First Church began in 1833 when, after a decade serving First Presbyterian Church, Rev. Theodore Clapp committed himself to the radical idea that salvation was for everyone. A minority of committed Presbyterians withdrew, and Parson Clapp and his congregation became known as the Strangers’ Church, a center of liberal religious faith in New Orleans, through wars, hurricanes, and other difficult times.
Rev. Clapp was the second minister of First Presbyterian Church, the second Protestant church in New Orleans, founded in 1817. The Rev. Sylvester Larned arrived in 1818 to serve the congregation, then meeting in a modest brick structure at St. Charles Avenue and Gravier Street. A gifted and admired young pastor, Rev. Larned succumbed to yellow fever during his second year of ministry.
In 1821, two members of First Presbyterian Church were staying at a resort in Kentucky where a visiting Congregational minister, Rev. Theodore Clapp, was asked to preach an impromptu sermon. Discovering that Clapp and Larned had been classmates, they persuaded him to “return to Boston by way of New Orleans” and to lead some worship services at their church, which had been without a minister since Larned’s death. Though he planned to stay only a few weeks, Clapp decided to remain in New Orleans and served the church for the next 35 years. His preaching drew hundreds of people to the church, earning it the nickname, “The Strangers’ Church.” (The nickname was then commonly used to designate a Protestant church whose members were mostly not local; there was a “Strangers’ Church” in London in the 16th century.)
Clapp encouraged the church to set its then troubled finances on a firm foundation, and with help from the generous philanthropist Judah Touro, and proceeds from a state lottery (a common means of financing projects in Louisiana at the time), this was achieved.
“Parson Clapp,” as he was known (his mother’s maiden name was Parson), became deeply involved in civic affairs. He served as president of the board of the College of Orleans, supported the Medical College of New Orleans (a precursor to Tulane University), and was a trustee of the Touro Free Library.
Controversy over Clapp’s preaching began soon after he was seated on the Mississippi Presbytery (becoming the minister of a Presbyterian church meant having a seat on the local Presbytery). In these years Presbyterians and Congregationalists were establishing churches west of the Appalachians in a partnership known as the 1801 Plan of Union. New churches could be of either denomination, but would belong to the local Presbytery. The Presbyterians grew increasingly uncomfortable with this arrangement, fearing that Congregationalists were bringing doctrinal heresy into their churches. Within their clergy, hostile “Old School” and sympathetic “New School” factions formed. Clapp, a Congregationalist, easily found himself in difficulty with his new colleagues, either because they disagreed with his views, or were offended by his replies to their criticisms. Clapp, like “New School” clergy who were actively questioning it, insisted he preached nothing contrary to Presbyterian doctrine, but the Mississippi Presbytery was dominated by the “Old School.” Tensions rose for a decade, culminating in a heresy trial in 1832.
In the end it was determined that, though Clapp served a Presbyterian church, he was not a Presbyterian and should not have a seat on the Presbytery. In February 1833, Clapp offered to resign his ministry, but a majority of the congregation voted to leave the Presbytery with him to form a new church. The minority went on to found today’s First Presbyterian Church, now located across the street from our church. After this, Clapp openly preached a Bible-based Universalism that indeed did not conform to Presbyterian doctrine.
The new congregation called itself First Congregational Church of New Orleans, but was still popularly known as “Parson Clapp’s church” or “the Strangers’ Church.” Clapp’s Universalist message continued to attract local and out-of-town visitors, and generated entertaining controversies with other local clergy in the newspapers. In 1837, a delegation from the American Unitarian Association of Boston came to New Orleans to explore starting a Unitarian church in the city. Meeting Clapp, they decided instead to list his church in the AUA directory, and the official name of the church became First Congregational Unitarian Church.
The St. Charles Hotel fire in January 1851 destroyed buildings along St. Charles Avenue from Canal all the way to Lafayette Street, including the congregation’s original building. Again with financial help from Judah Touro, the church recovered. The church moved to a new building at St. Charles Avenue and Julia Street in 1855, which was named The Church of the Messiah, but still known as “Parson Clapp’s” or “Strangers’ Church.”
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.
The Later 19th Century
During the winter of 1856, the church engaged the retired Unitarian minister Orville Dewey who was then on a national lecture tour. The following year, on Clapp’s recommendation, it hired the Universalist Rev. Edwin Courtland Bolles, known for his enthusiasm for reconciling religion and science; Bolles stayed two years. His successor, Charles Thomas, served until the outbreak of the Civil War. During the war, from 1861 until 1866, worship services were lay-led.
After the war, the church struggled to re-establish itself. In January 1866 the Rev. John Cordner (the first Unitarian minister in Canada) came for the winter from Montreal; that fall, Rev. Thomas Lamb Eliot, son and associate pastor to Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot at First Unitarian Church in St. Louis, supplied the pulpit. When Eliot left the next year to accept a call in Portland, Oregon, his father took a leave of absence to preach here. The elder Eliot counseled the congregation to retire its debt, which was done. Thereafter the Universalists began encouraging and recruiting ministers for the church. Charles J. Noyes served in early 1869, William T. Stowe served from October of that year until the spring of 1871 (during which time church membership doubled), and membership continued to grow during the ministry of George Henry Deere (nephew of John Deere of tractor fame) from late 1871 through 1874.
Deere devoted a chapter of his autobiography to his ministry in New Orleans. Of his departure, he writes: “Some one may ask why we did not return to New Orleans, the conditions seeming so desirable. In brief, I did not intend to return unless successful in my attempt with the convention. That failing, my inclination was to remain north.” This probably means that Deere had hoped to secure financial support for the church from the Universalist General Convention. In 1874, possibly in the same hope, it was proposed to change the name of the church to First Universalist Parish of New Orleans; the resolution was postponed indefinitely and never voted upon.
Deere does not comment on the politics of the times, except to say that his views differed from his neighbors’. He was here for the controversial state election when both candidates – Republican William Pitt Kellogg and “Fusion” Democrat John McEnery – claimed victory, and President Grant intervened with military support for the Kellogg administration. There followed the Colfax Massacre (Easter 1873), the Coushatta Massacre (August 1874) and finally the attempt in New Orleans to overthrow Kellogg, the so-called “Battle of Liberty Place” (September 1874). No doubt the state of civil unrest in Louisiana informed Deere’s “inclination … to remain north.” In these years also began efforts to implant the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War in the New Orleans landscape, beginning in 1872 with the Army of Tennessee monument in Metairie Cemetery, and continuing with the Confederate Memorial in Greenwood Cemetery (1874), the Army of Northern Virginia monument in Metairie Cemetery (1881), the Robert E. Lee monument (1884), the addition of Albert Sidney Johnston’s statue to the Army of Tennessee monument (1887), the White League monument (“Battle of Liberty Place” monument) and Confederate Museum (both 1891), and PTG Beauregard monument (1915). As these monuments went up, black civil rights went down under expanding Jim Crow legislation that disfranchised black citizens and segregated society.
A series of mostly Unitarian ministers followed Deere: Rev. Edward A. Horton (1875), Rev. Jonas Hazard Hartzell (1876-1877), Rev. W. J. Lloyd (1878-1879), Rev. John Williams (1880), and Rev. John Healey Heywood of Louisville (1881). Notices in the Times-Picayune show that there were many sermons on “Unitarian Principles” in this period. Hartzell, a Universalist, came to New Orleans from western New York, where Unitarians and Universalists cooperated to organize churches; he had the distinction of having a schooner named after him, star of a famous Great Lakes rescue story when it sank in a storm on Lake Michigan in 1880.
During the summer of 1881, John Fretwell led services and lectured Sunday evenings about the Unitarians of Transylvania. Fretwell was the American representative to an 1874 meeting that inaugurated one of the first sustained periods of communication between English-speaking and Hungarian-speaking Unitarians; he lectured widely in Europe and America.
The first long-tenured minister after Clapp was Charles Adams Allen, who arrived in the fall of 1881. Through his efforts, the American Unitarian Association committed to supporting the church, and its debt was again retired within a few years. In 1883, Allen joined with Catholic and Jewish leaders to form the Conference of Charities, forerunner of the United Way of New Orleans. After he left New Orleans in 1889, he worked to help the church find his successor. Unitarian Revs. J. W. Hudson (1889), J. F. Moors (1889), and W. R. Alger (1890) briefly served during a four-year transition period. The church’s last minister in the 19th century, Walter C. Pierce (1893-1902), was also the last to preach at St.Charles and Julia. The Church of the Messiah was sold, and a new building dedicated in 1902 at the corner of Peters Avenue and South Rampart Street. (Both streets have been renamed: it is now the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Danneel Street.)
The Early 20th Century
Pierce’s successor, Rev. Henry Wilder Foote, presided over the dedication of the new building. AUA President Samuel A. Eliot preached the sermon. In 1909, United States President William Howard Taft attended services at First Church.
The history and story of hymnody and hymnists fascinated Foote throughout his life. After leaving New Orleans, Foote chaired the American Unitarian Association’s Commission on Hymns and Services, which produced The New Hymn and Tune Book (1914). Later, as Chair of a joint Universalist and Unitarian commission on hymnals, he oversaw the production of Hymns of the Spirit (1937) which became the standard hymnbook used by both groups. One of his last projects was the careful compilation of American Unitarian Hymn Writers and Hymns and Catalogue of American Universalist Hymn Writers and Hymns. Both were published in 1959 and continue to be valuable reference tools.
In 1911 Rev. George Kent, an English Unitarian, succeeded Rev. Foote. During his first nine years of service, the church attracted young families and continued to prosper during World War I. Prominent in the church at this time were Kate and Jean Gordon, local suffragists and civic reformers.
Rev. Kent retired in 1920. Rev. Charles Arthur Drummond (1920-1921), Rev. J. B. Hollis Tegarden (1921-1927), and Rev. Esmund S. Ferguson (1927-1930) served the church during the 1920s. Rev. Kent returned to serve again from 1930 until 1934.
Rev. Ferguson’s departure coincided with the 1929 Stock Market Crash. In a letter, Rev. Kent describes “ugly rumors and demands upon [Ferguson] much demoralized affairs of the church, drifting membership, dead YPRU [Young People’s Religious Union, the Unitarian youth organization], damaged church property, abandoned activities of all sorts…” During the 1920s, Kent had taken on a post-retirement career as a kind of consulting minister, helping different congregations work through different kinds of challenges. Kent knew that these experiences, and the trust he had built with the church, put him in a strong position to help.
The church’s 100th anniversary celebration was held the Sunday before Mardi Gras in 1933; it was the opening event in the Southern Unitarian Conference’s spring meeting, held in New Orleans that year. Henry Wilder Foote returned to give a sermon about the church’s history. The Conference opened on Sunday, then adjourned for two days to enjoy the party! The scale of the celebration must have been especially welcome in the depth of the Great Depression. During Rev. Charles Girelius’s ministry here (1934-1939), the church seriously deliberated closing its doors due to a combination of financial challenges and social stigma: in the worst years of the Depression, far-right political agitators targeted Unitarians (among other groups) as communist, insinuating that Unitarianism was not a religion. Happily, with help from AUA Regional Director J. C. Petrie, the church’s Board led the church toward careful discernment and the congregation discovered its resolve to continue. The AUA provided financial assistance and consultation to bring the religious education program up to date.
During his tenure, Girelius took up the cause of public school teachers and the anti-communist Loyalty Oath that was imposed during the Depression.
Rev. Thaddeus Clark arrived in 1940 to serve the church through what became the World War II years. Clark had some expertise in marketing, and brought it to bear on the local perception of Unitarianism. To convey the spirit and perspective of liberal religion, he initiated a local radio program in which he focused on everyday concerns. At the same time, he ran a newspaper and direct-mail ad campaign and a new church newsletter, Our Church Life, with a slick and impressive format. He recruited church members to lead programs with broad appeal.
During the war, he got involved in USO activities, including social evenings held at the church, which he insisted be integrated. He contributed time and leadership to a range of issues for soldiers and displaced persons: housing, health, work training, travelers aid, and integration. After the war, Rev. Alfred Hobart (1945-1949) continued Clark’s approach to ministry in the church and his work toward racial equality.
The Civil Rights Era
Rev. Albert D’Orlando (1950-1981) served the second-longest term as minister of First Church, and had an eventful ministry here. During the 1950s and ’60s, Rev. D’Orlando and the church became prominent in civil rights causes. He and church members were among the pioneers of New Orleans school desegregation. He chaired the Louisiana Committee on Human Rights (LCHR).
In March 1956, State Senator and White Citizens’ Council founder Willie Rainach launched an open campaign to suppress the Louisiana chapter of the NAACP, remove black voters from registration rolls, and isolate and discredit advocates of racial equality. A year into this campaign, Rainach, as Chair of the state Joint Legislative Committee on Un-American Activities, held hearings on “Subversion in Racial Unrest” in order to smear the NAACP as a Communist front. Three weeks before these hearings began, the US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) arrived in New Orleans and named 20 alleged Communists. Soon after, NOPD’s Hubert Badeaux filed charges of criminal anarchy and subversion against five of them. Badeaux also sent HUAC his file on Rev. D’Orlando, who was summoned to appear before HUAC in 1958. In his hearing it came to light that he had refused to sign a loyalty oath (while working with a coalition working to establish committees on interracial cooperation in every state – even liberal reform groups were asking for such oaths at that time), and he remained silent on his political activities before 1945. He returned home under a cloud of suspicion. The LCHR simply ceased to function when he refused to quit. The Urban League board stopped notifying him of its meetings. Rainach’s tactics had worked.
In the summer of 1965, as the voting rights movement marched in Selma, a revitalized Ku Klux Klan violently resisted efforts to integrate unions and gain equal pay for workers in Bogalusa, Louisiana, including a bombing campaign in New Orleans. Among a dozen or so targets were First Church and the D’Orlandos’ home, neither of which sustained major damage. But it did scare folks.
Such an eventful ministry was not for everyone. Some members withdrew 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 1968.
Financial struggles over the years caused neglect of the church building. In 1957, the original building at Jefferson and Danneel was torn down and a new Frank-Lloyd-Wright-inspired building, designed by church member Albert Ledner, built to replace it. That building still stands, and is now a private residence.
During his ministry in New Orleans, Rev. D’Orlando helped found congregations in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Hammond, and the Gulf Coast.
The Later 20th Century
Following Rev. D’Orlando’s long tenure, the Rev. Sidney Peterman (1981-1982) served an intentional interim ministry, preparing for the arrival of the next minister, the Rev. Michael McGee. Under his leadership from 1983 to 1987, the church became active in the gay rights movement, openly welcoming gay and lesbian members.
The first woman to serve as minister of First Church, Rev. Suzanne Meyer (1988-1997) led the church to become a founding member of a congregation-based community organizing coalition, All Congregations Together (ACT), which worked to hold elected officials accountable to community needs. In 1994, the church moved to its present building.
Following the intentional interim ministry of Rev. Diana Heath (1997-1998), Rev. Eugene R. “Guy” LaMothe (1998-2003), a former church member, served part-time and then full-time starting in 2001. The church’s first openly gay minister, he is remembered for his regular Sunday morning benediction, which affirmed that the church is not a building, but its people.
The 21st Century
The next three ministers of the church were women. Rev. Krista Taves (2004-2005), who served as interim minister, was followed by Rev. Marta Valentin (2005-2007). Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans at the very beginning of her ministry. The church building was flooded when the levees broke, and the congregation was scattered as the city was evacuated. Rev. Valentin served a difficult, often long-distance ministry for 18 months, after losing her own home and possessions to the flood. Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger (2007-2013), a former First Church member and administrator who was also the first minister to be ordained by our congregation (in 1993), led the church through the difficult years of recovery.
Following Hurricane Katrina, Community Church, First Church, and the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society came together in mutual support and formed a cluster organization called Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU) to raise funds to rebuild Unitarian Universalism in the city through cooperative programs and projects. One of those projects – a UUA/UUSC-supported program to support volunteer mission trips to help rebuild New Orleans – became the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal.
In 2013 Rev. Paul Beedle came to serve part-time as Developmental Minister. In 2015 the congregation called him as our settled minister.
Having survived the floodwaters, we are again starting to thrive, and are working in concert with our sister New Orleans congregations to continue to be a force for positive change in the Crescent City.
– this historical sketch is based on the combined researches of Meg Dachowski, Rev. Eugene “Guy” LaMothe, Rev. Krista Taves, Mary Jo Day, and Rev. Paul Beedle