About 200 years ago, people in the Boston area began to break away from the established Congregational Church of New England and organize themselves around what they called “true christianity.” They rejected theological doctrines such as the trinity, preferring to study the gospels for themselves and worship according to individual conscience. Some of these so-called “unitarians” moved west to what was then considered the frontier village of Syracuse located on the Erie Canal in New York State. They organized a Unitarian Congregational Society in 1838, called a minister, and grew strong enough to afford a new brick building, which they called the Church of the Messiah.
Members of the congregation worked with other people of good will in the community to provide schools, an orphan home, a hospital and other civilized amenities in their fast-growing community. Their second minister, Samuel Joseph May, was a well-known abolitionist and reformer on the national scene, and a well-loved parish minister at the Church of the Messiah from 1845 to 1868. He is best remembered in Syracuse for his part in the escape of Jerry, a runaway slave, whose famous rescue is memorialized in sculpture in downtown Syracuse’s Clinton Square.
When the congregation built a large stone church on fashionable James Street in 1885, they named it the May Memorial Church in honor of Samuel Joseph May. Eighty years later the congregation moved into the present building during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Sam May’s work for racial equality was still relevant to our members and we decided to retain his name for the new building. Still later this congregation voted to change its corporate name to May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society to keep the inspiration of Sam May’s social activism always with us, and to reflect the merging of the Unitarians and the Universalists into one denomination.
In our Memorial Room is a marble bust of Rev. Samuel R. Calthrop, known affectionately as “baldy” by the children who are just his height. Our third minister, the flesh and blood Rev. Calthrop was very tall and energetic, a renaissance man who led the May Memorial congregation for more than 40 years. During his ministry two young women from May Memorial were ordained Unitarian ministers and the congregation began to elect women to its Board of Trustees.
Our first woman president of the Board was Verah Johnson, and our first woman minister, Rev. Elizabeth Strong, was installed as Minister of Religious Education in 1988, the same year we celebrated the 150th anniversary of our incorporation as a religious society. At that time we published a 60-page paperback history of our congregation, “May No One Be a Stranger,” a title taken by the welcome issued every Sunday morning by our minister, Rev. Nicholas C. Cardell, Jr.
Nick Cardell retired in June, 1995 after 21 years in our pulpit. A two-year search led us to welcome Rev. Scott E. Tayler in September, 1997.
Scott left May Memorial in June, 2004 after 7 years. He and his wife Kaaren Anderson accepted a joint ministry with First Unitarian Church of Rochester.
Jean M. Hoefer, reader of musty church records
Since this update, Rev. Jean Wahlstrom became our minister in September, 2007. She retired in the spring of 2015. Jennifer Hamlin-Navias, M.Div., M.S.W., was called as our Associate Minister for Religious Education in April of 2011. She had been the director of religious education at MMUUS since August of 2005. Jennifer left us in June 2014.
For additional information go to our in-depth history site.