A Brief History of Our Church

The Reverend Ernest D. Pipes, Jr.
Dr. Milton Holmen (Historian/Archivist, 1975–2002)
Rob Briner, M.A. (Historian/Archivist, 2003–present)
Ofelia Lachtman, Editor
Laura Eklund, Editor

The Early Years

1926: The Reverend Allan Tillinghast, recently retired to Santa Monica, writes to the president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) to suggest organizing a new congregation.

1927: The Reverend Lawrence Hayward arrives in February and invites religious liberals to meet at his home via a notice in the Santa Monica Outlook and fliers distributed by hand. In March, the Women’s Alliance is organized, one month prior to the founding of All Souls Unitarian Church of Santa Monica, with 21 members, at a meeting chaired by the AUA president. In November the Reverend James MacDonald begins his ministry with services in a room at the Santa Monica Women’s Club.

1928: Sunday school starts, which remains an important part of the church’s mission to the present time.

1929: The northwest corner lot at 18th & Arizona is purchased from one of the founding members of the congregation, Judge Fred Taft.

1930: The sanctuary is dedicated in April, financed by a loan from the AUA.

1930s: During the depression there is very little money to pay the minister and the Women’s Alliance is the backbone of the church.

1941–45: Many younger members leave for military service and older members work over-time at war-related jobs. Money is scarce, attendance is poor, and Sunday school enrollment drops.

1947: The Reverend Howard Matson is called as minister. His wife, Bea, rings doorbells to invite children to Sunday school.

1947–54: The post-war years are a period of congregational and church school growth. Newer members favor social and political activism; tension builds between social and political activist groups and non-activist members.

1951: The congregation votes to change its name to Unitarian Community Church of Santa Monica.

1955: At the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism, the California legislature passes a requirement that tax-exempt organizations sign a loyalty oath. A split within the congregation develops over the oath, whether the minister or the congregation should decide to sign it, and other procedural issues. Although the United States Supreme Court would later strike down the law as unconstitutional, by that time Reverend Matson had resigned and half of the congregation had left to establish the Unitarian Society of Los Angeles West (dissolved in 1991).

The Reverend Ernest Pipes Years

1956: Church member Angie Forbes (for whom Forbes Hall would be named) is asked to search for a new minister and invites the Reverend Ernest D. Pipes, Jr. — then in Albany, New York — to visit. “Ernie” is soon called by the Santa Monica congregation, and with wife Maggie begins his 35-year ministry.

1960: Ernie Pipes and Rabbi Ernest Block form a ministerial association on the Westside to promote fellowship and dialogue, now the Santa Monica Bay Interfaith Council. A Laymen’s League for men is reactivated and a Women’s Evening Alliance is created for working women.

1960: Forbes Hall and upstairs classrooms are built to accommodate new growth. At the same time the sanctuary is expanded to the north, into the former social hall and kitchen.

1961: A majority of member congregations approves merging the AUA with Universalism, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

1960–64: The number of families increases dramatically; church services and Sunday school go on double session for several years. By 1964, the Sunday school has 345 pupils and 39 teachers. The post-WWII era ends when a major local employer, Douglas Aircraft, moves its manufacturing plant from Santa Monica to Long Beach and other defense-related companies also depart.

1964: The UUA denounces the Vietnam war, supporting people who object to military service on religious grounds. Ernie Pipes counsels young men of draft age. The congregation passes a resolution in support of those who choose to be Conscientious Objectors.

1965: Ernie Pipes and church member Leon Papernow are sent by the congregation to participate in the march on Selma, Alabama, led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

1965: Ernie Pipes joins Clergy and Laity Concerned to counsel women contemplating abortion at a time when it is still illegal.

1966: The church works with Santa Monica AME Church to set up one of the first Head Start programs.

1966: A nearby but not contiguous parcel of land on 17th Street (“the 17th Street lot”) is purchased to provide for future expansion.

1960s: As membership, the church budget and community involvement grow, the church builds its reputation in the UUA and begins having student interns from Harvard Divinity School and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.

1960s: The church begins a serious and ongoing contribution to the arts, including an annual festival, monthly art wall and concerts.

1973: Maggie Pipes represents UU Migrant Ministry to the National Farm Worker Ministry Board. The church hosts secret labor talks between Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers and a major grower.

1980: Church member Ann Thiermann paints a 32-foot-long mural in Room 4, upstairs in Forbes Hall, depicting Unitarian Universalist history.

1981: A custom-built Abbott & Sieker organ is dedicated, paid for by a fundraising campaign chaired by Dean Voegtlen.

1986: Responding to the threat of nuclear proliferation, the congregation votes to become a designated Peace Site.

1986: Responding to the plight of civil war refugees in Nicaragua, the congregation votes to become a sanctuary church and sponsors a Nicaraguan family.

1980s: Banners of the world religions are commissioned and hung in the sanctuary.

1991: After 35 years of service, the Reverend Ernie Pipes retires and the congregation designates him Minister Emeritus.

1992: The William and Marjorie Anderson Courtyard is dedicated, significantly increasing the congregation’s social gathering space.

1992–93: Following UUA guidelines, an interim minister serves for two years while a search committee seeks a settled minister.

(For more information about this period in hour history, read this 2006 interview with Rev. Pipes.)

The Reverend Judith Meyer Years

1993: The Reverend Judith Meyer begins serving the congregation and is officially installed on January 16, 1994, the night before the Northridge earthquake.

1995: The congregation votes to change its name to Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica.

1995: A second service is added to accommodate membership growth.

2000: Faith in Action, a congregational initiative for social justice work, is founded.

2001: After numerous small group meetings, a building plan for the 17th Street lot is approved by the congregation and a 3-year Capital Campaign is launched to fund it. The last new church building, Forbes Hall, was completed in 1960.

2003: A friend of the church, Earl Morgan, leaves a bequest of $473,536, the largest in the church’s history. The board allocates the entire bequest to the Capital Campaign.

2003: The congregation votes to become a Welcoming Congregation, one that affirms gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender persons as members of the church community and community at large.

2004: The City of Santa Monica Planning Commission approves the building plan for the 17th Street lot. Four days later a “For Sale” sign appears on the lot next door — 1248 18th Street — long coveted as the best possible property for expansion. On an expedited basis the board makes an offer, which is accepted a week later by the descendants of Thurlow Taft, a founding member of the congregation along with his uncle, Fred Taft. The congregation votes to affirm the purchase, sell the 17th Street lot, and extend the Capital Campaign through 2007 to fund an entirely new building plan.

2006: The 50th anniversary of the Santa Monica ministry of the Reverend Ernest D. Pipes, Jr. is celebrated.

2008: The Rev. Judith Meyer retires and is named Minister Emeritus. 

(For more information about this period in our history, read this 2008 interview with Rev. Meyer.)

2008-10: Following UUA guidelines, there is an interim ministry of two years while a search committee seeks a settled minister.

The Reverend Rebecca Benefiel Bijur

2010: Rev. Rebecca Bijur relocates from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and begins serving the congregation as its ninth settled minister -- the same month a decade-long building program is completed.  Rev. Bijur is the fourth consecutive UUSM minister to have graduated from Harvard Divinity School, and arrives with her husband and 1-year-old daughter.

See how our building has changed over the years in the Archival Photo Gallery.