We can trace the origins of the First Unitarian Society of Westchester (FUSW) back to Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus Cleveland, who moved to Yonkers, NY, in 1853. For many months, the couple hosted Sunday services in their South Broadway home for families with Unitarian sympathies. By 1856, the crowds became too large for a private home, and all interested religious liberals were invited to attend services at the Getty House Lyceum. Various liberal Christian ministers were invited to conduct the services. The first Unitarian sermons were preached on July 6, 1856, by the Rev. Samuel S. Osgood, pastor of the Church of the Messiah (now the Community Church) in New York City. The services were attended by 200 listeners from as far away as Irvington and Fort Washington.
Unitarians alternated Sundays at the Lyceum with the Universalists and many individuals were drawn to both types of services. In late 1857, the Unitarians agreed to call the Rev. Abiel A. Livermore, editor of the New York Christian Inquirer, to be their minister. Livermore’s wife, Elizabeth, was co-editor of the newspaper and formed the new church school. In 1858, a board of trustees was formed. It applied for a certificate of incorporation from the State of New York, adopted bylaws and “Statement,” appointed a committee to raise funds, and bought property on North Broadway. The legal name of the organization was—and still is—“The First Unitarian Congregational Church of Yonkers, New York.” Popularly, the name has evolved over the years, first shedding the word “Congregational” and broadening its geographic scope to become “The First Unitarian Church of Westchester;” since 1985, we have embraced a wider membership with the name, “The First Unitarian Society of Westchester.”
A Gothic revival frame church building on North Broadway in Yonkers was dedicated in the autumn of 1861. The Rev. Livermore resigned in August 1863 to become president of Meadville Theological School. In June 1864, Mr. Israel F. Williams accepted an invitation to become the next minster. Unfortunately, while on leave to serve in the Civil War Sanitation Commission, he contracted typhoid and died before he could be ordained and installed. The next two decades were filled with several brief ministries and a nearly four-year period when the Society had to manage without a minister.
In 1887, the Rev. James T. Bixby came to the Yonkers church. Educated at Harvard and the University of Leipzig, he had been both a professor at Meadville and a parish minister. One of his first innovations was the introduction of Sunday evening service on “Topics of the Day,” with subjects that included the theory of evolution, organization of labor, increasing freedom for women, compulsory education and other current issues. He remained in the pulpit for 17 years. When he left, he was succeeded by the Rev. Lyman M. Greenman, who served until 1909. The Bixby and Greenman ministries have been called the “golden years” of the church’s history.
The next minister, the Rev. Peter H. Goldsmith, served through a difficult period in the society’s history. Membership declined. Coal shortages during World War I made it difficult to heat the church building and for a time, there was a return to the early practice of holding services in members’ homes. Rev. Goldsmith resigned in 1917.
The following year, Rev. Hilary Goode Richardson was called. He and his wife, Nancy Davis Richardson enlivened the congregation and the Yonkers community. The church flourished, growing to a membership of several hundred, and offering a rich music program an active church school (under Ms. Richardson’s direction) and a strong involvement in social action. Rev. Richardson’s ministry lasted through the Depression years and into the Second World War. During World War II, 31 members of the congregation were in service; one was killed in France. Shortly after the war ended, Rev. Richardson resigned.
The Rev. Arthur R. Graham arrived in 1947. His ministry began at a time when the congregation faced many daunting challenges: dwindling membership, a Sunday school seemingly in its death throes, finances at low ebb, and the physical plant badly in need of repair. Under his leadership, features of a modern congregation began to emerge. He oversaw the publication of a weekly church bulletin; the introduction of paid advertisements for the church in local newspapers, the creation of the all-important social hour—with coffee—following services on the first Sunday of each month services; the institution of a regular schedule for greeters and ushers. In 1948, for the first time in its history, the church conducted an Every Member Canvass to raise funds, increase membership, provide information to help in preparing budgets, and obtain suggestions for the improvement of the church.
Rev. Graham resigned in 1952 and was succeeded by the Rev. William R. Reid. At Rev. Reid’s suggestion, a Long Range Planning Committee was launched to study options for enlarging or relocating the church. He resigned in November 1955 to accept a call to another church.
The Rev. J. Robert Smudski began his ministry in February of 1956. During his first year, he reinstituted the weekly publication of a newsletter, and supported an expanded musical program. On January 9, 1957, a revised “Purpose of the Church” was adopted, which recognized the identification of the majority of members as humanists more rather than as deists or theists. In 1963, serious consideration was given to moving to different location because of various problems posed by the North Broadway site. In November 1965, the congregation voted to sell the church property and relocate. The process was complex and moved in fits and starts, but six and a half years later, all church activities were finally relocated to a renovated property at 25 Old Jackson Avenue in Hastings on Hudson, where it remains.
Although a prime reason for the move from North Broadway had been to provide an environment that would encourage membership growth, the congregation actually shrank during and after the relocation—from a high of 250 in the 1960s to 150 in 1972. This was partly a function of purging inactive members from the roll; however, changing attitudes toward church-going and a discomfort with the prospect of a new, unfamiliar location undoubtedly contributed.
In 1973, it became clear that debt-management and a shrinking membership had thrust the society into a severe financial crisis. Rev. Smudski agreed to reduce his ministerial services to half-time in return for having the use of the building for his own professional counseling and educational activities. Rev. Smudski resigned in 1977 to accept an invitation to become minister to a church in Florida.
As a corollary to having a half-time minister, the congregation assumed responsibility for alternate-Sunday programming. This led to the creation of Program Groups, in which the congregation was sub-divided into committees that created and presented Sunday services. The program groups, partly task-oriented and partly social gatherings are still an integral part of our congregation’s life.
From 1977 through 1985, the ministry remained a part-time position under first, The Rev. Alan G. Egly and then the Rev. Bettye A. Doty. Rev. Doty served as minister from 1979 until she resigned in 1985 to accept a position as inter-district minister in Ohio and Michigan. Over the next few years, with the help of Rev. Cynthia Ward, the congregation focused on membership growth. In 1992, the congregation called a full-time minister, Rev. David Bryce.
During Rev. Bryce’s 17-year tenure, FUSW saw congregational growth and a population explosion in its RE classes. We expanded the building, adding two more classrooms to the RE wing and improving building accessibility. We hired a Director of Religious Education. We increased the musical offerings, as part of services and as social and fund-raising events, and staged numerous art exhibits throughout the years. We created and implemented a Safe and Sacred Policy, voted to become a Welcoming Congregation and made a commitment to creating a green sanctuary. We began offering Our Whole Lives as a regular part of our middle school religious education and moved on to the inclusion of OWL classes for K-1 and grades 4 and 5.
In 2011, we called the Rev. Peggy Clarke to our pulpit. Despite the flood and our nation's new economic reality, we entered a new phase with hope, ready to find out what was next for our historic congregation. After 8 years, Rev. Clarke left FUSW in 2019 to become senior minister of the Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist.
In 2019, Viola Abbitt accepted a position as an interim shared minister with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Poughkeepsie for one year.
First Unitarian Society of Westchester 25 Old Jackson Avenue, Hastings on Hudson, NY 10706 914-478-2710