With over 175 years of history in the city of New Orleans, there is a lot of ground to cover! There are two possible dates that we can reference as being starting dates for this congregation, we have been housed in five buildings, and have been known by six names. This is how the story goes:
In 1818, the Rev. Sylvester Larned arrived in New Orleans as a Presbyterian missionary. He founded a congregation, First Presbyterian Church, which built a modest brick structure at St. Charles Avenue at Gravier Street. Unfortunately, the gifted and admired Larned succumbed to yellow fever during his second year of ministry.
In 1821, a classmate of Larned's, the Rev. Dr. Theodore Clapp preached an impromptu sermon at a resort in Kentucky, at which two members of the New Orleans Presbyterian Church were present. They persuaded Dr. Clapp to "return to Boston by the way of New Orleans" and to preside at several worship services at their church, which had been without a minister since Larned's death. Although his plan had been to stay in New Orleans only a few weeks, his preaching was so well received that church leaders convinced him to remain as pastor, which he did, for the next 35 years.
Clapp began his ministry in a church with troubled finances, and insisted on its regaining a firm foundation. With the generosity of Judah Touro, a local Jewish merchant originally from Newport, Rhode Island, and the proceeds of a state lottery, the church was rescued. Clapp's preaching drew hundreds of people to the church, which earned the nickname of The Strangers' Church. He also became deeply involved in civic affairs, being appointed president of the board of the College of Orleans, supporting the Medical College of New Orleans (a precursor to Tulane University), and serving as trustee to the Touro Free Library.
In the late 1820s, a change in inner conviction led Clapp to begin preaching universalism, which drew the ire of the Mississippi Presbytery. A trial for heresy was held in 1832, culminating in a vote of excommunication in December. When Clapp returned home to New Orleans after his conviction, in February 1833, he attempted to resign as pastor, but a majority of the congregation voted to leave the Presbytery with him and form a new church. The remainder of the congregation stayed and kept the name First Presbyterian Church, now located across the street from the present building.
The new congregation called itself Church of the Messiah, but was still popularly known as "Parson Clapp's church" or "Church of the Stranger." In 1837, a delegation from the Unitarian Society of Boston came to New Orleans to explore the possibility of starting a Unitarian church in the city. Meeting Clapp, they decided instead to list his church in the Association Directory. The church thus acquired its fifth name, First Unitarian Church. The original building burned to the ground in the great St. Charles Hotel fire in 1851. Once again, Judah Touro came to the aid of the congregation, and provided money for rebuilding, around the corner at Julia Street and St. Charles Avenue (now the site of the U.S. Post Office Building at Lafayette Square).
Parson Clapp retired from active ministry in 1856, accompanied by tributes at the church and in the newspapers. When he died ten years later in Louisville, Kentucky, his body was brought back to New Orleans for burial at Cypress Grove Cemetery alongside Sylvester Larned, in the tomb of the Volunteer Fire Department, for which both men had served as chaplain. Thousands of people attended the funeral service in March 1867.
Following Dr. Clapp, the church was led by his son, and the congregation met regularly during the Civil War, being only one of two Unitarian churches to survive the conflict (the other is Charleston, South Carolina). The postwar period of turmoil was hard on the church, and in 1867, Rev. Thomas Eliot of First Unitarian Church in St. Louis, took a leave of absence from his congregation to aid troubled First Church New Orleans. He was followed by a series of short-term ministers, some of whom financially exploited the congregation.
In 1881, Rev. Charles Allen was called as minister and during his tenure succeeded in gaining denominational support from the American Unitarian Association. Rev. Allen continued the practice of civic involvement begun by Clapp by joining with Catholic and Jewish leaders to form the Conference of Charities, forerunner of the United Way of New Orleans, in 1883.
In 1893, Rev. Walter C. Pierce assumed the pulpit. In the expansion that occurred as a result of the Louisiana Cotton Exposition of 1884, the former suburb of Jefferson City had been incorporated into the city, opening up new property uptown. Pierce persuaded the congregation to sell the downtown property and purchase land at the corner of South Rampart Street (now Danneel) and Jefferson Avenue. The neo-gothic stone building, our fourth, was completed in 1902. Dr. Samuel A. Elliot , president of the American Unitarian Association, preached the dedication sermon, while minister Rev. Henry Wilder Foote served as liturgist. In 1909, U. S. President William Howard Taft, a Unitarian, visited New Orleans and attended services at First Church.
Rev. George Kent, a native of England, became minister in 1911. Under his leadership, the church attracted numerous young families, prospering even during World War I. Prominent in the congregation at this time were Kate and Jean Gordon, local suffragists and civic reformers. For more information on the Gordon Sisters, their work in New Orleans, and the stained glass window in their honor, click here.
Rev. Kent retired in 1920, but returned to the pulpit in 1929 following a series of three short-lived ministries, and served until 1934.
Rev. Charles Girelius, a Christian Unitarian, became minister in 1934. During his tenure, he took up the cause of public school teachers and the Loyalty Oath that was imposed during the Communist scare of the Great Depression. Rev. Thaddeus "Thad" Clark was called as minister in 1940, and led the church during World War II. He was followed by Rev. Alfred Hobart in 1945, a young minister with a family (his son, James A. Hobart, later grew up to be a Unitarian Universalist minister), who attracted many new members. Rev. Hobart's interest in social justice drew him toward civil rights issues, and he left First Church in 1948 to serve in Birmingham, Alabama, where his stance made headlines and angered the Ku Klux Klan.
The church called another firebrand in 1950 in the person of Rev. Albert D'Orlando. His work on behalf of civil rights, against the anti-communist witch-hunt led by Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and against the Viet Nam War, have been chronicled in the book Righteous Lives by Kim Lacy Rogers. His activities brought new members, necessitating the rental of extra class space from the nearby Jewish Community Center and Newman School. An avid institutionalist, Rev. D'Orlando was instrumental in founding Unitarian congregations in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Hammond, and the Gulf Coast. We have more information elsewhere on the site about Rev. D'Orlando, his sermons, and the D'Orlando Lecture on Social Justice.
In 1957, the old neogothic building, the congregation's fourth, after so many years of neglect and lack of maintenance, was torn down as a hazard. A new building , inspired by the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright, was built on the same property in 1958, designed by church member Albert Ledner, who was also president of the congregation.
During the 1960s and '70s, under D'Orlando's leadership, the church was prominent in civil rights causes, and both the church and the parsonage were fire-bombed. The social activities angered some long-time members, some of whom split off to form a lay-led fellowship on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. Another group formed a fellowship in Lakeview; the two later merged to become Community Church Unitarian Universalist in 1958. Following Hurricane Katrina, Community Church, First Church, and the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society came together in mutual support and formed the Greater New Orleans UU cluster (GNOUU) to raise funds to rebuild Unitarian Universalism and to share programs and projects.
Rev. D'Orlando retired in 1979 - our second-longest serving minister after Parson Clapp. After Rev. Sidney Peterman's interim ministry, the church called Rev. Michael A. McGee. During his ministry, the church became active in civil rights for gays and lesbians, and welcomed openly gay and lesbian members. In 1983, the church celebrated its 150th anniversary as a Unitarian congregation, with many special denominational guests.
In 1988, Rev. Suzanne Meyer came to the pulpit, the first woman to serve as minister. Under her leadership, First Church became a founding member of the congregation-based community organization, All Congregations Together (ACT), which pressured elected officials to respond to community needs. In 1993, the congregation marked its 160th anniversary, with UUA President William Schulz preaching the sermon; that same day, former church administrator Melanie Morel Sullivan was ordained - the first minister to be ordained by the congregation. Also during Rev. Meyer's ministry, the congregation sold its fifth building at the Danneel and Jefferson corner, to move to a much larger facility at South Claiborne and Jefferson Avenues, to continue our mission as an urban church. Our present complex covers a full city block.
In 1997, Rev. Meyer took up ministry in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the congregation embarked on a search for a new minister. A former member of the church who had completed seminary work at Harvard, Rev. Guy LaMothe, was chosen to serve as part-time interim minister. In 2001, in recognition of his service and dedication, he was made full-time settled minister. His ministry brought a focus on environmental consciousness to the congregation. Rev. LaMothe was the church's first openly gay minister; for a time, his partner, Carl Mack, served as Music Director, bringing a wide variety of musical styles to congregational worship.
On Rev. LaMothe's departure in 2003, Rev. Krista Taves, a native of Canada, served as one-year interim during the congregation's search for a new settled minister. In the summer of 2005, the congregation welcomed Rev. Marta Valentin as minister. On August 30, 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, federal levees that were to have protected New Orleans broke, flooding neighborhoods all over the city, including that of the church. The church building sat in some 4-5 feet of flood water for weeks, and is in now in the process of rebuilding. Click for pictures of post-Katrina damage and for "after" photos of the restoration.
After courageously steering the scattered and wounded congregation for two years after the Storm, meeting in various borrowed locations, (including our "mother church" First Presbyterian), and raising funds in an innovative "partner church"program, Rev. Valentin resigned in 2007 to spend a year with her partner, Allison, and their new baby daughter, Jaya. A search resulted in the return home of Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger (formerly Sullivan) in September 2007 as Consulting Minister. In February 2008, the church's 175th anniversary was celebrated with joy in the damaged but usable sanctuary, with UUA Moderator Gini Courter preaching, and special guests from First Presbyterian Church's Session.
Now, the congregation works hard on recovery, not only for ourselves and our church, but also for our beloved city and Unitarian Universalism in the Greater New Orleans area. We look to our past for inspiration, knowing that we have triumphed over epidemics, fires, bankruptcy, conflict, wars, and opposition. We know we can rise above the floodwaters of Katrina and be once more a force for positive change in the Crescent City!