History of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg: All our homes since 1891

  • First Icelandic Unitarian Church c 1905
    First Icelandic Unitarian Church c 1905

First Icelandic Unitarian Church

We began as the First Icelandic Unitarian Church founded in 1891 by the freethinkers among the Lutheran Icelanders who immigrated to Manitoba after the 1865 eruption of Mount Hecla. The 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. Read more about Jennie and Bjorn’s history. 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. Read more about this “Rogue Sermon.”

All Souls Unitarian Church

We became the All Souls Unitarian Church as Unitarianism continued to grow in Winnipeg when free-thinking English speakers founded their own Unitarian church in Winnipeg in 1904. The All Souls Unitarian Church was constructed at the corner of Westminster and Furby. Horace Westwood, a noted orator, supporter of labour and a newspaper columnist, served from 1912-1919 and managed to obtain support from the American Unitarians to help fund the building.

The beautiful stained glass windows that you can still see in our home now had their origins in the early 1900’s, when the church decided to construct its second building, at the corner of Sargent Avenue and Nena (now Sherbrook) in 1905. Designed by Sveinsson, known in Anglo-Celtic Winnipeg as Fred Swanson, the windows were commissioned as part of the new building.  Read more about the stained glass windows.

Sargent and Banning

Our next home was located at Sargent and Banning. 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 in Icelandic and 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 to the congregation.

The Rev. Norman Naylor, who followed Jenkins, performed the first same-gender union in Canada, uniting Richard North and Christ Vogel. Follow Rev. Norman Naylor our church was led by Rev. Joe Bartlett (interim) and then Rev. John Gilbert, and Bill Houff (interim).

Becoming The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg

In 1989, the church called the Rev. Susan Van Dreser its first woman minister, just before the congregation’s 100th Anniversary 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 1967 and the Winnipeg church’s own origins of these two theological views. Learn more about our Unitarian and Universalist theology.

Our congregation values music and during our time at Sargent and Banning a choir was launched. The church also became officially a Welcoming Congregation, a Safe Church, and a teaching church hosting and supporting many UU Interns over the years. From our membership we have seen Wayne Arnason, Jane Bramadat, Stefan Jonasson, and Charlotte Cowtan ordained as UU ministers and serving a variety of churches in Canada and the United States.

Moving to our current home at 603 Wellington Crescent

In 1997, the congregation purchased property at 603 Wellington Crescent and sold the church on Banning Street. For several years we conducted church life out of rented space as we worked towards the construction of our new home.  After much planning we added to the elegant stone house, to create a multi-functional sanctuary with a seating for 225, and a basement with seven 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.

After the retirement of Rev. Susan Van Dreser, we had two interim ministers, Wendy Jerome and Fran Dearman, followed by Rev. Millie Rochester from 2009 – 2015 and then another interim ministry with the Rev. Nicoline Guerrier.  In 2017, the congregation called the Rev. Meghann Robern to be our settled minister.

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg is a member of the Canadian Unitarian Council, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.