The History of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg

The First Icelandic Unitarian Church

Freethinkers among the Lutheran Icelanders who immigrated to Manitoba after the 1865 eruption of Mount Hecla founded our church in 1891. Its first minister was Bjorn Pétursson, energetically assisted by Jennie Elizabeth McCain, the Unitarian missionary in St. Paul, Minnesota. They married, and she succeeded him as minister in Winnipeg after his death.

Though the church was basically Christian in theology and practice, these Icelanders did not take Scripture literally, and insisted on applying reason to its interpretation. As a result, they suffered under the prejudice of the more orthodox Christians in the community who refused to serve them in shops or to patronize Unitarian-owned businesses.

During the Easter season of 1892, a large number of Icelanders from Manitoba’s Interlake region found themselves persuaded to a religious position similar to that of the Winnipeg Unitarians. They soon joined the Winnipeg Unitarians, filling out their numbers. Magnus Skaptasson, then a Lutheran circuit preacher, delivered his “Easter Sermon” to seven of the Interlake Lutheran churches – a Universalist sermon – attacking the idea of hell and proposing a more humane and more human approach to salvation. Five of the churches converted to Unitarianism en masse.

All Souls Unitarian Church

Unitarianism continued to grow in the city. Free-thinking English speakers founded their own (English-speaking) Unitarian church in Winnipeg in 1904 – All Souls Unitarian Church – and constructed a building at the corner of Westminster and Furby. Horace Westwood, a noted orator, supporter of labour and a newspaper columnist, served from 1912-1919.

Stained Glass Windows

When the church decided to construct its second building, at the corner of Sargent Avenue and Nena (now Sherbrook) in 1905, Sveinsson (known in Anglo-Celtic Winnipeg as Fred Swanson) was commissioned to design its windows. Read more about the windows here.

Sargent and Banning Church

In 1921, the Icelandic congregation constructed a new building at Sargent Ave and Banning St, which was then at the edge of town. They called a young minister, Phillip Péturrson, to their pulpit in 1929 and sent him to Iceland to polish his command of the Icelandic language.

Before long, the English-speaking church, lacking sufficient numbers, sold its building and began sharing the space and the minister at Banning Street. In 1944, the two congregations formally merged to become the First Federated Church of Unitarians and Other Liberal Christians.

Péturrson continued to serve the Unitarian Church (as it came to be commonly known), offering two services each Sunday: one in Icelandic and one in English. Under his leadership, the congregation increased its social justice activity and became an active presence in the city. Two of its significant contributions were the founding of the Memorial Funeral Planning Society of Manitoba and the banning of prayer readings in the public schools. After his retirement in 1964, Péturrson was elected to the Manitoba Legislature, and in 1969 became the first NDP government’s Minister of Culture. Thus, he had a key responsibility for the celebrations of the Province’s Centenary the following year.

The Rev. Bill Jenkins followed Péturrson in ministry.

Same-Gender Unions

The Rev. Norman Naylor, who followed Jenkins, performed the first same-gender union in Canada, uniting Richard North and Christ Vogel. The Rev. Joe Bartlett served as interim minister, followed by John Gilbert, and Bill Houff (interim).

In 1989, the church called the Rev. Susan Van Dreser its first woman minister, just before the congregation’s centenary celebrations. During the revision of the constitution in 1993, the church’s official name was changed to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg, which reflected both the formal union of these two religions in the US in 19671 and the Winnipeg church’s own origins of these two theological views.

During this period of the church’s history, a choir was launched under the leadership of Karin Carlson, who was followed by Ester Kathryn, Vic Hooper, Alan Blanchette, and PJ Buchan, who now serves as Music Director. The church also became officially a Welcoming Congregation, a Safe Church, and a teaching church, with the internship of Wendy Luella Perkins.

Over the years, four members – Wayne Arnason, Jane Bramadat, Stefan Jonasson, and Charlotte Cowtan – have become ordained UU ministers; they currently serve churches in Canada and the US.

Wellington Crescent Property

In 1997, the church purchased property at 603 Wellington Crescent, which boasted an elegant stone house, to which the congregation added a multi-functional sanctuary with a seating of 225; the basement houses 7 classrooms, a multi-purpose room, and additional storage space. The stained-glass windows, which had been designed for the two previous church buildings, accompanied the move into the new church home.

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg now serves a membership of 184 adults and about 60 children and youth. The congregation is a member of the Canadian Unitarian Council, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

Most Recent History of Ministry

The previous settled minister, the Rev. Millie Rochester, retired in 2015. After two years of interim ministry with the Rev. Nicoline Guerrier, in 2017 the congregation called the Rev. Meghann Robern to be their settled minister.