The roots of Unitarianism in Bellingham began in the 1891 when several traveling Unitarian ministers passed through the area spreading the word of Unitarianism to small gatherings of people. These “missionaries” held services in the cities of New Whatcom and Fairhaven, which in 1903 merged into the city of Bellingham. While the services drew a small following, they didn’t generate enough money to support a minister, so none of these early gatherings led to the formation of a permanent organized congregation.
In December 1904, Rev. William G. Eliot Jr., of Portland, Ore., came to Bellingham and began giving services every other week until the followers formed the First Unitarian Society of Bellingham on May 12, 1905 at the home of Mary Slade. For the next twenty years the congregation grew in size from just 7 people to more than 100. They moved from meeting rooms on Garden and Holly streets to a chapel built by the congregation at Forest and Cedar streets in 1909. Interest in Unitarianism eventually waned in the early 1920’s, and after several efforts to revive the congregation failed, the congregation disbanded and the chapel was sold in 1925.
In 1949, a small gathering of Unitarian intellectuals began holding discussion groups on ethics and morals at the Bellingham Library. Among the attendees were the city librarian Ross Kraig, Prof. Halldor Karason of Western Washington State College and his wife Anna, and Vern and Arlene Hagen. The group moved to the Y.M.C.A. building at State and Holly streets. As the movement gained traction and more people attended the meetings over the next several years, the congregation moved several more times. Finally, on June 6, 1956, 21 people gathered to formally organize the Bellingham Unitarian Church Fellowship. The word “Church” was later dropped from the title, and the congregation became known as BUF. The congregation has grown in size to its present membership of 255 members.
The congregation experienced ups and downs over the years – a rift during the Vietnam years, financially lean years, comings and goings of hired and lay ministers, and several moves before arriving at its current location of 1207 Ellsworth Street, where it has been since 1985.
In 1971, BUF members Jo Ann Choat and Laura Rasmussen decided to open a food closet in the religious education building next to the church then on Gladstone and Franklin Street. While starting off small, the program grew to serving 1,000 to 2,000 people per month with a $30,000 budget. The program grew so much that the Bellingham Food Bank program moved into it’s own facility in 1988.
In 1989, a program called Maple Alley Inn was in need of a new home since its old home at the First Presbyterian Church was needed by the congregation for its religious education activities. Maple Alley Inn moved into BUF’s social hall and began a 20-year run providing tens of thousands of low priced meals to elderly, homeless, low-income, and disabled people. Construction during BUF’s 2009 building expansion necessitated that Maple Alley Inn find a new home. The program is now administered by the Opportunity Council, with meals served weekly at Faith Lutheran Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Old Parish Hall in Bellingham.
In 2009, the congregation voted to embark on a $1.5 million building expansion project that was completed in October 2010. In 2012, BUF’s minister, Doug Wadkins, resigned after being the congregation’s longest-serving minster, 13 years. The congregation called Rev. Leland Bond to serve as interim minister for two years while preparing to select a permanent minister. On May 18, 2014, the members voted to call Rev. Paul Beckel who arrived in August of that year.
This content was contributed by former BUF Historian, Dan Witter. More about BUF’s history can be found on Facebook.