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COMPASS ROSE: THE UU SAN MATEO BLOG

UUSM Buildings, 1950 to Today

What is now known as UUSM began with a group of parents in San Mateo, concerned that their children acquire a religious education that helped them think for themselves about religion and spirituality, without being taught a set of beliefs to which they had to adhere. They wanted their children to learn information in Sunday School that they would never have to “unlearn” as adults. At that time, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was a strong Catholic community in San Mateo. Simultaneously, there was a relatively large Jewish population. Parents were receiving questions about religion and responding to invitations for their children to accompany friends to religious services; these experiences led them to want to provide an alternative for their children.


From 1950 to 1952, the group of parents met in the living room of Marian Hemingway, a prominent civic leader in San Mateo, whose home was on E. Santa Inez, not far from the current site of UUSM. After consultation with various religious leaders, including members of what is now the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the group wrote a “statement of purpose” and with it, registered to become a Unitarian congregation.[1] The new congregation began meeting in a vacant residence at 522 N. San Mateo Drive. When the group outgrew that space, they moved next door to the Les Williams Dance Studio. Next, they moved next door to a residence with a space for a minister’s office and a meeting room. Congregants built religious education spaces out of cinder blocks, without the need for a building permit from the city.


Once again, the group outgrew the space and moved within the neighborhood to the YMCA, then located on El Camino, just south of Santa Inez.[2] While the congregation was located at the YMCA and services were held on the basketball court, attendance increased. These were the Viet Nam War years, and the congregation became known as “anti-war.” Controversial speakers, including Timothy Leary, visited UUSM.


Around 1958, the congregation purchased a property at 201 Polhemus Road in San Mateo[3] (currently, the site of the Odyssey School) on which it planned to build a church. Two different architects were hired. Each had a different plan for the sloping site, both of which were beyond the budget of the fledgling congregation.


Real estate agent and UUSM member Howard Delafield led the search for alternative properties. The congregation even considered a mortuary, which had both a chapel and space for R.E. classes, but no kitchen. Eventually, the Methodist Church at the corner of Ellsworth and Santa Inez, where services had not been held for some time, became available. The congregation decided to sell the Polhemus site[4] and purchase the Methodist Church, with the idea that eventually, the congregation would sell this property and build its own building.


One of the principal attractions of the Methodist Church site was the existence of an R.E. building, which reflected the congregation’s historical purpose of providing religious education for children. In addition, the site had a parsonage, which was used as such by the Rev. Bernie Kruger, the only minister to do so. Later, Carol and Jim Aldrich, founding members of the congregation, rented the parsonage as their personal residence, and Jim provided some “handyman” services to the church.


In the early years of this century, members began talking once again about moving. This time, real estate agent and member Ann Palen led the search for a new building. Again, members looked at a variety of buildings, and came quite close to purchasing the Christian Science Church on Oak Grove in Burlingame.[5] But in 2015[6], the congregation voted to stay in the current location. Soon after that vote, members of the Finance Committee learned that the neglected and vacant house at 314 E. Santa Inez had gone into receivership and took steps to purchase it.[7] This gave the congregation ownership of the entire block along Santa Inez from Ellsworth to Ramona.


Since the decision had been made to stay in the current location, the congregation held a capital campaign in the fall of 2017. The goals were to remodel the church building, with special attention to Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, including an ADA-approved bathroom, attend to deferred maintenance, and integrate the entire “campus.” This would involve tearing down the building at 314 E. Santa Inez, constructing a new religious education space, and making some improvements on both the current RE building and the cottage.


As of today, some of that delayed maintenance has occurred. The main building has a new roof, and a number of windows have been replaced. The pews have been removed from the sanctuary in preparation for leveling of that floor, and there is a bid to do the remodeling on much, but not all, of the main building. The available funds do not extend to the changes desired on the rest of the campus or even to the remainder of the church building. But they will allow for completion of the sanctuary and meeting of the A.D.A. requirements.


Contributors to this article: Frank Seebode and Gail Ewing

[1] It was not until the early 1960s that the Unitarian and Universalist organizations merged, to become the UUA, and to change UUSM’s name to “Unitarian Universalist.” [2] These buildings all have been torn down and replaced with apartment buildings. [3] Three acres at the price of $45,000. [4] For the same amount for which it had been purchased. [5] The $6 million price tag was more than the congregation could afford. Later, the price was lowered to $4.5 million, but that information was not conveyed to the UUSM members negotiating the purchase. [6] Under the leadership of Charles Du Mond. [7] Although the Finance Committee had approved a $500,000 limit on the purchase of the property, it was bought, through private funds, for $1,025,000 in 2015.


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