Friday, February 05, 2016


Remarks from the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg delivered at the commemorative service held at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Part 4 of 4)

As surely as trail-making has been part of this congregation’s history and nature, bridge-building has also been a recurring theme. In the early years, bridge-building was imposed upon the congregation, since its members were both religiously unconventional and members of an immigrant community.

There was considerable discrimination against the early members. In 1898, the congregation’s second settled minister, Magnús Skaptason, lamented that, “the Unitarian name was both hated and despised” and working people in the congregation had difficulty finding work, while its merchants had trouble retaining customers on account of their faith. And he noted that there were few younger women in the congregation, owing to “prejudices against the Unitarians.” Undeterred, members strove to build bridges to both the dominant society and to other immigrant groups, creating a network of relationships throughout the larger community.

Delegates to the 1923 convention of the United
Conference of Icelandic Churches on the grounds
of the Manitoba Legislative Building.
In 1920, the First Icelandic Unitarian Society amalgamated with another Icelandic congregation known as the Winnipeg Tabernacle, which was led by a minister who had originally been one of primary antagonists of the Unitarians. But Friðrik J. Bergmann’s continued study and reflection led him to increasingly liberal positions and he embraced what became known as the “New Theology.” In 1916, he and his congregation entered into merger talks with the Unitarians and, although he died suddenly two years later, the merger proceeded and in 1920, the two congregations came together under the name First Federated Church. A bridge had been built and crossed between two congregations that had once considered themselves adversaries.

Over at All Souls Church, Horace Westwood built relationships with organized labour and, along with Salem Bland of Wesley College, won recognition of the firefighters’ union by the city. Westwood’s predecessor, William A. Vrooman, described Unitarians’ tendency to build bridges between the separated as having been rooted in “a social passion for the redemption of the outcast and the weak, an outpouring of divine worth for the unworthy, of hope for the hopeless, of life out of death, and the ministry of kindly hearts to the friendless and lost.”

* * *

When the First Unitarian Church, as it was then known, celebrated its 25th anniversary, the world was in the midst of a Great War and a worldwide financial and industrial depression. Its future was by no means certain. The buoyant optimism of liberal religion was ridiculed by those who pointed to the war as evidence that our positive estimate of humankind was foolhardy and our confidence in the future was misplaced. Financial pressures on the congregation’s largely working class membership threatened to force the church to close its doors and discontinue its work. However, the members were quietly confident that their challenges would be met and the church would be around for a second quarter century. “Yet, with unswerving faith in Providence,” its leaders declared in a message to the congregation and its friends, “strengthened by the experience of the past, the church faces the future hopefully.”

Every age faces its own unique challenges and opportunities. Few of us have the foresight and wisdom to see them clearly beforehand, but we can often observe that the spirit and deeds of the past offer an intimation of both the perils and the possibilities moving forward. So, while it’s impossible to predict what destiny awaits this congregation – whether it will even be around to mark another anniversary in 25 years – we can be fairly confident that’s its accomplishments and successes, whatever they might be, will somehow involve trail-making and bridge-building. When there are no new spiritual paths to explore, no fresh insights to incorporate into our ways of living, no divisions to heal, no communities to reconcile, no rough places to make smooth, then our work will be done. Until then, this city – and indeed the whole world – will have need of trail-makers and bridge-builders. So may we, too, like our spiritual ancestors, have an abiding confidence in the principles of our faith, the wisdom to learn from the experiences of the past, and – most importantly – an openness to the unfolding future, so that the legacy of trail-making and bridge-building continues to “point the way to higher levels and loftier achievements.” 

Thursday, February 04, 2016


Remarks from the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg delivered at the commemorative service held at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Part 3 of 4)

Unitarian Universalists do not hold a monopoly on liberal religious thought and expression. Although our congregations may sometimes fancy themselves the most liberal spiritual communities in town, we often have competitors for that honour and therefore natural allies in our work. Here in Winnipeg, there was, during the first four decades of the 20th century, a great religious liberal who was a friend of both the Icelandic Unitarians and the English-speaking Unitarians who had organized their own congregation, All Souls Church, in 1904. An ordained Methodist minister who left that denomination for the short-lived Labour Church and left the ministry for politics, J.S. Woodsworth occasionally filled the pulpits in both of the city’s Unitarian churches when he wasn’t in Ottawa. Indeed, he was sometimes mistaken for being a Unitarian minister and he didn’t object when that happened, since the teachings and practices of the Labour Church were virtually identical to those of the Unitarians.

“We need trail-makers,” he said. “In the realm of the spirit, in the search after truth, in the field of social relationships, in economics, in politics, in international affairs, we need trail-makers — men [and women] who will seek new paths; make the rough places smooth; bridge the chasms that now prevent human progress; point the way to higher levels and loftier achievements.”

The qualities of trail-making and bridge-building have been embodied in this congregation from the very beginning. If trail-making is seen as seeking new paths and making them accessible to those who follow, then this congregation has laid down trails at every stage of its existence.

Youth Sunday 1946 at the First Federated Church
of Unitarians and Other Liberal Christians on
Banning Street in Winnipeg.
At a time when most churches were defined by creeds and dogmas, the audacity to establish a congregation on the basis of a simple covenant to unite for the service of God and humanity, in the spirit of Jesus, was an act of trail-making. And to then expand the circle of inclusion to include agnostics and atheists, and those who looked to figures other than Jesus for inspiration, was a bold act of trail-making and bridge-building, not to mention confidence and faith. One of the early ministers of All Souls Church, William A. Vrooman, maintained that, “the unity of a church should … depend not upon uniformity of belief, but upon that unity of the spirit which enables [women and] men who may differ in opinions still to love and serve one another.”

It was trail-making when the congregation became the first spiritual community in the city known to have opened its pulpit to a woman as its minister. Jennie McCaine Peterson effectively shared the ministry of this congregation with her husband Björn from the very beginning and she then succeeded him for a year following his death, notwithstanding the barriers of language and social convention. And it was a trail-making message she preached, telling her congregants that the “sciences tell us that instead of being created as perfect beings, humans have all these centuries been slowly and slowly evolving” and going on to say that “people are paying attention to other religions older than Christianity and comparing them” – favourably, I would add. At that time, there were few other places, if any, where one would have heard a preacher extolling evolution and comparative religion in this city.

It was trail-making when, after the congregation’s women’s society was formed in 1904, under the leadership of Margrét Bendictsson, the congregation amended its bylaws so that support for women’s suffrage was a requirement of membership. Indeed, I have found no other church, within our denomination or beyond it, that made such a demand upon its members.

And this pattern of trail-making carried on throughout the history of this congregation, because it was deeply embedded both in the Icelandic congregation and in the English-speaking All Souls Church, which was founded in 1904 under the leadership of Arthur Puttee, the first Labour member of Canada’s parliament, and Hope Ross. Although it’s the 125th anniversary of the founding of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society that we are commemorating today, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg is actually rooted in three liberal churches, the other two being the Winnipeg Tabernacle and All Souls Church. At All Souls, James Hart introduced humanism to Winnipeg’s Unitarians while decrying the oppression and exploitation of imperialism at a time when nice people didn’t talk about such things.

As the decades progressed, this city’s Unitarians found themselves, as trail-makers, on the leading edge of groundbreaking issues from law reform to public education. And it’s no accident that this country’s first same-sex marriage occurred under the auspices of this church, even if it took the law three decades to catch up.

It’s not that trail-making came without controversy, either within the congregation or between the church and the larger community – it’s that the congregation was prepared to follow its collective conscience into uncomfortable places.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Longevity of Churches

Remarks from the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg delivered at the commemorative service held at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Part 2 of 4)

Now, notwithstanding their social importance throughout human history, the study of congregations as a sociological phenomenon is only a little more than half a century old and the notion that congregations are institutions with something to learn from other human institutions, and with something to contribute in return, is not much more than a century old. So, when this congregation was founded, there were no real guidebooks about how to do so, other than the various denominations’ rules of polity and manuals of discipline. A familiarity with received traditions, the observation of neighbouring congregations’ practices, and the mentorship of wise – and sometimes not so wise – elders were the foundation upon which missionaries went about organizing new congregations. Beyond that, they had to rely on their own ingenuity and chutzpah – although no Christian missionary would have had any idea what chutzpah was, let alone that they possessed it.

First Icelandic Unitarian Church confirmation class
from 100 years ago. The minister is Rev. Rögnvaldur
Pétursson and the two young men in the centre went
on to become ministers – Rev. Philip M. Petursson
and Rev. H.I.S. (Ingi) Borgford.
By the time I was actively engaged in church work, there was a vast literature on the nature of congregational life and a wide array of training programs aimed at guiding would-be new congregation organizers in their task, the name “missionary” having long since fallen out of favour among religious liberals. One of the striking assertions I remember hearing, having been the beneficiary of a quarter century of study, was that the average life expectancy of a Protestant congregation in North America was about 76 years – more or less the same longevity as the average North American person. Not only that, but we were told that the life cycle of the typical congregation was remarkably similar to that of a human being – they tended to reach their adult size by the time they were a quarter century old, they often experienced something akin to a mid-life crisis in their 40s or 50s, and their decline and demise often came on rapidly in their later years. And specific studies of congregations with ethnic foundations – like ours – revealed that few survive to the end of the third generation – that is, few outlast the grandchildren of their founders.

Like all sweeping generalizations, observations about statistically average congregations can be as misleading as they are illuminating, but I offer them up to reinforce an obvious but noteworthy point: this congregation is uncommonly old, which is to say that it has already outlived the average congregation by half a century. It has survived and prospered. And this is a testimony to the faithfulness, resilience, and ingenuity of successive generations of members and friends who have helped it to flourish. This is not an average congregation, it is an exceptional one – remarkable for its longevity, to be sure, but remarkable primarily for the qualities that enabled its longevity: a clear but evolving sense of mission, resilience in weathering the inevitable conflicts and challenges that all human communities face, a willingness to reach across the social divides that stifle growth, and a capacity to change without compromising its core values.

Planting Unitarianism Among the Icelanders of Winnipeg

Remarks from the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg delivered at the commemorative service held at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Part 1 of 4)

Looking over the memorabilia from past anniversaries, I discovered that there were eight sermons or addresses – the Icelandic word ræða can mean either – delivered at the congregation’s 25th anniversary celebration, which may explain why the event lasted for three hours; there were four sermons at the 50th anniversary, two sermons at the 75th anniversary, and one sermon shared by two preachers at the 100th anniversary. And today, there will be one sermon in two movements. If my projections are correct and, should you happen to be around for the sesquicentennial – the 150th anniversary – it is my prediction that either there will be one sermon in four parts or else no sermon at all. You heard it here first.

When this congregation marked its 50th anniversary in 1941, our young minister at the time, Philip Petursson, said, “Nobody knows – or can remotely guess – what the world may be like a year from today or five years from now. Even the oldest landmarks may vanish. The ideas and customs and traditions and institutions that now seem to us most stable may be overturned and destroyed and forgotten. It sometimes seems as though the one certain thing about life is that it is uncertain, the one safe prophecy that tomorrow will be so unlike the present that it cannot possibly be foretold. The one safeguard in such a world,” he continued, “is a strong, positive religious faith – a deep-rooted conviction that this universe is more than the battleground of blind, dark, ruthless forces, where the only thing that counts is brute force and the only arbiter of human destiny is sheer accident. Over and against any such pitiless view of life,” he said, the liberal religious person “sets [a] daring affirmation that reason is potentially stronger than chaos, the human dream of an ideal world as real and powerful as the law of gravitation, that justice is not an idle and pathetic illusion, truth no mere will-o’-the-wisp, the ultimate victory of love over hatred, of goodwill over selfish and cruel impulses, of the divine over the brute within the soul … is as certain as that tomorrow’s sun will rise or that two and two make four.”

The second building of the First Icelandic Unitarian
Church of Winnipeg, dedicated in 1905.
The anniversary celebration was held in June of that year, after the regular church year had come to a close. These words were especially powerful when you remember that the world was at war and the conflict wasn’t going particularly well. The congregation’s leaders weren’t entirely certain that it was even appropriate to hold a celebration, given everything that was going on. So the tone of the anniversary was more solemn than celebratory. But the anniversary was marked.

Philip spoke of paying tribute to the pioneers who had “labored and sacrificed” to plant and maintain Unitarianism in this city, encouraging freedom of thought, so that the fruits of our faith would be embodied in lives of character and purpose. And they really had sacrificed because identifying as a Unitarian in those days was not without consequences – especially if you happened to be an immigrant.

The thirty-six people who gathered on February 1st, 1891 to establish the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg under the leadership of Björn Pétursson and Jennie McCaine Peterson were indeed pioneers. In defining their purpose as a congregation, their bond of union affirmed: “In truth and in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, we unite for the service of God and men.” While those words might raise eyebrows among some Unitarian Universalists today, they were, in the context of their time, a radically simple and inclusive affirmation. Notwithstanding their invocation of Jesus, few outside the congregation considered them to be Christians and, in a time when such things mattered, this meant that their “otherness” was on display for all to see. A couple of dozen others joined the initial 36 as charter members.

Together, they laboured on in following a new pathway in religion while striving to build bridges to their neighbours. The built a small wooden chapel at the corner of Sherbrook Street and Pacific Avenue, which they dubbed “Unity Hall,” and it became a gathering place not only for Unitarians, but also for other groups that had trouble finding a place to meet, such as the Winnipeg Secular Association.

During its first decade, the congregation’s membership fluctuated between 60 and 80, although attendance was always much greater – sometimes reaching a few hundred – and they persevered, attracting the interest of some bright, young individuals who aimed to make a difference in the world. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

John Harvard and the Public Good

John Harvard’s voice permeated the home where I grew up, even though he never set foot in it. When he was at CJOB, my mother listened to his open-line show; when he was at CBC, my father watched him on 24 Hours. I was on hand for both. As a youngster, he struck me as confrontational – and I suppose he was, but not like the melodramatic posturing that we see on the cable news these days. As a journalist, he asked hard questions and he expected straight answers from the people he interviewed. He was well-informed, insightful, unflappable, and direct. And he had an intuitive sense that helped him discern when people were bluffing, which generally triggered him to push them a little harder.

I didn’t meet him in person until 1988, when he ran for Parliament the first time. He called me at home to ask for my support, tossing off a few words in Icelandic – perhaps the only ones he could come up with – before introducing himself and saying that he was seeking the Liberal nomination in my part of the city. In those days, I was “between parties” and I was happy to support his candidacy after he convinced me that he was the progressive with the best chance of winning that year. In time, I continued to gravitate leftward, but I still admired John’s devoted public service, his willingness to work hard for his constituents, and his progressive viewpoints.

I was pleased when he was named Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba in 2004, although I briefly wondered about how easy he would find it to move from the rough and tumble of partisan politics in the nation’s capital to the ceremonial responsibilities of the viceregal office back home in Manitoba. He flourished in the new role, which focused more on celebrating the values that bind us together as a society. The ritual and ceremony suited him. And his relationship to the province’s Icelandic community deepened.

John Harvard and Stefan Jonasson in 2014.
During his years in Government House, we had a few opportunities to discuss religion and, once he was free of the constraints of office, we had occasion to speak again about politics and public policy in a more robust manner. John was remarkably stoic about his own disappointments, sufferings, and personal tragedies; he once remarked in conversation, “Why not me? Why should I be spared life’s inevitable misfortune?” Yet he savoured life and he was genuinely concerned about the needs of others and desirous of building the kind of society in which human misery is minimized, while human freedom is enhanced. He held his political views passionately.

Although I hold politicians in higher regard than most people do these days, I have always been critical of those public figures (a distinct minority, I believe) who seem incapable of distinguishing between private interests and the public good. As a journalist, as an elected official, as lieutenant governor, and as a private citizen, John Harvard had a clear understanding of the public good and a deep commitment to serving it, even at the expense of his personal interests. When he did something in public life, he did it because he believed it was truly in the public interest. We can ask no more from those who hold public office.

As Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, he received a personal coat of arms along with the office. It features the Golden Boy as its crest, one of the iconic symbols of the province, and a seemingly abstract shield, supported by two sandhill cranes standing on a field of wheat. On the shield, according to the Public Register of Arms, “the alternately coloured segments meeting in the centre refer to diversity and multiculturalism. They can be seen as coming together, but also as reaching out, thus alluding to His Honour’s commitment … to helping those otherwise forgotten. The circle can refer to a round table, indicative of equality and involvement of all. The twelve segments are those of the hours of a clock, showing that watching time was vital in His Honour’s original career as a radio journalist. The symbolism of time also connects to His Honour’s interest in studying history.” Beneath the coat of arms is the motto that was granted to John Harvard: “Support the Public Good.”

The John Harvard I saw from afar, and of whom I occasionally caught a closer glimpse, lived by that motto. We didn’t always agree, but I never once had occasion to wonder whether his efforts were guided by his sincere estimate of the public good. They were. And we are all the better for it.

This post originally appeared as an editorial in Lögberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic community newspaper, on February 1, 2016.

Monday, February 01, 2016

The first Icelandic Unitarian congregation founded 125 years ago

The First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg was established on February 1, 1891 at the city's Progressive Society Hall, where its founding minister, Rev. Björn Pétursson, had been conducting services for nearly a year. Björn had been a member of the Althing in Iceland and he was the first settler at Sandy Bar in the Manitoba’s New Iceland colony. The congregation’s first president was Jón E. Eldon, editor of Heimskringla, and he was succeeded by Jón Ólafsson, another prominent journalist. The first Unitarian congregation among the Icelandic immigrants in North America, this was also the first Canadian Unitarian congregation west of Hamilton, Ontario.

Rev. Björn Pétursson (1826-1893)
The groundwork for the new congregation began to be laid in 1886, when Björn Pétursson, a 59-year-old Icelandic immigrant who had been in North America for about a decade, read an advertisement for the Post Office Mission, an early Unitarian outreach effort. He sent away for materials and received a reply from Jennie McCaine, who was the general secretary of the mission in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over the course of the summer and early autumn, Björn devoured the materials Jennie had sent him and, in mid-October, he wrote to her, saying, “I am fully satisfied that I belong to your church, heart and soul. ... I recognize in the Unitarian movement the reformation I have long hoped for and expected and should be glad to get a chance to promote the same among my countrymen …”

The son of a minister, Björn had been expelled from the theological school in Reykjavík for leading a student rebellion. After more than twenty years as a farmer in the east of Iceland, he joined the westward migration of Icelanders to Manitoba, accompanied by his first wife and their children. They claimed land at Sandy Bar, near Riverton, and later moved to Dakota Territory, where he was a founding member of the Icelandic Cultural Society, an association of freethinkers, patterned on the Ethical Culture movement of Felix Adler. Björn was well liked by those who knew him, although he did not shy away from controversy.

Towards the end of 1886, Jennie set out to secure funding to establish a mission among the Icelandic immigrants. She also arranged for Björn to attend the annual meeting of the Minnesota Unitarian Conference that year, when it was held in St. Cloud, and she made his acquaintance there. By then a widower, he was evidently much more charming, trustworthy, and inspiring than she had even imagined. In time, religion led to romance and the two of them were married in Winnipeg on March 11, 1890 – the same month that Björn began conducting Unitarian services in the city.

If Björn was the natural spokesperson, it was Jennie who was the organizational genius behind the mission. Together, they organized the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg on February 1, 1891 with 60 charter members. Björn was the reluctant minister of the new congregation, for he had hoped to recruit the noteworthy Icelandic minister and poet Matthías Jochumsson to serve instead, but this dream was not to be.

Soon, construction of a chapel to house the young congregation was underway on the northeast corner of Sherbrook Street and Pacific Avenue. By the beginning of December in 1892, the building was fully enclosed and the congregation was furnishing the interior. The first service was held on Christmas, which fell on a Sunday that year. It was a small chapel: a wooden building, twenty-eight feet by fifty-four feet, along with a 300 square foot annex to serve as an auxiliary meeting room. It was plainly furnished and could seat 250 people. An appeal to American Unitarian churches raised $1,284, just $16 short of the mortgage, which was settled before the congregation occupied the building.

Jennie McCaine Peterson (1838-1918)
The new church was christened “Unity Hall” and it was Björn’s and Jennie’s vision that it would be a community centre and not simply a place of worship. It was anticipated that the church would be used for a wide variety of purposes, both sacred and secular. So it was: the Winnipeg Secular Association met regularly at Unity Hall and Jennie often spoke before this group of freethinkers.

Looking back on the early years, we would now say that Björn and Jennie shared the ministry, although it was Björn who could speak directly to this immigrant congregation. However, Jennie preached increasingly for Björn as his health deteriorated during the last year of his life. Björn died a little more than two and a half years after the congregation was founded, but Jennie continued the ministry (assisted by translators) until the middle of 1894, when Rev. Magnús J. Skaptason arrived in Winnipeg to assume the leadership of the fledgling congregation.

Confident that the Unitarianism had been firmly planted among the Icelanders of Winnipeg, Jennie departed for St. Paul and, from there, she eventually made her way back to New England, where she died in 1918 at the age of 80. She kept in touch with former congregants and Björn’s family through faithful and regular correspondence, continuing to advocate for the Icelandic mission for the remainder of her days.