From its inception, this congregation has exhibited a dedication to the principles of liberal religion that has kept us in the forefront of the drive for social justice and has enabled us to play a role in this community far larger than our numbers would indicate.
Two families provided the impetus for the establishment of liberal religion in Ridgewood. The Robinson family, members of All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC, moved to Ridgewood in 1853. Benjamin Franklin Robinson, Ridgewood’s first postmaster and a community leader known for his philanthropy, presented the land on which Christ Church now stands to that congregation in 1883. He was one of the first residents to initiate the planting of trees along Village roadways, a program still funded by the Village and responsible for our designation as a “Tree City USA.”
The Hawes family moved to Ridgewood in 1870. They had been members of the Unitarian Church in Buffalo, NY. At this time, the only Unitarian Church in New Jersey was located in Montclair, in charge of Rev. Mr. Harrison. Hungry for what she called “liberal fellowship,” Rebecca Hawes later recorded how she and her mother set out to find some. She wrote: “The first Unitarian movement in Ridgewood, NJ was made late in the winter of 1874, when two ladies, of whom the writer was one, started from there in a sleigh one Sunday morning to find a Unitarian Church in New Jersey.” The drive of fifteen miles was made in time for the morning services and they returned home the same afternoon. They attended a Unitarian Conference in Montclair the next summer, returning from it with the firm intention of finding more “liberals” in northern New Jersey if possible.
The two families prevailed upon minister friends to hold occasional services in Ridgewood. Between 1879 and 1881, they were held in the Ho-Ho-Kus Valley School which was located on the site of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Ho-Ho-Kus. When the weather got cold, the meetings were moved to the Robinson home.
By 1895, congregations had been established in Passaic and Rutherford, and their ministers assisted the small group of Ridgewood Unitarians in the attempt to establish one here. That year, the group held a series of six public lectures at the Ridgewood Opera House and then rented a basement room at the same location for regular Sunday services. The Rev. George H. Badger, minister of the Rutherford church, commuted here to lead the services. His only compensation was his train fare. After many appeals, the American Unitarian Association later granted him $37.50 a month to serve the fledgling congregation.
In May of 1896 the group adopted a constitution and by-laws and elected a board of trustees, and with its incorporation on May 23, 1896, The Unitarian Society of Ridgewood was born. The congregation moved its services to Hutton Hall, then located on Godwin Avenue, and later to Mrs. Buck’s schoolhouse at the rear of her residence on Cottage Place. Our present location, on what had been a portion of the Benjamin Robinson estate, was purchased on May 3, 1900. The building was completed in December 1900 at a cost of $2,700. The floor area of the original building was the high arched portion of Anderson Auditorium and the small area with the fireplace. There was no kitchen and no rest room. The building was heated by a coal-burning, hand-fired furnace… but only on week-ends, with the president of the society doubling as stoker.
Twenty One ministers have served this congregation. George Badger, Harry Jeschke, Arthur Whitney, Charles Grave, R.S. Barrow, Arthur Singsen, Wilson Backus, Elizabeth Padgham, V.G. Hartman and Joseph Loughran divided their time between Ridgewood and the Unitarian Churches in Rutherford, Hackensack or Passaic. In 1931 Milton Muder became our first full-time minister. He was followed by Homer Scheffer (1939-1964) and Ken Patton (1964-1986). Josiah Bartlett served as interim minister until we hired Terence Holliday Ellen (1987-2000). Upon his retirement, Maj-Britt Johnson became our second interim minister. Rev. Sarah Lammert became the fifth full-time minister of this congregation from 2002-2010. Rev. Roberta Finkelstein was hired as the interim minister from August 2010 thru June 2011. Rev. Kathleen Green served as the minister from 2011-2013. Carlos R. Martinez was an intern minister here from 2012-2014. Rev. Anthony P. Johnson is our current interim minister.
From the earliest days, members of this society have played an active role in the affairs of the larger community. When Ridgewood was building its first school, Rebecca Hawes led a committee of women, concerned about the safety of our children, who demanded that the building be built of brick rather than the less expensive wooden construction favored by the all male board. She also spearheaded the drive for regular garbage collection as a civic responsibility and in 1896 organized the Women’s Exchange, today known as the Community Thrift Shop, helping the poor and providing income to non-profit organizations.
The social consciousness, sense of empowerment, and support afforded by our Society has provided the bedrock for much of the individual action undertaken by our members. Throughout our history members of this Society have been the driving force behind an astonishing number of projects designed to further social justice, enhance understanding and compassion and provide aid to those in need. Programs initiated by members of The Unitarian Society of Ridgewood include the Broad Ridge Housing Corporation, which raised funds throughout the community to rehabilitate three dilapidated buildings on Broad Street and allow minority families to purchase their own apartments; the Ridgewood Senior Citizens Housing Corporation which built 129 units of subsidized housing on Ridge Road for low and moderate income seniors and the handicapped; SHARE, which developed two residences providing supportive communal living for elderly people; Citizens for Swimming, providing Paterson youngsters an opportunity to swim at Graydon Pool; the Ridgewood Environmental Committee; Family Counseling Service of Ridgewood and Vicinity; and the Ramapo Valley Cooperative which enabled area residents to buy quality produce at reasonable prices.
Members of this society have devoted countless hours to community service providing two Mayors of Ridgewood, two Presidents of the Ridgewood Board of Education and one in Montvale, members of the Boards of Education in Glen Rock and HoHoKus and Council, Planning and Zoning Board members in Ridgewood, Glen Rock, Fair Lawn and Saddle River.
The list of our activities covers the entire panorama of social concerns of our time. A representative sampling includes: the AIDS Buddy Support Program; American Association for the United Nations; Amnesty International; Bergen County Food Coalition; Fair Housing; the Black Affairs Council; CAMP Youth Development Program in Paterson; CAMP Adopt-a-Child Program at The Hermitage History Day Camp; Center for Food Action; Crop Walk; El Salvador relief convoy; PFLAG; Gay and Lesbian Rights; Guest at your Table; Habitat for Humanity; Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless; Bergen Peace and Justice Coalition, International Rescue Committee for Cuban refugees; Jamaican Hurricane Relief; League of Women Voters; National Council for Universal Amnesty; NJ Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights; Order of the Lamp; Paterson Ecumenical Pre-School; Peace Brigades International; Pro Arte Chorale; Planned Parenthood; Ridgewood Area Peace Coalition; Ridgewood Symphony; Friends of the Hermitage; Martin Luther King Day Celebration; SANE Freeze; St. Paul’s Men’s Shelter; Task Force Against Growing Militarism; Women’s Strike for Peace.
Few Unitarians believe in immortality, but as a society we have earned the memorialization offered in the Kaddish… the Jewish prayer for the dead: “They live on in the hearts of those that cherish their memory and in the good deeds that they performed on earth.”
Written by Roberta Svarre (excerpted)
Unitarians in Ridgewood — 100 Years of Freedom Community and Concern
Doris Armstrong’s history of USR, Copyright 1997