More than 50 years after the founding of UUCV, one of our original members, Bobbie Schoenherr, is still active in congregational life. Here, she talks with fellow member Silvia Hutchins about the history of UUCV – its inception and early years.
The Early Years
The first efforts to establish Unitarian Universalism in Ventura occurred in 1951 with the creation of a Unitarian Fellowship. After a few years the number of members began to decline, and Ventura couples with young children who sought a more vital religious environment began attending the Universalist Church in the nearby town of Santa Paula where Rev. Fred LeShane was the minister.
In August 1958, Rev. LeShane met with the Ventura families, and the group decided to start a church in Ventura. Soon a notice appeared in the local paper announcing that the Universalist Unitarian Church would be meeting Sunday evenings. In November bylaws were adopted and the members signed an application for Fellowship Affiliation with the Universalist Church of America. The church was accepted in early 1959 as the Universalist Unitarian Church of Ventura County, though the name was later changed to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura in 1962.
In the spring of 1959, the adults and babies met in a local dance studio, the older children met in what was then the YWCA, and the preschoolers met in the Margaret Hope Nursery School. In 1960, the original Unitarian Fellowship was dissolved and efforts began toward creating a new church. Under the leadership of Elizabeth Topping, former County librarian, the Fellowship contributed $650 to the new church, thus starting a building fund. The church was accepted into the Unitarian Association. Rev. LeShane departed and the church sought a new minister. During the fall of 1960, services were held in the Coburn Nursery School and some excellent speakers were brought in.
In 1961, the Rev. Ralph (Ron) H. Cook became our minister and we moved again, this time to the Moser Home, a historical landmark in Ventura. During the year and a half at this location we were actively involved in running a plant nursery. We held an art festival week and hosted the Bishop Company to perform excerpts from various plays. Contemporary problems were addressed with speakers from groups as diverse as the John Birch Society, the Black Muslims, the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Rev. Cook participated in the civil rights march in Alabama. We joined together for spaghetti dinners, Friday night coffee houses, and group therapy for couples.
It was at the Moser Home that the church began to experience the life cycle with our first dedication of children, our first wedding, and the first memorial service. In 1962 there was another move. We met in the Odd Fellows Lodge for a while though this smaller space limited church activities considerably. In 1965 we were able to rent the YMCA on Sunday mornings and the church began to thrive again.
Rev. Cook left in 1966 and Rev. Richard Harris was called in the fall as our new minister. Under his direction we developed our own church school curriculum and enjoyed musical performances. By 1968 the Women’s Auxiliary had raised $5,000 which was earmarked for a church building. Through the ingenuity of one member, Frank Peterson, the remainder of the money was raised for a down payment on a unique hillside property overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands. This property, which would be our home for decades, became an official City of Ventura historical landmark known as the “Terry House.”
The Terry House Years
Fond memories of our first few years at Terry House include candlelight meditations, folk dancing with nearby Temple Beth Torah,encounter groups, pottery lessons and sales, luaus, Thanksgiving dinners, progressive dinners, intergenerational solstice and equinox celebrations, New Year’s Eve parties and Reno nights. During the late ’60’s and early ’70’s we also struggled to obtain fire insurance for our rural foothill location, worked to pave the parking lot, and offered our building as sanctuary for draft resisters. Popular and successful fundraising service auctions were initiated during this time. In 1972, Rev. Harris moved on and we were without a minister until Rev. Jim Dace came in 1974. With the arrival of Rev. Dace the Church was able to resume more formal Sunday services and the school began to grow again. Candlelight suppers continued, as did Friday night sharings and folk dancing. We were again without a minister after Rev. Dace left in June, 1979 until Rev. Frederica Leigh joined us in 1981.
During the nine years Rev. Leigh served the Church membership grew. We joyfully burned our mortgage in 1983, and after a thorough, long-term goal-setting process the congregation voted to move toward building a new sanctuary to accommodate a significantly larger congregation. In 1987, following a vigorous building fund drive and during the planning and design phase, our plans were regretfully abandoned when it was discovered that an agreement had been signed in 1970, and subsequently forgotten, which made the church financially responsible for straightening the portion of Foothill Road which the church property fronts.
With the new sanctuary project shelved for the immediate future, we turned our energy toward new and continuing projects. Members continued to hold an annual Women’s Retreat, candlelight dinners, open houses and mask-making events. The 1980s included many intergenerational activities such as game nights and video watching. During these years we participated in the Family-to-Family food program for the needy and continued to support the Beyond War program. We enjoyed a successful thirtieth anniversary celebration and began refurbishing Terry House.
Under the leadership of Rev. Leigh we were able to have three intern Student Ministers. When Rev. Leigh became ill and needed to take a year’s convalescence in 1989 it was a sad setback for the Church. The congregation supported her throughout this period both financially and emotionally. We were able to continue many programs and start new ones such as the women’s group “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven,” the men’s group, Covenant of UU Pagans (CUUPS), and a dream group. With the help of seven ministers from the Pacific Southwest District we continued to have interesting worship services during 1989-90. Rev. Leigh resigned her position in 1990 and we continued to support her until her death in 1991. We were deeply grieved by this loss.
Rev. Betty Baker came in 1990 as our interim minister and we began the search process for a new minister. We were able to resolve the conflict with the city over Foothill Road during this time, and the congregation voted again to build a new sanctuary. Rev. Weston-Jones was called in 1992 and led our involvement in supporting reproductive rights and participation in interfaith meetings following the Los Angeles riots.
As a creative response to UUCV financial difficulties, Rev. Weston-Jones also initiated a Whale Coast Program, wherein he and congregational volunteers took tourists to whale sites in Alaska and Mexico. Rev. Weston-Jones planned and led the trips with assistance from volunteers from our congregation during summer months, using the proceeds to help the church meet its financial obligations, including his salary.
In 1995, a Master Site Plan for a new sanctuary at our current location was approved. In 1998, we faced once again the unfortunate reality that building a new sanctuary would not be possible, this time for lack of a unified commitment and the poor financial situation of the congregation. While the plans for the new sanctuary were not completely abandoned, they took a back seat to becoming financially solvent and to new projects. Our energies turned again toward upgrading our current home and a matching gift fund raised $41,000 to rebuild the playground and redo the kitchen. A well-organized choir formed in the late 1990s and the Our Whole Lives program, a human sexuality course, was introduced in religious education.
Rev. Weston-Jones retired in 2000 and Rev. Judy Cohen joined us as an interim minister for two years. In preparation for our search process the long range planning committee organized home discussion groups to discern our goals for the upcoming years. In the fall of 2001 we conducted a mission/vision process, “Searching for the Future,” under the direction of Jeri Moulder, a UUA consultant. Eighty members of the congregation participated in focus groups. We created a mission statement and began a visioning process. A vision statement was adopted in June, 2003 and additional workshops and meetings have been conducted as we work to create a five year plan.
In 2002, the congregation called Jan Christian to be our minister. Due to space limitations, her ordination (our first ordination of a woman) and installation were held at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara in early 2003. Thanks to the hard work and participation of many in the congregation, it was a beautiful service and celebration and it was attended by over 225 people including almost 50 from out of state.
By the fall of 2002, we were already conducting two services on Sundays from September through May. In the 2002-3003 church year, average attendance increased 50% and membership increased by over 15%. The spirit of generosity, in all of its forms, increased as well. The canvass total increased by 26% for the following year. We also created an Inreach/Outreach fund to help those in need in our congregation and those in need in our larger community. This fund was created on Christmas Eve and continued into the new year with a decision to give away all non-pledge money from the services on the first Sunday of every month. At the end of the year, Rev. Jan trained a cadre of Pastoral Visitors to help meet the needs of the growing congregation.
In 2003, a decision was made to continue holding two services throughout the summer months due to increased attendance. Another record canvass resulted in the first-ever proposed budget of over $200,000. Membership increased another 9% and the congregation received newspaper coverage for the work of our Inreach/Outreach Fund.
In the 2003-2004 church year, the Board of Trustee’s major goal was to address the space issue. Committees were formed to look at possibilities on-site and off-site. The congregation began a series of deep discussions seeking to determine the energy and enthusiasm for relocating to another site. A comprehensive report was created and meetings were held to discuss the findings as well as the feelings involved. An overwhelming majority of the congregation voted to authorize the Board to appoint a committee to sell the beloved Terry House and to find a new location to accommodate growth and help us live out our mission in the community.
This committee was christened the “Blessed Bees” but was often referred to as the “Busy Bees” due to the pace of their activity. Tasked with both selling the Terry House and locating a new facility, the Bees met once or even twice a week, evaluating properties for the congregation to consider. Several prospective sites were found and the congregation was invited to “Open House” events. An old insurance claims processing center, known as the Ralston facility, while not ideal, offered the best available way to fill the goals of the congregation.
After a great deal of discussion as the 2004-2005 church year began, the decision to buy the property was approved by 98% of the congregation. This was a two-fold challenge; selling the Terry House first would leave the congregation without a home for an unknown period of time, but purchasing a new facility without the proceeds from the sale seemed impossible. The answer was a Bridge Loan. Members contributed individual gifts and loans of over $800,000 to “Bridge” from the old location to the new and fund a down payment on the Ralston property. This gave us time to sell the Terry House and refinance a new loan that was paid off a few years later.
Moving On documented the departure from Terry House, the procession to Ralston St. and celebration of the new church home.
Much energy and time went into preparing the new space to be our next church home, and into the move itself. Once established in our new facility, attendance increased again by about 15% and membership topped 200 for the first time in the history of the congregation. Ventura was also the site of the Pacific Southwest District’s annual District Assembly in 2004. We created a worship service attended by hundreds of UUs from throughout the District.
In December, 2007 our congregation was recognized by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors for our work to end homelessness. This is just one of the ways we are working to put our faith into action. In 2008, we created the “Lift Up Your Voice” project to further our work to end homelessness. Under the auspices of this program, we have spearheaded an interfaith gathering of clergy on the steps of Ventura City Hall earlier this year, a program providing a behind-the-scenes look at homelessness with people who have experienced homelessness as guides, a photo project aimed at putting a face on homelessness, and an annual memorial service for homeless people who have died in our county. We are working to create a culture of commitment and to find new ways to nurture our spirits and heal our world. (See Social Action and Media Coverage for photos and more information.)
Where We Are Today
We hired a new Director of Religious Education (DRE) in 2010 and an Assistant Minister in 2011, and created our second 5-Year Plan in 2013. In 2014, through member contributions, we paid off our mortgage on the current property, and in 2015, raised funds to re-roof our building and install solar panels (see Capital Campaign Information, page 1). In addition to being recognized by the UUA as a Welcoming Congregation, we are now recognized as a Green Sanctuary.
Reverend David Pyle, our Assistant Minister, was called to serve the Joseph Priestley district on the East Coast early in 2015, and Reverend Jan announced her retirement from parish ministry following his departure. Our DRE achieved credentialing and was recognized at GA in Portland in 2015. She has moved to take a full-time position in North Carolina. And our Music Director of 15 years retired in December, 2014. In 2015-16, we called Carolyn Howard as our new Music Director, and a well-qualified member began serving as our interim DRE. During that church year, we were served by Interim Minister, Rev. Ed Brock, working with Beverly Jordan, our Membership Manager.
In the spring of 2016, we called Rev. Dana Worsnop as our new settled minister. She began her tenure with us on August 1, 2016. We are in an exciting time of transition and are looking forward to the transforming power of change.
The next chapter of our history is yet to be created and written. We hope you will be part of writing that future.