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Thursday, June 1, 2017

Rev. Suzanne Wasilczuk

The Rev. Suzanne Wasilczuk is a 2007 graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Her previous career was as a registered nurse, working in Milwaukee, Sitka, AK, and Vancouver, BC. In her journeys south and east she has also lived in Missoula, MT where she volunteered at the local food shelf and as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate for children who were in the judicial system because of abuse or neglect.

Along with her MDiv from Meadville she has earned a Masters in Philosophy/Emphasis on Teaching Ethics from the University of Montana, and a BA in English Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In her volunteer career she has been copy editor for a feminist newsletter and on the advisory board of a gay newsletter; a docent at a museum featuring Alaska native artifacts and at a maritime museum; spun records, tapes and CDs at a public radio station; been an actress and stage manager at a community theater; and danced in a "hula art action."

Suzanne is married to Tim Stratton, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a registered pharmacist. She has one son and three grandchildren who live in Milwaukee.

Tim and Suzanne enjoy their dog & cat, canoeing, walking, cross-country skiing, wildlife viewing, and contra dancing together. Suzanne enjoys reading, especially mysteries and novels; gardening, baking, singing, feeding the neighborhood birds, chipmunks and squirrels; and keeping in touch with friends, some of whom she's known since 3rd grade.


New life for Lincoln School?

Cynthia Manning doesn’t like to look at the defunct Lincoln School near her Rattlesnake Valley neighborhood. A half-dozen years ago, she and others fought to preserve it from demolition or residential development in hopes that one of Missoula’s “most endangered” historic places could become a civic hub again. Manning’s group put down several deposits but failed to meet the developer’s asking price, leaving them out the cash and with a vacant spot on Lolo Street. “It was a tough thing to swallow,” Manning says now. “I don’t drive by it because it makes me sad.”

Nevertheless, she agrees to meet there last Sunday because a new future for Lincoln School is in the works. The Missoula Federal Credit Union assumed ownership of the building last year in lieu of foreclosure, then solicited proposals from groups looking to purchase it. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Missoula signed a buy-sell agreement earlier this month. 

The recent turn of events has Manning and other longtime advocates cautiously optimistic about the site’s future. Suzanne Julin, president of Preserve Historic Missoula, says the building anchors the Rattlesnake to its past as “an emblem of the valley’s transition from a ranching area to an urban area.” She and Manning are thrilled the Unitarian group says it plans to keep the school’s character as a National Register of Historic Places site while offering the space for use by other community groups as well.

The Unitarian fellowship has met in a house on McLeod Avenue since forming in 1962 and is looking to expand. “Being a part of the Rattlesnake is exciting for us,” says board chair Rachel Nordhagen. “We really want to be part of our community.”

The sticking point, though, will be parking. The church must install 18 spots to obtain a conditional use permit from the city, credit union CEO Jack Lawson says. But since the last effort to revive it, the school’s former campus has become a triangular patchwork of family homes and undeveloped lots, only some of which are owned by the credit union. Parking isn’t allowed on adjacent streets.

Neighbor Phil Petrilli is concerned about shoehorning a parking lot into his tiny subdivision. Homeowners are also miffed they weren’t included in the credit union’s decision making, despite a formal entreaty. “They chose to work in the shadows and not let us property owners in on what was transpiring,” Petrilli writes in an email.

Lawson says his organization has been trying to make the best of a difficult situation. The city permit application will take a couple months to submit and a couple more for city council to review. In the meantime, the Unitarians want to work with neighbors to find a parking solution, Nordhagen says. They’re starting tonight at 6:30 p.m. with an ice cream social on the front lawn.

Stones cast at church's plan for Lincoln School
By Derek Brouwer

Selfies and superheroes were welcome at a recent Unitarian Universalist Fellowship service in the church's small University District house, where two dozen people gathered in the living room for an "intergenerational" service led by Sara Berndt and her young daughter, Jillian.

After pointing out the pro-selfie, pro-technology ground rules, Berndt cracked open the pages from a comic book called Ms. Marvel. The book chronicles the origin of Marvel's first Muslim heroine, a Pakistani-American teen named Kamala Khan. The hero, who is grappling with her cultural identity, sneaks out to a party, where a few peers make fun of her and one spikes her drink. Kahn's first test, after discovering her shapeshifting superpower, is to rescue one of the teasing partygoers from drowning. Berndt uses Ms. Marvel to explain a few of the church's principles, from finding one's inherent worth to extending compassion to others, regardless of their actions.

After the service, some members say they're trying to keep the latter in mind as they navigate an increasingly contentious effort to relocate the congregation to a dilapidated schoolhouse in the Rattlesnake.

"We're trying to just view them as people with their opinions, and we're not trying to be negative toward them at all," says Rachel Nordhagen, the church's chairwoman.

Nordhagen is referring to the homeowners who live next to Lincoln School on Lolo Street. The residents are vigorously opposing the church's proposal to buy and renovate the vacant building, which is considered one of the city's most endangered historic sites. In letters to the Missoula City Council, the neighbors use words like "abominable" and "egregious" to describe the plan and accuse the Unitarians and the Missoula Federal Credit Union of being "evasive and not necessarily forthright" in their planning documents. "Don't be fooled by their subterfuge," Phil and Patricia Petrilli wrote.

The attorney representing several of the neighbors, David B. Cotner of Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind, even quoted the church's own principles in a letter to its leadership, arguing the project would "ignore the worth and dignity of my clients and will ignore justice, equity and compassion in its relationships with my clients." On Nov. 30, the neighbors filed a lawsuit in Missoula County District Court against the church and the credit union to block the sale.

The suit marks yet another bitter turn in an ongoing effort among Rattlesnake residents to revitalize Lincoln School as a community space, an effort that has been complicated by a half-finished residential development. Neighbors point to protective covenants that limit the land's use to residential purposes, while the credit union, saddled with foreclosed properties, seeks to sell the school while honoring the civic function envisioned by its advocates.

It's an awkward fit. The church's plan calls for a parking lot that's separated from the school by two residences. And because the development was created using a streamlined city process that bypassed subdivision review, the homes are already tightly packed onto a small triangular plat. City council is scheduled to discuss the proposal Dec. 7; no sale can be completed without its approval.

In light of the opposition and lawsuit, church leaders recently wrote an op-ed for the Missoulian in which they candidly questioned whether or not to move forward. They asked community members invested in Lincoln School to speak up.

"We're just trying to do what's right for the community, and we hope others feel the same way," Nordhagen says.

[The Fellowship finally withdrew its offer.]


BEGINNINGS  The Jan/Feb 2001 UU World magazine notes about 1/3 of UU groups are fellowships under 50 members, which has described us locally for our entire 42 year history.  This is partially a result of a national push in 1950’s-60’s to start up groups all over the US, often in low population areas.  Our group was chartered 2/1/1962.  The now famous (“All I Know I Learned in Kindergarten” & many other books) UU Minister Robert Fulghum was the NW US UU District Executive who came to Missoula in 1965 to welcome us into our new (102 McLeod) house.  Our local group was started by a group of mostly professional & university families, many with children.  These founding members formed the solid base for the group in our early years and so the programs and RE flourished as they raised their families.

LOCAL MEMBERSHIP   In our current membership (fluidly up/down few to several of 29, there are the following founding or very long-term members.  Arnold Finklin, Ray Gold, Leo Lott, Richard & Doris Boehmler, and Robert & Eleanor Weidman.  Only Arnold has attended regularly for many recent years (& was treasurer through the 1990’s)  Both Leo and Ray took strong leadership roles, in the 1980’s and earlier, mostly.  Most of the earlier members have moved on, retired elsewhere, or died over the years.  There are a few others who are longer than 10-year members, mostly not attending of late.  several more are a bit over 5-year members.  Quite a few are 0 - 5 year members.  The well-under-10, even under 5 year members make up almost all the regular attendees, board officers, and board members.

Weekly attendance 2003-04 averaged between 15 to low 20’s, including visitors and guests, down much from several years ago.  1960’s had 50-60 active members, the last ten years 20-25, often up to half not active.  The national UUA is 80% non-UU born & local 5’s are as/or even higher.  We almost all come from somewhere or no church tradition.  Knowledge of or involvement in the broader UU movement is fairly low among our “active” members, with a few notable exceptions, as may be common in many UU groups.  If one stays around our UUF for very long, it is possible to watch many people come and go.

FINANCIAL BUDGET  Our budget is under $1500.  Luckily, we have nearly $20,000 in checking and savings, but also much deferred maintenance: carpet, inside painting, very old kitchen, new roof needed.  We have quite a few single income members, many who are low-income, in school, underemployed &/or poorly paid (too common in Missoula), in transition or retired.  If only a few pledgers were to to move, etc. bsmt rent would be fully needed for the minimal budget we work with now.  Several fewer, it’s over.

OUR BUILDING   UUFM bought the current Fellowship house at 102 McLeod in 1965 and it was paid off by the mid 1980’s.  The house formerly belonged to the famous English Scholar & Literary Critic, then a UM prof, Leslie Fiedler, who in 1965 moved on to bigger acclaim at SUNY-Buffalo (NY).

UU member’s labor did much of the remodelling over the years.  For example, early on, the basement was mostly finished and used for Religions Education for the founder’s children.  The second floor was long an apt (but with only a half-bath & no kitchen).  The apt was long the home to a modest income older woman, then used by the UUF’s third minister, Rev. Jesse Cavalier, 1985-1989, and more recently rented to UM students — all who used the main floor kitchen and bathtub.  Then, a few years ago, the basement was converted into an outside-entry, full 2 bedroom apt. & the children’s RE was moved to 2 of the 3 upstairs bedrooms.  the office took over the 3rd second floor room.  The main floor early on had the living room & dining room wall/arch removed to increase space.  Then the current  post/beam replaced a long wall that used to create a hallway that ran along the two bedrooms and bath.

Later the front bedroom wall was removed (under stairs, where 3 or 4 bulletin boards are now).  A few years ago, the front facing closets (bedroom and entry) were removed, opening up the entire old bedroom area for a full walk around the entire stairwell.  The remaining main floor bedroom became the library.  (The library had had its closet’s rear wall removed years earlier to provide direct entry to the bathroom thru the current library instead of direct from the Fellowship meeting space).  The handicap ramp was added several years ago.  Summer 2001 repair and exterior painting were done, as well as a new toilet for bsmt & a hot water (faucet) heating system for the house.  Regular room heating is by old-style radiator heat.

Updating the usefulness of our house has rested mostly on the back of approx $5,000 & $10,000 inheritances from two long-time member’s estates.  Our house is now in the most completely useful state ever.  The up & downstairs rent subsidized the operating budget for years, and only recently has some of it been set aside for ongoing house maintenance, repairs & capital improvements, but it is nowhere nearly enough for any major improvements, remodelling or expansion.  Carpet replacement is badly needed.  Inside painting is needed.  A new roof will soon be needed.  In addition, if we grow & need to move, any new building/site in Missoula would be extremely expensive.  The mid-1990’s house/lot appraisal was low at $200,000’s.  Estimated current value of the house is in low-to-mid $300,000 range.  

Our University area location is “prime.”  We can comfortably seat 35-40, and max out between 50-60.  We could increase seating about 25 by enclosing our huge front porch.  We could also build a nice meeting space on the back of the house as the Billings UUF did.  Some want us to grow & suggest that the house we have has strangled that possibility for too long.  But there are fellowships that flourish in much smaller space than ours & don’t “grow out” of their homes until they are beyond “bursting at the seams.”

THREE MINISTERS: 1973-1989  Over the years from about 1973 to 1980 the UUF had a (now retired) part-time minister, Rev. Tom Best.  He was a former Episcopal priest turned UU minister who lived in Kalispell, worked in a social service/court type job, and served the Glacier (Kalispell/Whitefish) UUF part time, as well as coming to our Missoula UUF about once a month for 7 years.  The other programs were a combination of members, outside speakers, and long term use of VCR tapes playing the sermon from the All Souls UU Church in Tulsa, OK (which was subscribed to, much as we more recently used the Rev. Richard Gilbert’s sermons until his recent retirement as the minister of the Rochester NY UU church.

From Fall 1982 - Spring 1985, our Missoula UUF again had a part-time minister, this time a UUA Boston Extension Ministry sponsored “circuit rider” minister, the Rev. Mary Scriver.  She was a former Browning HS English teacher who had earlier been married to the recently deceased and well-known Montana taxidermist, artist, sculptor, Bob Scriver of Browning, MT.  (His works are now in the collection of the Montana Historical Society in Helena which shows them in a major exhibit.  Mary, also a writer, is now retired in the Valier, MT, area.  She spoke to the Montana area UU Association (MAUUA) on the 100+ history of UU’s in Mt. at the MAUUA’s Fall (YMCA) Camp Child gathering in the later 1990’s at Elliston, just west of McDonald Pass.  Mary served four UUF’s:  Great Falls (very small and long gone), Helena (where she also lived), Missoula (where she often slept in her old pickup camper) and Bozeman.

After she left, a semi-retired UU minister, Rev. Jesse Cavalier, served from Fall 1985- spring 1989 as well as living in the second floor apartment.  Jesse then retired to Pittsburg, PA, in 1989 and died there in the Spring of 2004.  Since then we have only had a few visiting ministers from SLC, Spokane and other areas, at most 1 -2 times a year.  The long time UU Mountain Desert District Executive, Rev. Russell Lockwood (who our yearly summer UU Leadership School is named after) used to visit at least once a year also.  So did his successor DE’s, all non-ordained; Rev. Ken Wheeler; interim DE Mary Andrus Overby, & current MDD DE, Ellen Germann-Malosh.  Even with these three part-time ministers we had for 14 years, as with most UUF’s we have been basically a lay led UU Fellowship for our 42+ year history.

SOCIAL JUSTICE & COMMUNITY VISIBILITY   I was then the new member of our local UUF who suggested that we locally, as well as the other four UUF’s in Montana, go thru the BGLT “Welcoming” process, and all 5 UUF’s did so over a two year period.  Montana was announced at the 1999 (Salt Lake City, UT) UUA General Assembly as the first and only entire state in UUdom that was totally UU “Welcoming” of our BGLT (Bisexual/Gay/Lesbian/Transgender) family and friends.

Our Sunday church ad in the paper in the past has said, “A supportive community dedicated to social justice.”)  On that “social justice” side, we have a fairly low profile UU presence in our community due to our very small numbers, half not active.  Recent UU examples having our name in WEEL, Gay/Lesbian groups, and other ads as a contributor/sponsor, as well as use of our house & shared office by/with local social justice and other civic groups for meetings.  Members also work at Food Bank, serving meals at Head Start “Feed & Read.”  I am speaking collectively, of course.  

Individually, we have many individual local UU’s because of their personal strong social justice orientation, who belong to, speak up at, work in peace justice and human rights work, many who publicly self-identify as UU members.  Our UUFM is the ONLY church denomination marching in the last 7 - 8 statewide Gay Pride parades each June with our GA church banners prominently displayed.  attempts have been made toward other collective UU involvements, but lack of a larger membership & lack of energy seem to dampen involvement despite the obvious good intentions and strong social justice views if many if not most UU’s.

MORE RECENTLY:  I joined this Missoula UU Fellowship 1978-82, overlapping the 16th to 21st year of existence of this local UUF, such that I knew most of the original and long-term founders/members as well as Rev. Tom Best and Rev Mary Scriver (who is still a too seldom seen friend.)  The UUF then had much the same issues then as when I returned to this UUF in the spring of 1995 and now.  It struggled then and now with too few doing too much, as well as members who had strong opinions and did not always listen to each other well enough.

Programs and content — then as now — were reasonably good.  RE was almost non-existent for quite a few years, was much stronger for awhile in the later 1990’s due to the fine work of member Suzanne Wasilczuk (now in her second year at Meadville/Lombard UU Seminary in Chicago), and now Child RE has few children, despite recent hard work by a few other members.

During the 1980’s, even with the 3rd minister, the local UUF began to decline as the founders and many long-time members retired elsewhere, moved to be with family, died, or just got “tired” and stopped coming.  By the early 90’s only a few long-time UU’s were still around, and at the Yearly Spring Meeting in early mid 90’s, abandoning the UUF, turning the house back to UUA Boston ownership for disposal seemed possible and was discussed.

A lifelong UU, Mac Palmer, just retired from a National Park Service career, and his adult-lifelong-UU wife, Margery Fels Palmer, stepped in as Co-Chairs, and with a few other new other UU’s newly arrived from elsewhere, as well as a few energetic new UU’s, things picked up for awhile in time for our 35th anniversary in 1997 and for a few more years.

Since then, we have reached a low spot visible by the further decline in membership & participation in the past few years.  As with many smaller groups, it sometimes seems as fast we get new “members,” other have already seemingly departed.  Most of the long time members have long ago stopped attending, but continue to modestly support us.  Also, as with many small groups, a few who have been the officers and primary volunteers for too long sometimes grow a bit weary and need newer members to step in and assume some of the leadership roles.  This has not gone well in the past few years, and much turmoil resulted.  2003-04 was likely the ”lowest” year for our Fellowship in over 10 years.  The current board is trying to figure out the best course of action to deal with the decline and many conflicts at hand.

“COMMUNITY”   My advice personally, and after extensive work with this UUF’s history is as follows.  if one were going to look at our group from a small versus large church viewpoint, it might be said that we have been trying to “do it all” in programs, adult & child RE, fix-up & use of house, etc.  These are all good goals, but the “do it all” aspect is more large-church appropriate than for our very small size.  The literature about small churches suggests that personal relationships, i.e. the “community” we form and sustain over long periods of time, not only determines the health of the group, but also whether it is even likely to survive at all.  Only if we can sustain and build our “community” of trust, cooperation and friendship will the Fellowship ever likely grow or even continue. Iif we can both look in the mirror a bit more, also get to know each other better & each assume a greater share of the work to make it all happen, it is possible we an grow in “community,” if less easily in numbers.

The 600 member nearby UCC church offers everything (except also a bit too much “God Talk” for many UU’s) that our UUF does, so we must figure out what our smaller Fellowship can offer that is unique, and work on offering it to each other first — such that others will then see it when they visit/attend.

It seems when Walt Kelly’s Pogo long ago said something like “we have met the enemy and he is us,” he was obviously talking about our UUF among other targets for his insight. Iit seems apparent that we are both our own worst “problem to sort out, as well as the only “solution” to any of our problems of course.  A “vital community” would likely make this UUF “grow” in whatever direction WE want/need.

INFLUENCES ON UUFM’S SMALL SIZE   In a county of 95,000 people, we are located only several blocks from U of M (with about 12,000 students, it is 5th in Rhodes Scholars among public universities and only drops to 15th if all the prestigious private universities are added fro the entire Twentieth Century.  Many students come around, few stay awhile, then move on.  Frequently new & /or local residents visit and some even stay awhile, a few even a year to several, but very few stay for long.  Many are church shopping, of course.  UU visitors sometimes go on to find church homes among Quakers, Unity, Buddhist, or Jewish groups as they leave or return to more mainline church groups.  Or they return to being unchurched, secular, etc.

It might be useful to ponder why we have not had any sustained growth (rather we have had a loss) in our 42 years.  It appears likely that among those who find a permanent or at least long term local church, it is commonly the University Congregational Church (UCC-United Church of Christ.  (Historical note: the “Unitarian” part of UU is, in essence of course, a split-off from the “Congregational” part of the UCC church, which took place from the late 1700’s to the official formation of the Unitarian Church around 1820’s.)  The UCC Church is a few blocks away and one block from campus.  Locally, it is the educated, progressive, liberal, social justice church, full of the same type of leaders and members that formed this UUF in 1962.  They are big-time strong competition, period!

Nationally and demographically, UCC and UUA are more similar than most all other churches and this is as or even more true locally.  The nearby UCC has 600 members/friends, a recent huge modern building expansion, numerous programs.  One full and one part-time ordained minister, and several other full/part-time staff, over 30 wonderful music groups and sub groups as well as a longstanding and very strong social justice presence (and history of such) in Missoula going back as least as far as Civil Rights and local Anti-War demonstrations during Vietnam.  It is also a very strong BGLT “Open and Affirming” (what UU’s call “Welcoming”) Congregation that has spawned 4-5 more in this most conservative state.

A personal note to give “context” to my above “opinion.”  I was a member in this UUF from 1978-83, spent 12 years (1983-95) at the nearby UU church and again 1995-present returned to this UUF (the first three years as Sect., then three as VP, then one and a half as President, then 8-2002 to 5-31-2004 as the first paid (20 hours a month at $10 hr) part-time Church Administrator until my resignation 5-31-2004.  for the entire 27 years from 1978-present, I have watched people pass through our UUF, stay awhile, then move on to the UCC Church and stay there.  Seeing such from both directions and personally knowing many of those UUs who moved to UCC, it is my opinion many people at the UCC are really much more UU than UCC in their world view.  The current UCC pastor says his church is 80-90% Non-UCC raised & says UCC is often called “Unitarians Considering Christ.”