History of Our Church & Pipe Organ

Our Church History

Our Church - 1930s 

The main building of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton was constructed in the very early 1930’s. Jackson Hall, the Fireside Room, and a hallway with rooms for Religious Education were added in 1954, with the hope that the social hall would also serve as a needed community center.   


Harriot West Jackson was a charter member of our church. She was an outstanding woman, giving much of herself to people, the church, and the community. When she died in 1948, she left money to be used for the addition to the church building. Groundbreaking occurred in January1954 and construction was completed four months later.   


The hallway rooms were remodeled in the early 1990’s for the present office spaces. By then, the house to the north had been purchased and became the religious education cottage. The plan of the building still follows the architectural sketch from the fund raising campaign in 1952 when the addition of Jackson Hall was contemplated.    

Unitarianism Comes to Stockton 1890s 

The beginnings of Unitarianism in Stockton were in the early 1890’s. A First Unitarian Society was organized in 1892 with The Reverend W. E. Copeland as the first minister. Reverend Copeland lasted only 14 months. The Reverend G. Heber Rice served from September 1893 until July 1896. The society seems to have started by word of mouth, but went into debt and folded. 



Five charter members, Mrs. Darah W. Wakefield, Mrs. E. C. Clowes, Mrs. H. M. Board, Mrs. Sarah H. Bond, and Mrs. Julia May Carney, did not give up the original society and by 1911 a second group started with The Reverend Franklin Baker from Sacramento. On March 28, 1913, the First Unitarian Church of Stockton was formed with a Board of Trustees. The Reverend Arthur Heeb was hired in November 1914 at a salary of $65 per month. It was probably a full time job. In October 1914 the Women’s Alliance was formed with 13 members, meeting in their homes. 



In December 1916 the church, with assistance from the American Unitarian Association (AUA), purchased a lot on the southeast corner of Center and Elm Streets. Reverend Heeb left to work with the Red Cross in 1918, resulting in plans being left unfinished and all activity toward a building stopped.   


The church came to life again in 1924, under The Reverend Thomas Clayton from Fresno. Two years later, The Reverend Milen Dempster became the minister and services were held in the Philomathean Club and later, the Hotel Clark. At that time, the society voted to build a church at the corner of Pacific and Bristol. Mr. Wright was the architect and drew up the plans without charge. Reverend Dempster found a quote from Felix Adler for the woodcarving behind the pulpit that read, “The place where men meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” The church building was completed without debt and was dedicated on October 12, 1930 with a membership of 50.   


The depression was very hard on the church. In the summer of 1931, Reverend Dempster was asked to leave. He was a strong pacifist and the church membership was very conservative. In September 1931, The Reverend Clarence M. Vickland of Fresno arrived, but membership dwindled to 15 or 20. He was asked to leave in March 1936, perhaps because of his Communist leanings.  



The ministry of The Reverend Arthur Foote began in October 1936, sharing services with the church in Sacramento. Growth became steady. During his nine years the church became more important in the community life of Stockton. He collected many hymns that were used for many years. He left in 1945 for the Unitarian Church in St. Paul, MN, where he stayed until his retirement.  


The Reverend Addison “Ash” Steeves took over the pulpit. At this time folding chairs were purchased at $11.28 each, paid for by members’ pledges. The choice of the chairs took over a year.   

The Reverend Samuel A. Wright, Jr. was here for two and a half years. During his ministry, the church hit its highest peak in membership. There was even talk of splitting and creating a second church. An active youth program was started which included an art class on Saturday mornings in the kitchen. There were eleven enthusiastic members. Three months later concern developed about the chaos in the kitchen on these mornings and regulations had to be adopted.   

Both Reverend Steeves and Wright were active in community affairs. Reverend Wright left to become head of the Youth Program of the Unitarian Association (headquartered in Boston).


In 1952, The Reverend J. Ford Lewis was hired as minister. He initiated several public forums on community and local problems. During his five and a half years, he hired Jeannette Olson as church secretary. Jeannette faithfully served in that capacity for over forty years.   


In 1958, The Reverend Harold Schmidt began service as minister. Andy Hill helped provide funds for a minister’s study and in 1961, the church bought the adjacent house on Pacific Ave. that became the church school building. Reverend Schmidt was also interested in community affairs. He went to Washington DC in 1967 to protest the war in Vietnam, at a time when protests were still unpopular. The next year he traveled to Selma, AL protesting the death of Reverend Reeb. These protests and others were a catalyst for building support for the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Reverend Schmidt retired in 1973 and was honored as Minister Emeritus.


The Reverend Robert E. Green served from the fall of 1974 until the summer of 1996. Many different areas of church life developed with Reverend Green’s nurturing. The musicals and satirical plays were inaugurated in 1974 and continued for over ten years. In 1975, a Country Store event was held. In 1976, the Bristol Street Country Carnival was sponsored. Both events were successful fund-raisers for the church and for the Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) group. 


The church was the beneficiary of the Bernice Spaeth Trust in 1983. Bernice was not a member of the church, but bequeathed the trust in recognition of the many community-oriented activities sponsored by the church. In subsequent years, several other substantial memorial gifts have been received, in part in recognition of the presence of the church in community affairs.


In 1987, the first Thanksgiving Award for deserving members was established. The award recognizes recipients for their service to the church and/or community. Roger and Gladys Walton were the first honorees. During the year, a successful fund-raiser for the excellent Kawai piano was held. 


Reverend Green was actively involved in numerous organizations that benefited the local community. He was the founder of the local Funeral Consumers Alliance, served on the boards of Metro Ministry, the ACLU, the Emergency Food Bank, and the Stockton Shelter for the Homeless. Being also an attorney, he devoted many hours to producing the complicated paperwork necessary to establish community organizations such as the Family Resource and Referral Service, as well as those mentioned previously. Some of these groups would not have come into existence without his volunteered help. He retired from active ministry in September 1996 and was honored as Minister Emeritus by a vote of the congregation in the spring of 1997. Funds were raised and invested to establish the Robert E. Green Scholarship, to be awarded each year to a high school senior, with preference given to a youth of our church, for academic excellence as well as community service.


In the fall of 1996, The Reverend Leslie Heyboer began service as interim minister. Leslie obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Parish Ministry at Mt. Holyoke College, a Master of Science at Univ. of LaVerne, and her Master of Divinity at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA. She helped to raise issues of growth, process, administration, and change. The church acquired two new properties that year, with an eye toward future growth. The church increased somewhat in membership and reported 230 members of record that year.


In May 1997 The Reverend Nancee Campbell accepted the call of the congregation to be its new settled minister. Reverend Campbell was a native of Maine, where she had served as the minister of the First Universalist Church of Rockland. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Ricker College in Houlton, Maine, a Master of Arts from Emerson College in Boston, and a Master of Divinity degree from Starr King School for the Ministry. Prior to ministerial studies, Nancee had a successful career as a drug and alcohol counselor in the state of Maine. Reverend Campbell was a gifted speaker. Unfortunately, major health problems emerged and she resigned in late 2000.


The Reverend Sean Parker Dennison was hired as interim minister in October 2000 and was persuaded to stay a second year with us. Sean is an Iowa native who received his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Iowa State University. He completed his Master of Divinity at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley and had served as interim summer minister at the U.U. Church in Berkeley. Our church thrived under his leadership. Sean led the congregation through the development of our Mission Statement, which is still highly valued by the congregation. Since 2002, he has steadily served others as interim or settled minister.


The Reverend Joy Atkinson came on board as interim minister from August 2002 until August 2003. A native of New York, she received her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature & Teacher Education at Hunter College, part of the City Univ. of N.Y, a Master of Arts in English Literature & Teacher Education at Herbert H. Leyman College of the City Univ. of N.Y, her Master of Divinity at Starr King School for the Ministry, and Master of Science in Counseling at California State Univ. Hayward. She has served as interim minister or as a settled minister for several other congregations since 1973.


In September 2003, The Reverend Sofia Craethnenn was called to be our minister. Sofia, a native of the New York City area, graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Ethnobotany. She received her Master of Divinity from Starr King School for the Ministry and had served at the U. U. Church of Berkeley for one year. Her strength was in administration and in 2005 she was called by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Department of Identity-Based Ministries as the Program Coordinator for Racial and Ethnic Concerns. 


Both Sofia and Sean Parker Dennison enriched our church by giving us an appreciation of racial and gender diversity. Shortly after Reverend Craethnenn left us, we became an “open congregation” and proudly display our rainbow flag.


The Reverend Carol Rudisill then came on board as interim minister from 2005 to 2006 and supported us once again through the process of searching for a settled minister. Carol earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Parish Ministry from San Jose State University and was another to earn a Master of Divinity at Starr King. After parting with us, she served varying periods of time as settled minister, interim minister, or consulting minister at four California churches prior to her retirement in 2012.


The Reverend Laura Horton-Ludwig was called as our settled minister in 2006. Before coming to California, she served congregations in Illinois and Wisconsin. Laura received her Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School (Unitarian Universalist) in Chicago. She also has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in classical vocal performance from the Boston Conservatory. She served here for five years, sharing with us her great love and talent for music. Her sermons were greatly appreciated as was her well-developed adult education program. She was an advocate for the GLBT community. She left our church for a position as an associate minister in Fairfax, Virginia, near family and friends.


The Reverend Art Severance began service as our interim minister in February 2012. He was awarded a Bachelor of Arts from Ursinus College, and Master of Divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary, both in PA. Art had served for fifteen years at the First U.U. Church of San Antonio, TX, as well as minister or interim minister after that at churches in PA, CO, and OH. He was instrumental in guiding our congregation through self-examination, a review of our mission statement, a look at our contractual agreements and, over all, helping us to prepare for a settled minister who hopefully would be with us for a long time. At the end of his interim time with us, he took a position as consultant/ developmental minister with a church in Amherst, NY, very near his home in northern OH.


In August, 2013, we joyously welcomed The Reverend Robert “Bob” Klein as settled minister. He joined us after serving as minister for nine years at the U.U. Church of Little Rock, AR, eight years before that as co-minister with his then wife, Jane Bechle, at Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, while also taking turns serving part-time at the U.U. Fellowship of Kern County in Bakersfield, CA. Bob and Jane divorced amicably in 2011, remain very good friends and share three grown children from previous marriages. Bob was raised in Brookfield, IL, a suburb of Chicago. Though having an early interest in religious studies, he began with an engineering course of study at the University of Illinois, Urbana, but ultimately transferred to Northern Illinois University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Liberal Studies and contract major in Religious Studies. He received his Master of Divinity from Bethany Theological Seminary and entered United Methodist ministry, serving churches in Colorado and Montana. Feeling less comfortable with some aspects of his denomination and needing personal renewal, he attended Matthew Fox’s Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality and then Holy Names College in Oakland, CA, where he earned a Master of Arts degree. Bob met Rev. Bechle at that time, they married, and he moved to N.J. with her, where he worked in Child Protective Services (as he had for a time in MT), while completing the requirements for U.U. Ministry. Rev. Bob provided part-time consulting ministry to the U.U. Fellowship of the Poconos in Stroudsburg, PA from 1995 to 1996, prior to he and Jane accepting the call to Rancho Palos Verdes.   

Updated 10/27/2015

Our Pipe Organ History


Beyond the second-story railing in the sanctuary of the church is a distinctive set of pipes of a heritage organ at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton. Many members and visitors look up at the organ and wonder about the history of the pipe organ. How did it get here in Stockton? Does it still work?

A typed note dated Christmas Eve, 1952, attributed to Barbara Lewis, describes the history of this organ: 

A few notes concerning the organ. There are pipes in the organ that were made to sound by Handel. The organ itself came from England, having been sent first to Cambridge, Mass., in the Colonial period.

During the Revolutionary War British troops stabled their horses in the church where the instrument was housed, and upon evacuation broke up the organ and threw the parts along the roadside. They were reassembled, however, and the organ later was set up at Reading, Mass.

While installed at Cambridge in Christ Church it was heard by George Washington. It was in front of that church, under an elm tree, that Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 2, 1775.

It has played Christmas carols to America throughout its more than two-hundred years of history. It also served at Situate, Mass.

Later it made a transcontinental journey to Palo Alto. There it sounded for many years and was heard by David Starr Jordan, first president of Stanford University. Horatio Stebbins and Melville Best Anderson, whose translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy won him literary fame, sang with others the songs of Christmas to its accompaniment in the Palo Alto Church.

The wooden pipe bearing the notation “Handel played on me” is dated and is over two centuries old. It is the C pipe.

Compared to the great pipe organs of the last fifty years, this organ is quite small. It has only one manual or keyboard and it is not possible to control loudness and softness of tone in individual pipes, but the wooden pipes are sweet in tone and within its range it is a pleasing instrument.”

Time Line of the Pipe Organ at the

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton

Circa 1730s: 

The organ was built in London for the private chapel of a noble; the pipes were “sounded” by George Frideric Handel (1684-1759); this organ originated in England and it is likely that Handel would have sounded the pipes (listened to the way the pipes “speak” or the characteristic of their “speech”) between 1712, when he established residency in London, and his death in 1759

Circa 1770s: 

Either the organ or some of the pipes from the organ were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Christ Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts

July 2, 1775: 

George Washington took command of the Continental Army under an elm tree in front of Christ Church and worshipped in the church where this organ was used to accompany hymns

Spring, 1776: 

British troops used the church as a stable and upon leaving broke apart the organ; subsequently some of the pipes were given to new organs at churches in South Reading and Scituate, Massachusetts

Circa 1845-1850: 

The organ was rebuilt in the Boston area by Mr. George Stevens of Cambridge


The Palo Alto Unitarian Church was organized


The organ was shipped around Cape Horn to the Unitarian Church in Palo Alto, where Reverend Sydney B. Snow was minister from 1906-1909

February 6, 1935: 

Letter from Louis C. Cornish, President of the American Unitarian Association of Boston to Dr. Hull stated: 

“The organ is the property of the American Unitarian Association, and by vote of the Administrative Council we are authorized to offer its use to the Stockton church as a loan. The friends in Stockton can have it and use it just as long as they please; but if ever the time should come when you want a larger organ, this ancient instrument must NOT be traded in for a new one, as it is the property of the American Unitarian Association.”

March 25, 1935: 

Letter from Mary E. Flardy to Dr. Hull regarding a request for information about the organ


Notes about the organ, attributed to Barbara Lewis, were presented to the congregation on Christmas Eve


The organ was renovated by San Francisco organmaker Felix Schoenstein, who discovered the inscription:

“Put up by Gilbert & Woodbridge, Organders to His Honor

“Put up in south Reading, April 1832

“This pipe made by Snetzer in London about 100 years ago and has been made to sound by Handel and was heard by George Washington when Commander of the American Army at Cambridge”


Mr. William Baker and an associate renovated the organ

February 1969: 

New Curtains were placed behind the organ

November 24, 1968: 

A service was held to commemorate the organ, possibly the oldest organ in the western United States

This revision of notes and development of the time line of the organ were prepared by Betsy Keithcart, March 6, 2013, for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton, and were based on research conducted by Samuel Batchelor on the history of the organ at First UU in Stockton, California, found in the minister’s files.