“Where are you from again?” a puzzled woman asked.
“I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana. I was visiting Baltimore for the day and thought it would be cool to see the first Unitarian church in the United States….and I wasn’t sure if you gave tours or anything.”
“Em, well ya…I guess… if you’re all the way from Indiana I can show you around the place…”
And that’s how I talked myself into getting an exclusive truly behind the scenes tour of the First Unitarian Church in the United States.
Tales of Two Churches
I enjoy touring older churches in the US for a variety of reasons.
One, I generally think the architecture is interesting and how it varies from time period to time period. It’s always interesting how different groups of faith decide to design their place of worship.
Two, I love seeing the history of America as expressed through our various religious traditions. From the old synagogues, to the christian cathedrals, to whatever the pagans are using these days as well. I enjoy being exposed to it all.
However, as a self-described and self-identifying Unitarian who was raised Catholic, the two churches I visited while in Baltimore had significant personal meaning. Additionally, for the sake of convenience and by pure happenstance, they happened to be literally across the street from each other, making a walking tour of each an easy proposition to arrange.
The full technical name for Baltimore’s Basilica is the National Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Which can be a mouthful to say and bit excessive at times to write on a simple travel blog, so we’re going with Baltimore’s Basilica.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Basilica’s history, their major claim to history is that they are “America’s First Cathedral”. Construction began back in 1806, and was halted momentarily for a little thing called The War of 1812 as our nation continued it’s struggled for independence. But once constructed many considered it the masterpiece of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the “Father of American Architecture”
Maryland has an interesting history as a US state as Catholicism was originally introduced to settlement in 1634. And for a time Maryland, and Baltimore itself, was a safe harbor for Catholics in the New World……that’s a harbor joke by the way, cause Baltimore is built around a harbor, and…..….ya, anyways…
The Basilica today is lovely place to visit, with plastered white walls and freshly repainted ceilings and columns. Like the National Cathedral they’ve had to do a number of repairs to the building since the earthquake that hit the East Coast in 2011.
The official tour is filled with all sorts of technical details about archbishop so and so, and archbishop so and so, and archbishop so and so. Seriously the official tour goes into so much depth about the archbishops that have served here that I was getting to the point of wanting thank the tour guide for his time and just to do a self guided tour. I was here to hear about a learn about the history of the Cathedral itself, not get a line by line review of the archbishop lineage in Baltimore.
The Basilica as a whole doesn’t carry the ambiance and history that the National Cathedral does, but they try really hard. I don’t mean to write a negative review of the Basilica, but seriously the tour was lacking and I should have just gone to the noon mass on my own and done a self-guided tour instead.
I will say one cool thing about my visit to the Basilica was that after mass I was able to go with a handful of others down below the church itself, to an area called the crypts. At the time they were doing a week long devotion having church members continually non-stop recite the rosary next to a chapel of Mary. Though I don’t perform the rosary myself, it was a moving display of faith to have members of the church continually do so non-stop for a week straight.
First Unitarian Church
Once I was done attending mass at the Basilica I literally crossed the street to get to the First Unitarian Church. It was fairly ironic that two churches that have such personal significance to me happen to be across the street from one another. I suppose there’s some type of symbolism there, but I’ll have to figure that out later.
The First Unitarian Church is a fairly large church by Unitarian standards, and they’re proud to soon be celebrating their 200 year bicentennial as a church soon.
The reason the places holds such personal importance to me is that it marks the place where William Channing gave what would later be known as the ‘Baltimore Sermon’, and essentially outlined the tenants of a then emerging American spirituality and religious tradition that would become known as Unitarianism.
I don’t want to go into the full history of the significance of the ‘Baltimore Sermon’, but it is considered by many Unitarians today as the cornerstone sermon that established Unitarianism as a separate religious/spiritual tradition from that of it’s conservative Christian contemporaries at the time.
Touring the First UU Church
Technically speaking the church only offer tours of the church on Sunday’s after the 11am Sunday worship service. However, being the forward thinking person I am, I figured I’d knock on the door and see if anyone was there on a Friday to provide a spontaneous tour any ways….and what I got far exceeded any expectation I had.
A kind older woman (but not that old) let me into the church via a back entrance. I explained who I was, that I write a travel blog, am from Indianapolis, and mentioned that my father currently serves as a UU minister out of Maryland. With those credentials I won her trust to let me in during non-visiting hours.
Bless her kind heart, as getting a TRUE behind the scenes tour of the church with the lights dimmed and no one else in the building is an experience I’ll always remember. That’s not entirely true, there was also a gentlemen up in the balcony fixing the hundred year old organ that they keep for Sunday service and special events.
There’s something special about being in a church after hours when no one else is there. For me it’s a more personalized experience, which has been a recurring theme of my trip to the East Coast. I don’t tend to enjoy the mass consumed, assembly line tourist experience. If possible I prefer to dig into a place and go slightly off the beaten path. Whether it’s going for an unexpected swim in Walden Pond, standing in the rain at Niagara Falls to meditate silently while the other tourist run for shelter, I like to try to do things a little bit differently when I can.
As I stood on the stage at the front of the worship hall I had to laugh to myself on the inside. To think that less than a month ago I had been working run of the mill sales job, and now a month later I was not only standing on the stage of the First Unitarian Church in the US, I was standing feet away from the physical pulpit that Channing gave the “Baltimore Sermon” at.
Sidenote: I doubt ‘stage’ is the right word but that’s the word I’m going with, and given how forgiving and accepting UU’s are, I’m sure they’ll be fine with me describing it as such.
I ultimately had such a great visit on the Friday that I returned for the Sunday service. Which raises the question: “How does one top a true behind the scene tour of a church while it’s closed to the public”. Easy, you ask a former President of the church ‘Hey, can I go up to your attic and see what it looks like behind the barrel wall that was put in during the early 1900’s and see the actual original portico from underneath?’
We UU’s are a friendly and welcoming spiritual tradition. So…. OH COURSE YOU CAN!!!
So let me VERY strongly reiterate, THIS IS NOT A PART OF THE CHURCH TOUR, nor should you ask to do so as it’s a fairly difficult part of the church to get to.
That said. WOW!
I don’t even care if that’s bad writing.
The only word to describe getting to go up into the upper attic-like portion of the two hundred year old building is….. WOW!
I can’t describe it adequately, but through a maze like series of stairs, more stairs, a skinny person sized tall metal ladder with narrow steps, and then ultimately…NOT a joke… walking carefully across a series of wooden board planks… I was able to look up on to the bottom of one of the oldest and best preserved portico’s (bottom of the dome of a church) in the United States.
Thank you to EVERYONE at the First Unitarian Church in Baltimore for making me feel more welcome in a place of worship than I ever thought I could. Though I was hundreds of miles from Indianapolis, I felt like I was exactly where I always belonged.
On further reflection after leaving the city, it was an interesting juxtaposition of experiences. A visit to the tradition that I grow up with, and still hold great respect and admiration for. But then crossing a four lane concrete street in old Baltimore to find a Church I’d never been to before, but felt like I’d always belonged at.
This trip has been a trip of many first for me, and I’m thankful for knowing I have a home in the Unitarian tradition. I wasn’t born into it, but I’ve found my way to it through my travels over the past few years.