss Bartlett supervised the design of the new building which was renamed “The People’s Church” to reflect the nature of the community activities to be carried on there. These included a free public kindergarten, a women’s gymnasium, a school of household science and a manual training class for men. The center parlor was dedicated to the memory of Frederick Douglass and was pledged “to the free use of Kalamazoo’s Negroes”. She married Dr. Augustus Warren Crane in 1896 and resigned the pulpit in June of 1898, but remained a member until her death in 1935 and never missing an annual meeting.
The church continued to thrive for the next dozen years. From 1905 until 1912 it ran a program for working women who lived in rooms in which they could not entertain friends or cook. The church was open in the late afternoon so they could use the gymnasium, the library and the parlors for socializing. A hot meal was served every night except Sunday for ten cents, though it cost an extra two cents to have dessert.
During World War I and the Depression, interest in the church declined. At one point there was even talk of a merger with the Congregational Church of Kalamazoo. In 1934 27 people attended a congregational meeting and decided to hire Edwin C. Palmer for the next year at a salary of $1200. Mr. Palmer remained the minister for the next twenty-two years. Recognizing that he would have a hard time supporting his wife and two teen age children on that salary, he proposed that they move into the church in return for his services as janitor as well as minister. The proposal was accepted and he lived in the church until his death in 1956.
Roger Greeley was called to be the next minister after Mr. Palmer’s death. Under his leadership the church grew and prospered and, by the mid-1960s, it became obvious that the building no longer met the needs of the congregation. It was located on a busy corner in downtown Kalamazoo, a prime location that was worth a great deal. Selling meant giving up the visibility they enjoyed there but a new building would provide much needed space in which to grow. After much deliberation, it was decided to sell, to leave downtown Kalamazoo which had been its home since the beginning and begin a future as a suburban church. Mr. Greeley retired in 1985 after a 28 year ministry, the longest in the church history, one that saw remarkable growth and development.
In 1986 the church called Dr. Davidson Loehr to be the settled minister. He was a very dynamic speaker and the early years of his ministry were a period of rapid growth. The last three years of his tenure, however, were marred by conflict which led to his resignation in 1995. It is difficult to sort out the exact causes of the conflict twenty years later. Even those who were involved have differing opinions. A small group of his supporters left and organized a second UU church in the area. This was a difficult time for the congregation but, with the help of the interim minister Fred Campbell, healing began. Today the two churches have developed a healthy relationship and share the Christmas Eve service every year, alternating between the two locations.
Jill McAllister began her pastorate at People’s in 1998. She brought a more personal and spiritual style to her Sunday services as well as a strong interest in social justice. Under her guidance the church strengthened its historical commitment to that work. In 2012 we were awarded the UUA Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action. Her involvement with the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists inspired us to develop partnership relationships with a church in Romania and in Burundi. After being in ministry with us for 15 years, she was called to the church in Corvalis, Oregon in 2013. People’s Church celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2005. We will soon begin our one hundred and sixtieth year and are eager to help create the next chapter in our story with our new minister.