It was no case of “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple open the doors and see all the people” when the Rev. Wendy Fitting took the job as leader of Gloucester’s Unitarian Universalist Church nearly a quarter century ago.
“There were maybe 15 people in the pews,” Fitting recalled. “It was a small group, mostly elderly.”
Recently graduated from Harvard’s divinity school, in 1998 at age 40, she stepped in to lead the country’s first Unitarian Universalist church as the 200-plus year old steeple was undergoing major renovations, and the services drew only a few handfuls of regular attendees.
As Fitting prepares to step down from the pulpit for the final time Sunday, the church embraces close to 200 members. While church members attribute the community’s growth to Fitting’s spirit of inclusion, she credits and applauds the congregation’s welcoming community.
“The folks that were here when I came were very brave, and they opened the church up to everybody,” Fitting said. “There are all kinds of progressive people in Gloucester.”
Fitting, who officially retires this weekend, pointed to the church’s socio-economic diversity as a great source of its strength.
She noted that one of the church’s charter members, a man named Gloster Dalton, joined as a freed slave, and the Unitarian Universalists embraced him. A minister wrote in that man’s 1813 eulogy that Dalton was “brought away as a slave from Africa, but all men are born free.”
Those words and the writings and teachings of transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson have guided Fitting’s journey thus far. Raised as a Unitarian Universalist, Fitting remembers reading one of Emerson’s books as a high school junior. She clung to his ideas of peace, understanding and acceptance that later inspired her to join the clergy.