In December 1991, one phone call set the wheels in motion for the building of a liberal
religious community in conservative Kent County, Maryland. One Protestant mom, Pat
Bjorke, and one Jewish mom, Leslie Roche, unknown to one another before then, came
together in their common quest to find a faith each could believe in. Both were seeking a
religion that would allow them to express their own beliefs honestly and authentically, to
pass on to their children. Independent of one another, they had each discovered Unitarian Universalism; but found, to their dismay, that there was no congregation in existence on the upper Eastern Shore of Maryland. In that first phone call in 1991 they pledged to one another they would start a congregation together.
Their search led them to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Easton, where Rev.
Daniel Higgins passed along the names of Kent County residents Steve and Mariana
Hitchner, and Peter Tapke. The five founding members then worked through the rest of that winter to lay the foundations for a liberal religious fellowship.
On May 27, 1992 the founders held a public informational meeting. Rev. Syd Peterman, the District Consultant, and Rev. Kenneth Reeves, the District New Congregations Organizer, spoke to more than forty interested attendees, a highly encouraging turnout. Work continued throughout the summer to organize the governing body, worship program, and children’s religious education.
The first worship service of the Unitarian Fellowship of the Chester River was held at 4:00 pm Sunday, September 27, 1992 in the Quaker meetinghouse. A well organized children’s religious education program overflowed with children and enthusiasm. Rev. Kenneth Reeves preached a sermon at that first service titled “Our Major Stories.” Worship services were held every other Sunday, with a pot luck supper once a month to celebrate fellowship and community.
On January 17, 1993, the new congregation held its first Children’s Dedication ceremony. On Easter Sunday, 1993, the membership book was opened for signing of Charter Members. On May 3, 1993 the application was submitted to UUA to become a member congregation. Included in the application packet was a check in the amount of $101.43 – the full “Fair Share” to the UUA Annual Program Fund. UUCR has proudly remained a Full Fair Share congregation ever since. At the June 1993 UUA General Assembly, Rev. Dan Higgins presented the congregation’s request to join UUA, and it was approved. Founder Peter Tapke served as the Fellowship’s first president.
In September 1993 the congregation moved to the Common Room in the Casey Academic Center at Washington College and began weekly worship services at 10:30 am. Monthly pot luck brunches fueled the growing membership.
1994 - 1996
Rev. Paula Annone Maiorano ministered to the congregation as a student intern in 1994.
Paula provided organizational and pastoral guidance, and gave a feeling of permanence to
the fledgling congregation. On June 2, 1996, the Unitarian Fellowship of the Chester River joined with First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, DE to ordain her. Under Rev. Maiorano’s guidance, membership grew to 38 members.
1997 - 1999
In December 1997 the congregation approved the rental of office space at 100 N. Cross
Street in Chestertown, in order to provide a more public presence in the community and
allow a central place to gather for board and committee meetings, adult lifespan education, summer discussion groups, and as a minister’s office.
Rev. Alex Richardson arrived in January 1998, following a unanimous vote of approval by the membership. Alex kept the growing congregation on their toes, energizing them and providing a passionate drive to address issues of social, racial, and gay justice here in the local community. In May 1998, UUCR joined with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster, PA to ordain him.
Rev. Daniel Higgins, always flowing in and out of the life of the congregation over the
years, formalized his ministry with UUCR in September 1999. Dan helped guide the
congregation in a process of discovering their core being as a religious community, and quietly prodded the development of professionalism and intentionality among the Board and membership.
We mourned the death of Peter Tapke on June 11, 1999. However, his legacy was a very generous financial bequest from his estate. It was Peter’s deepest desire that the flame of Unitarian Universalism be kept alive along the banks of the Chester River, and his generosity would allow the congregation to do so.
2000 - 2003
In January 2000 the decision was made to move back to the Quaker meetinghouse for 9:00 am Sunday services. Carol Brown was hired as Director of Children’s Religious Education, and served in that capacity from September 2000 to May 2003.
With the congregation now growing at a rapid rate, Rev. Matthew McNaught was called in August of 2002 as a half-time minister. Matthew helped spur the congregation’s realization that the vision of a tangible “home” was a longing that must be met.
In 2001 the membership approved the process for what became a long and arduous search
for a building that could be purchased. In 2002, having exhausted the possibilities of finding a suitable existing building, the membership voted to purchase a piece of land in the Crestview neighborhood of Chestertown.
2004 - 2006
In May 2004 the membership voted to proceed with construction of the new church building and began a three-year capital campaign. In October 2005 the land was blessed in a ceremony conducted by Chief “Winterhawk” Fitzhugh of the Nasaugh-Wawash tribe. Rev. Greg Chute became a contractual consultant to the Board in May of 2005, providing encouragement, experience and support throughout the building process and afterward.
On November 6, 2005, a ground breaking ceremony was held and construction began. Thanks to Peter Tapke’s generosity and a successful capital campaign, the building was constructed entirely without incurring a mortgage. On November 11, 2006, the congregation gathered to dedicate the new building at 914 Gateway Drive in Chestertown.
2007 – 2014
Rev. Chute served the congregation through 2009 when he retired. Rev. Chute recommended that UUCR identify and train Pastoral Associates to assist with pastoral duties; four Associates were trained and appointed in 2007.
Upon Rev. Chute’s retirement, the church hired Dr. David Newell in 2011 as a part-time contractual minister and he was ordained at our church as a Unitarian Universalist minister in May of 2012.
The congregation was certified by the UUA as a Green Sanctuary in 2007. It was recognized as a Welcoming Congregation in 2012 and sponsors the first PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In addition, UUCR founded an animal ministry program in 2013.
In 2013, we celebrated our twentieth anniversary as a church with a commitment to “twenty more.” Our hope at that time was to grow our membership by 20 in the coming year. Although we were not successful in increasing our numbers to that extent, we stand strong with 58 current members.
In 2014, Rev. Dr. Newell announced his intent to retire in June of 2015. In October of 2014, the Board of Trustees called a congregational meeting at which the membership agreed to commence a search for a part-time minister. Under the guidance of Rev. David Pyle, the new JPD Executive Director, UUCR is seeking to create a Developmental Ministry Plan and hire a part-time developmental minister to guide our future growth.
UUCR has had precious new babies born; beloved elderly members have passed away, and we have suffered the dramatic loss of young adults who took their own lives. We’ve celebrated marriages; mourned separations and divorces; proudly acknowledged the coming of age of teens we have loved and cared for since infancy. We’ve shouted in triumph, and wept in grief. We’ve held each others’ hands in times of intimacy, and held one another at arm’s length in times of stormy conflict. We’ve laughed; we’ve squabbled; we’ve danced; we’ve sung. We’ve said hello; we’ve said goodbye; we’ve fought and we’ve made up. Our history is recorded, not just in dates and events, but in our relationships to one another. Like our namesake, the Chester River, the ebb and flow of time changes us, both as individuals and as a body. We gather together to celebrate all that is our life.
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