By Marjorie Nesin
---- — 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.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a junior in high school and I fell in love with Emerson,” Fitting said. “I just took different paths.”
The callings of Universalism again swept over Fitting when she performed Cape Ann’s first gay marriage ceremony in 1994 at the church. And most recently, the theme of inclusion arose in the church as the community added handicap lifts and restrooms, with the help of $30,000 from Gloucester’s Community Preservation Act. The renovation allowed handicap members to return to the historic church.
“It was just the right thing to do,” Fitting said.
Church member Gordon Baird, in writing about Fitting’s final ceremony — set for 10 a.m. Sunday, with a private party to follow — said the church will miss Fitting’s voice.
“Social justice figured in Wendy’s sermons around the calendar,” Baird wrote. “She was always leading and encouraging support for those who needed the most support in the community.”
Fitting said the question of retirement began to scratch at her thoughts about a year and a half ago, as the once teacher through the state’s mental health department, then minister, looks to her next stage in life. Her volunteer work helping Gloucester students edit college essays, has brought out the inner teacher in Fitting, she says.
“It’s been a really wonderful 24 years. I’ve loved this work, but I’m ready to do something different,” Fitting said.
As Fitting prepares to retire from life as a minister and move onto her next stage of tutoring English composition part-time, she anticipates a transcendentalist spiritual connection to guide her religious path. She will leave the church, but spend Sunday’s outside, connecting with religion. After all, it was her head-over-heels love for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophies that first drew her to the ministry.
And now, as always, she plans to heed Emerson’s advice and follow the path that speaks to her:
“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.