A History of UU San Mateo
“We unite in fellowship
to foster liberal religious values and individual freedom of belief,
to further democratic processes in all human relations,
to affirm the basic dignity of every person,
and through the strength of unity
to give expression to these convictions.”
— Statement of Purpose, UUSM Founders
In the spring of 1952, a group of about thirty-five people, most of whom young parents, met with some Unitarians and Universalists from other Peninsula congregations in the home of James Rene and Marian Hemingway. The meeting ended with the formation of the Unitarian Fellowship of San Mateo, which was voted into membership of the American Unitarian Association in April 1952. The first president of the congregation, Alfred W. Klaber, insisted that the Fellowship put together a working budget at its first organizational meeting; one far-thinking member started a building fund with a $5 donation.
Private homes, a local labor hall, a Jewish temple, and the Les Williams Dance Studio were some of our congregation’s early places of assembly. In 1954, a small house was purchased from the dance studio and became the Fellowship House. In 1959, the congregation rented a large auditorium at the Peninsula YMCA; the adults met at the YMCA, and religious education classes for the children were held at the Fellowship House, a few blocks away.
Most members considered this arrangement unsatisfactory, and on April 15, 1963, a lot was purchased at the corner of Polhemus and Crystal Springs Roads for $45,000. Warren Callister, an architect who later redesigned the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, was hired to draw up plans for the Polhemus property. At this time, however, the war in Vietnam had tightened the money market, and the Fellowship was consequently unable to borrow money to begin construction.
In 1969, the Fellowship rented property of the disbanding First Methodist Church, located at 300 E. Santa Inez Avenue in San Mateo, and on June 17, 1971, those facilities were purchased for $105,000. The building had been constructed in 1905 and needed extensive repairs, but the location was considered ideal by many members, and it was also large enough to accommodate the growing congregation. A parsonage had been built in 1928, so housing could be provided for ministers. The Polhemus property was sold for $62,000, and proceeds from that sale were used for a down payment and necessary repairs to the Santa Inez property. When the sale was complete, the Methodists removed a revolving lighted cross which stood atop the tower, a long-time landmark in the area. Religious-education rooms were built in 1963. In 2015, the property located at 314 E. Santa Inez was added to the congregation’s campus, with the intention of creating additional meeting rooms and community space; plans are currently under way to determine how best to use that property.
Many of UUSM’s current facilities are named after famous UUs, both locally and internationally renowned individuals. Our Religious Exploration classrooms are named after famous Unitarian Universalists such as Beatrix Potter, Henry David Thoreau, and Linus Pauling. Drop by our Hemingway Lounge (named for past member Marian Hemingway) or enjoy a cup of coffee or tea in Beck Hall (named for past member Joe Beck) after services. The Ann Benner Room, carrying our founder’s name, is the place to learn about getting involved, as it is where we locate our Welcome Table. Because Ann Benner exemplified the volunteer spirit with her tireless efforts at UUSM, each year we commemorate her achievements by awarding one or more outstanding members with the Ann Benner Memorial Award – our way to honor members whose contributions and generosity of spirit have impacted our congregation.
The congregation did not have professional leadership during the first six years of its existence. The Rev. John Sears, a Universalist minister, taught adult classes while the children had RE classes. The Rev. F. Danforth Lion from the Palo Alto Unitarian Church held services once a month for the new San Mateo Fellowship. In 1958, The Rev. Russell Lincoln was hired as the Fellowship’s first minister. Ever since then, our congregation has had continuous professional leadership. Photographs of all our ministers are mounted on the wall alongside the staircase leading to the Youth Room.
Our Ministers and their Terms of Service
- Rev. Russell L. Lincoln, 1958-1961
- Rev. Robert D. Botley, 1961-1969
- Rev. Robert B. Fraser, 1970-1976
- Rev. Bernard B. Krueger, 1978-1983
- Rev. Daniel Panger, 1984-1988
- Rev. Joy Atkinson, 1988-2002
- Rev. Dr. Robert Kaufman, Interim Minister, 2002-2003
- Rev. Vail Weller, Lead Minister, 2003-2011
- Rev. Lauren Smith, Assistant Minister, 2007-2011
- Rev. Denise Tracy, Interim/Transition Minister, 2011-2012
- Rev. Alicia McNary Forsey, Interim Minister, 2012-2013
- Rev. Ben Meyers, 2013-present
UUSM Events of Interest
- In 1961, the Unitarian and Universalist religious denominations opted to merge, forming what we now know at Unitarian Universalism. Over the years, UUSM has had many name changes, and even removed the word “church” from its self identity. These changes were made to enhance and widen our open arms to the community.
- In 1989, we formed our Open Door Committee to reach out to people of color and to host the annual Martin Luther King Birthday Celebration in partnership with the North Central Neighborhood Association.
- In 1998, the congregation voted to become a Welcoming Congregation to explicitly welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gendered people.
- In accordance with Article XII of UUSM’s Bylaws, the congregation has regularly voted to take public positions on issues as varied as climate change, the death penalty, marriage equality, and sanctuary for immigrants.
- The mortgage on the E. Santa Inez property was paid off in April 1998. At that time, the congregation also voted to becoming a teaching congregation by hiring intern ministers on a regular basis.
- In 2002, we proudly celebrated its 50th anniversary as a thriving congregation.
- In 2016, we expanded our real estate by purchasing the property located at 314 E. Santa Inez Ave. That purchase was followed by a 2017 Capital Campaign to raise the funds that are enabling us to redesign and renovate the entire campus into a beautiful, functional, and coherent whole.
Welcome to New Members
Our liberal religious congregation, now known as the Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo, welcomes new members to share in close fellowship, understand Unitarian Universalist heritage, and join in our individual search for truth and meaning.