An “Uncommon Denomination”
Although there has been a Unitarian Universalist community in the Eastern Townships for almost two hundred years, the first Universalists migrating here from New England in the early 1800’s and bringing with them their values of political freedom,
social justice and tolerance, the Unitarian Universalist religion is still a bit of a mystery to many.
The first Unitarian Universalist society in the Townships was established in Huntingville in 1844, however, it is the Unitarian Universalist congregation now based in North Hatley, formed in 1870 to serve the three communities of Massawippi, Ayer’s Flats and North Hatley, that continues to thrive today.
This congregation’s North Hatley church, a lovingly constructed piece of architecture that’s been well-preserved, was built in 1895 and where I interviewed Reverend Carole Martignacco to find out more about this lesser-known religion. “This religion actually goes back to the 1500’s,” commented Reverend Martignacco about the early emergence of Unitarianism and Universalism across Europe centuries ago.
“How we differ from most traditional religions is that we are open to truth from all directions. We have a non-creedal, non-dogmatic faith; we do not claim to have the truth but we invite people to explore a multifaceted truth together,” explained the Reverend about this religion that draws on Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim teachings, humanist teachings and the spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions. “In that regard I am so committed. I believe in a multicultural, pluralistic, world. We need to learn to value the differences, to find them not divisive but delightful.”
Originally from Minnesota and raised as a Catholic, Carole discovered the Unitarian Universalist religion almost by accident. “When my marriage dissolved I had to reorganize the meaning in my life. Divorced women had no place in my church, so for six years I had no church home. Then, at the wedding of a friend, I chatted with a Unitarian Universalist minister who said: ‘I think you might be one of us.’ So I investigated his church and saw they were planning to sing a Catholic Mozart Mass at the next service. Music had always been my connection to the church so I joined the Universalist church choir, originally, to sing my Catholic music!”
It wasn’t long after that Carole, who had already had a career as a singer, a wife and mother, and an English and Art teacher, felt a ‘calling’ to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. “I had been working part-time as a religious educator when I thought: Aha – this is what I should be doing. Kids needed not just education but ministry; they had their own joys, sorrows and questions about meaning.”
When the opportunity to do a year of student ministry in Montreal popped up in 2000, Carole came north and served at a Unitarian Universalist church in Westmount. “While I was there I was invited to come preach at the church in North Hatley. I just fell in love with the landscape!” answered the Reverend when asked how she came to North Hatley. “A little later they asked me to come back as the Minister.”
That was in 2003 and Reverend Martignacco hasn’t looked back since. “I love Sunday worship, when people come together to celebrate the joys and sorrows of their lives and remind themselves of that greater reality. The word liturgy actually means ‘the work of the people’, but I call it ‘holy play’. The worship should be joyful; people come for an hour, focus on what’s important and hopefully it informs the rest of their week.”
Passionate about her ministry, Reverend Martignacco continued: “I enjoy the engagement with people’s lives, being present for those transformative events, rights of passage. It’s a privilege to be invited inside that celebration of the human journey.”
When asked how the Unitarian Universalist Church may have impacted the culture of the region, Carole was articulate: “It has valiantly kept the flame of liberal religious expression alive. There were many pressures on the church’s small congregation to give up or sell out. Back in the 1950’s there was a possibility of this church being absorbed by the United Church. But there was always the sense that there needed to be a home for the ‘religious homeless’.”
She continued: “During my first year as the minister here we were a sanctuary for two Colombian refugees: a man and his daughter. We believed they had been rejected because they had not been well-represented and that, given a little more time, a good case could be made. They lived here for four months, got language lessons from residents, and we hired a lawyer to present their case again. People here loved them and cared for them. On the street here in town people would stop me and ask: How are our refugees? Today they are productive Canadian citizens.”
“It’s characteristic of Unitarians to do that kind of outreach. The first principle of our seven principles is to have respect for the inherent worth and dignity of
every person. That event began my ministry; it was a radical immersion!”
The topics and themes of this church’s Sunday services, which are held every Sunday of the month, reflect the mission and core values of this centuries-old yet progressive and evolving religion. “We just did the Winter Solstice service; it was called Loving the darkness – Welcoming the light. I like to do that service a little early in the month just to remind people that there is an alternative to this whirlwind of consumerism,” commented Rev. Martignacco. Children and adults will enact the nativity drama in a play entitled “Would you like to hold the baby?” during the church’s Christmas Pageant on December 16th. That Pageant is traditionally followed by a turkey potluck supper. On the 23rd a “Carols and Candlelight” service will take place.
“This winter I’m planning to give an adult education course about ‘wise eldering’ and leaving a spiritual legacy. There’s a movement to shift our understanding of aging from the focus on wrinkles and declining health to reverencing the wisdom of lived experience. People put a lot of emphasis on settling their financial affairs, but what spiritual gift will they give to the next generation?”
At a time when many church congregations are dwindling, UU Estrie, the new, official name of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of North Hatley, is holding its own, even growing. “We’re an English congregation, originating from England and the United States, in a sea of French, but the ideas speak to a lot of people in the French culture as well. The value of Human Rights has universal appeal. And there are always those people who are intrigued when they hear about a church with no dogma. If they’re comfortable exploring the questions instead of looking for easy answers, they find a home with us.”
For more information about UU Estrie and their activities you can visit their website at www.uuestrie.ca. We miss you so very much, may you rest in ultimate peace.
Your loving Families
Rev. Carole Martignacco lights the chalice at the Unitarian Universalist Church (UU Estrie) in North Hatley. The flaming chalice is the symbol of this religion.
Rev. Carole Martignacco held a Winter Solstice service last Sunday at UU Estrie.