Beacon Benediction guests look through contents of 1926 time capsule.
UUA Financial Advisor Larry Ladd (center) visits with former UUA trustee Eva Marx and Elizabeth McGregor, former chair of the General Assembly Planning Committee, at the Feb. 21 Beacon Benediction ceremony at 25 Beacon Street; behind them, photographs of former homes of the American Unitarian Association are displayed in Greeley Library (© Dea Brayden).
In a candlelit hall filled with portraits and memories, Unitarian Universalists gathered Feb. 21 for a ceremonial farewell to the 25 Beacon Street headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. “Here has been laughter and tears,” said the Rev. John Gibbons, minister of First Parish in Bedford, Mass., and master of ceremonies.
Several of the historic portraits in Eliot Hall came to life during the “Beacon Benediction” ceremony, as approximately 100 invited guests and nearly 300 online viewers looked on. William Ellery Channing, Mary Rice Livermore, Samuel Atkins Eliot, Viola Liuzzo, and Dana McLean Greeley blessed the UUA’s move from Beacon Hill to a renovated headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District—at least as depicted by costumed members of the UUA staff.
Also during the event, UUA President Peter Morales showed guests some of the contents of a time capsule the UUA retrieved from the cornerstone at 25 Beacon Street late last year.
Channing, the 19th-century champion of Unitarian Christianity (portrayed by the Rev. Eric Cherry, director of the UUA’s International Office), wondered if the chapel in the new headquarters could be named for him. After all, his pulpit from the Federal Street Church has long served as the podium in Eliot Hall. Gibbons replied, tongue in cheek, that he didn’t know how decisions will be made about naming rooms at 24 Farnsworth Street, the headquarters building the UUA will move into in May.
As the event organizers made clear, the UUA is inviting donors to name parts of the new building—from single bricks to large meeting rooms. Donors contributed approximately $14,000 at the event, according to Cameron Archibald, events coordinator with the Stewardship and Development staff group.
Samuel Eliot, the American Unitarian Association president who built 25 Beacon Street in 1926–1927 and whose large portrait presides over Eliot Hall, expressed sympathy for the leaders who have faced criticism for the sale of 25 Beacon Street and the UUA’s other Beacon Hill properties. Through his re-enactor, the Rev. David Pettee, ministerial credentialing director, Eliot compared criticism of the move to the controversy he weathered over the merger of the AUA and the National Conference of Unitarian Churches in his day.
The 19th-century Universalist feminist and journalist Mary Rice Livermore, played by the Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, UUA faith outreach strategist, said it was high time the chapel was named for a woman. She criticized Eliot for his treatment of women ministers in his 27-year presidency. And she chastised him for not supporting the ministry of the Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown, a black Jamaican-American minister who founded a Unitarian church in Harlem.
The last “portrait” to speak was the Rev. William G. Sinkford, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Ore., and a past president of the UUA from 2001 to 2009. Sinkford, whose presidential portrait is mounted near the door to Eliot Chapel, addressed the gathering in a videotaped message. He said that he used to joke that UUs might not agree with each other on much, “but at least we have an address!”
Sinkford reflected on the role the UUA had played in promoting marriage equality in Massachusetts during his administration. “Perhaps 25 served its best purpose,” he said, “in hanging a banner” promoting marriage equality from the sixth floor balconies facing the State House. “Perhaps we needed to be here.”
He concluded his remarks by asking, “Is there life after 25 Beacon Street? I can bear witness that there is!”
The audience included past and present UU leaders and donors, who shared memories of board meetings in Eliot Hall and late-night socializing at the Pickett and Eliot guesthouses. Charlie King of Brooklyn, N.Y., a former trustee and the 2013 recipient of the UUA President’s Award for Volunteer Service, stood at the end of the ceremony and said he had first visited 25 Beacon Street in the 1950s. “I really loved this place,” he said. “It was the most powerful thing, as a young sailor, to stand outside in the snow . . .” He paused, then added, “It makes me cry,” which prompted applause from the audience. “But as much as I love this place,” he continued, “we have to move.”
The Rev. Hope Johnson, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau in Garden City, N.Y., said she would especially miss the socializing that took place in the living room and kitchen of the UUA’s Pickett and Eliot Houses. “Where will we hang out?” she asked Morales during the reception.
The UUA’s guesthouses, which with 25 Beacon Street have been sold to a residential developer, will close at the end of June. Although the UUA has negotiated group rates for volunteers, field staff, and visitors with the Club Quarters Hotel in Boston’s Financial District, the hotel does not have comparable meeting spaces and is not immediately next door to the Farnsworth Street headquarters.
Morales told Johnson that he simply doesn’t know how the UUA will adapt to the needs of its volunteers and staff in its new space.
During the ceremony itself, Morales showed the audience some of the 75 items retrieved from a time capsule Eliot had sealed in the cornerstone of 25 Beacon Street on May 25, 1926. The copper box was retrieved late last year as the UUA prepared to sell the building. Inside were representative publications of the AUA, including a Beacon Press catalog, several periodicals, various pamphlets and cards, and the first handbook for the Young People’s Religious Union, the denominational youth organization, which had been printed just three days before the cornerstone was laid.
As Morales spoke, Archibald unfolded and held up a YPRU poster featuring a color illustration of a medieval page carrying a lit candle and a banner with the YPRU motto “Truth, Worship, and Service.” An inscription in gothic letters below the image said, “The spirit of youth in the life of the church is the hope of the world.”
View this slideshow on UU World's Flickr page to learn more about the contents of the 25 Beacon Street time capsule.
The time capsule also included daily newspapers from May 24 and 25, 1926, which featured headlines about the dramatic midnight crash of a Boston-bound train, The Owl.
Morales said the most surprising find in the time capsule was a package tied with string at the bottom. It contained the engraved copper lid and contents of an even older time capsule that had been placed in the cornerstone of the original 25 Beacon Street building on December 2, 1884. It contained correspondence about the construction of that Unitarian headquarters building, reports and publications of a variety of Unitarian organizations, and tickets to the annual Unitarian Festival.
Morales also held up a 130-year-old edition of Unity, the newspaper of the Western Unitarian Conference, which had been included in the 1884 time capsule. “Given the sometimes fractious relationship between the AUA and the WUC, it’s interesting that this publication was included,” he said.
Many of the contents of both time capsules were displayed in the Dana McLean Greeley Library, where guests posed for commemorative photographs behind Greeley’s desk. Some of the items from the time capsules will join other historic objects in a display area in the new headquarters’ Heritage and Vision Center. Decisions have not yet been made about the ultimate disposition of the items.
“We are planning to create a time capsule for our new building,” Morales said, but added that the UUA will not be placing it in the walls of 24 Farnsworth Street. “I wonder what items we will include to represent our movement in 2014?”
Video on YouTube
Watch a video recording of the Beacon Benediction (YouTube).
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Christopher L. Walton was the editor of UU World and director of the UUA’s Periodicals staff group until June 2021. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah.
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