Celebrating a spiritual landmark

By Judith van Berkom – 

The tall spire of The First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa can be seen from miles around. Visitors step inside to see the western red cedar ceiling stretching up to the sky.

The building, a stone’s throw from the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, was designed by the architectural firm, Craig & Kohler. The Reverend at the time, David C. Pohl, issued this missive to the firm: “The building had to express unity, freedom, simplicity, openness, contemporaneity, humility and a religious humanism.”

This year, the church is celebrating its 50th anniversary at this location. The history of the congregation, however, goes back to 1898. Originally located downtown, on Elgin and Lewis Streets, a 75 percent increase in membership necessitated a move, starting with a purchase of land in 1964. Easter 1967 marked the beginning of congregational life in the new slender-spired church overlooking the Ottawa River.

An open house event on Sunday, June 11 celebrated the milestone anniversary of this beautiful building on Cleary Avenue and included tours of the facilities, displays highlighting their history and accomplishments, and of course, music – the congregants singing, the Lisgar Collegiate Institute String Quartet performing.

Photos by Al Goyette

Mary-Ann Wood: “This is a church that keeps one absolutely current in life and in the world,” says Kitchissippi resident and church member, Mary-Ann Wood. “You reach an age where you’re no longer in touch with what is going on in the world. Keeping in touch is very much a part of this congregation. I am always learning.”

“The inherent worth of every individual is one of our principles. There can be groups [in the church] that wouldn’t be your choice to join, but you support them because the foundations are ones you believe in.”

Gay Stinson: “What really got to me in this church was all the windows,” says Gay Stinson. Gay’s spirituality being closely linked to the outdoor natural world found a home at First Unitarian in part because sitting in the common worship area afforded a view of nature, surrounded as it is with windows floor to ceiling on two sides.

“The music program is fantastic,” she says. “They have three choirs and I sing in all three. Budding musicians are invited to perform. And their Steinway piano – saved in part by the congregation selling apple pies – celebrated its 10th year with a Steinway concert, a wonderful evening of people playing the piano.”

Alex Campbell:
“I found in Unitarian Universalism everything that meets my desires as to what religion and spirituality should be about,” says Alex. Originally from South Africa, Alex is a lay minister in the church and has been a member since 2003.

“We have these seven principles and if you put your mind to it and your heart to it, it’s a lifetime commitment. These seven principles guide my on-going decisions – how I’m going to lead my life, how I’m going to relate to people.”

Chris Hughes: 
Chris is Chair of the Communications and Outreach Committee. “It’s a challenge to stand out as a church in this day and age,” says Chris. “I like the principles of operation here. I like the fact that it’s a very inclusive church.”

Councillor Jeff Leiper: “The Unitarians have such a strong social justice mandate. There are about 5000 Unitarians nation-wide, but the impact they have is far beyond what you would expect,” says Kitchissippi Councillor, Jeff Leiper. “They are an active congregation with a strong mandate very much aligned with my own values. If I did attend church, it would be here.”

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