After an interval of two years, the modern era of our Society began in 1925 with the pastorate of Von Ogden Vogt. He was a Congregational minister in Chicago when he got the attention of Morton Denison Hull who had him invited to our ministry.
Vogt was greatly concerned with liturgy and art in religion. He was a recognized authority in this field, publishing several books, and he soon made our church what some called “high church Unitarian.” Moreover, he inspired Morton D. Hull to give us the princely gift of our magnificent stone English Perpendicular Gothic edifice. It incorporated Hull Chapel as a transept. Completed in 1931, it is our pride and joy. It was planned and designed by Hull’s son, Denison Bingham Hull, a young architect, in close and constant collaboration with Vogt who had great knowledge and interest in church art and architecture…
When Vogt retired in 1944 after nearly 20 years with us, we quickly called Leslie T. Pennington. While with us, he was a member of the Universalist-Unitarian Commission which prepared the way for the union of the two churches into one national body in 1961. At the same time, he led us in several big projects which made us leaders in our community.
The first of these was the racial integration of our Society. Blacks occasionally attended our services during Vogt’s as well as Pennington’s pastorate, and we had no formal bar to membership. But there was considerable opposition to a resolution passed at a congregational meeting in 1948 stating that we “take it upon ourselves to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church and to participate in all our activities.” Despite this clear position, a decade later we had only a dozen Black members. The number increased substantially during the next decade and later. We became an outstanding integrated congregation.
Having put our own house in order, Pennington then joined with a few others in founding the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. He was its first president. “Its purpose,” wrote Pennington later, “was reckoning directly with the issues of racial integration, community conservation and renewal, and the development here of a genuinely interracial community of high standards.” This organization led in saving the University community from becoming part of the Black ghetto all around it, although the University did not cooperate at first. This made our community an integrated model for the city and nation. But we need to remember that integration is a never-ending process…
A third big development during Pennington’s pastorate was the founding and growth of what has become the Chicago Children’s Choir under Christopher Moore. He came to us as assistant minister in 1956, with the mandate to start a children’s choir to supplement our Sunday School and attract children and families to church. He gradually built this into a huge, city-wide organization far transcending our parish and even our Hyde Park community. In addition to our Society’s support, he soon got federal money through Urban Gateways for a while, and later grants from corporations and foundations… Over the years thousands of children of all races, creeds, and social statuses were drawn into the various units of the Choir. Thus our church had an enormous outreach into the entire metropolitan area. Indeed, the Choir regularly tours various parts of the nation, and in 1970 made it’s first tour of Europe.
Chris Moore played an important role in our church, in addition to the CCC, for over thirty years until his untimely death in 1987. Whatever his title, which varied, he provided continuity and responsibility in church leadership while senior ministers came and went. His long and great service gives him a unique place in our history.
During Pennington’s pastorate, the church membership more than doubled, the Church School enrollment increased over 1,000%, the church bought the vacant lot next door and the Georgian mansion beyond that, and built the Church School building, called the Pennington Center. So in many ways Pennington’s 18-year ministry led us into great growth and direct involvement on a large scale in the community and city.
Pennington decided to retire in 1962 to a parish in suburban Boston, and we called Jack Kent the next year. During his five-year pastorate, our Society continued to concern itself with social issues and outreach to the community. We rented space to a nursery school in order to help meet a community need and utilize more fully our greatly enlarged physical plant. We made substantial contributions to the civil rights movement, housed a Head Start program, guaranteed large loans to organizations helping the poor to buy and rehabilitate slum housing, and supported our Black members’ efforts to create the Black Affairs Council in our parish and in the Unitarian Universalist denomination.
Kent resigned to take another pastorate in 1968, and Jack Mendelsohn came to us a year later with a record as a social activist as minister of historic Arlington Street Church in Boston. His ministry with us of nearly ten years was unusually successful. His social concerns reinforced ours as these had developed under the leadership of Pennington and Kent. So we proceeded to establish two large social projects, the first being the Unitarian Preschool Center which developed full day care for the children of working parents. This continued until 1979, until it had become a financial burden to us.
The second big project was The Depot. This also began in 1970 as a counseling service for runaway youth, and gradually expanded into a family counseling service with a substantial professional staff. It was headed by ministers who also were on our ministerial staff. The Depot, later named the Center for Family Development, not only got strong financial backing from the church, like the Chicago Children’s Choir, but also procured grants, donations, and contracts for counseling from government agencies. It served over four hundred families per year.
Late in his pastorate, Mendelsohn became a candidate for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This took much of his time and energy for more than a year, but he lost a very close race.
During his ministry, we continued our concern for civil rights, especially as these are violated by law enforcement agencies during and since the so-called “Police riot” at the Democratic National Convention here in 1968. We helped to organize the Alliance to End Repression, and Mendelsohn became its president. It is a coalition of civil rights organizations which eventually won a civil suit against the Chicago police for illegal repression of voluntary organizations and protest demonstrations. The Chicago police placed Mendelsohn and our Society under surveillance for years at a cost of many thousands of dollars to the taxpayers with no results except harassment. But we should be proud that our church is not considered a “harmless” institution.