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.”
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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.”