History of our congregation


The History of Skylands Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Delivered by Bill Montfort at the Dedication in Beattystown on May 3, 2009

and updated August 2011


My talk today is on the history of this fellowship. lt is based on my wife Sue’s and my memories since 1969 when we joined, plus the memories of Karl and Virginia Brecheisen who made a cassette tape in 1993 about the fellowship. Also I have used some documents:   membership lists and newsletters. Unfortunately, some other documents were accidently thrown out about 25 years ago when we were renting space at the Washington Twp Historical Society.

We are no longer in contact with any of the original members because they have passed away or moved,  but having know some of them in the late 1960’s we can assume they established the fellowship  known as the Unitarian Fellowship  of Hackettstown as a place to search for answers for themselves and society. Incidentally, several of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowships in northern NJ were established about the same time, including Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.

 The 1965 Certificate of Incorporation lists the trustees as Robert Olsen and Frances Olsen of Long Valley, William Lloyd of Dover, and from Hackettstown Frieda Sabin, Elizabeth Lipman, Ruth Smith, and Frank Jeffers. Two of the names in early documents were people who had marched in Selma, AL – Clark Olson who was the first minister at the Morristown Fellowship and Gabe Williamson,  a member at MUF.  When we moved to this area in 1969 and joined, it was clear that Bob Olsen was the person who was the real leader in terms of services, discussions, and vision. Bob had a strong interest in ethical and spiritual issues. At the first meeting that Sue and I attended, Bob gave a talk about the spirituality of wine, and the refreshments afterwards included tasting some of the wine that he had made. In the mid 1970s, Bob and Fran retired to Cape Cod and attended the Nauset Fellowship in Eastham, MA.

The Unitarian Fellowship of Hackettstown originally met at the Hackettstown VFW Hall, but by the late 1960’s when we first attended, it had changed its name to West Morris Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and was meeting in the Bartley Chapel on Bartley Road in Flanders, now the Church of the Mystic Light. It had a big room on the main floor and 3 basement rooms with hanging light bulbs and an outhouse. Due to heating problems and lack of indoor plumbing, we moved to Long Valley Middle School where we met in the library—always sitting in a circle of perhaps 15-20 people, with RE for the children in classrooms. For about 15 years we rented rooms at Long Valley Middle School or Old Farmers Road School, where we met in the art room. When rental costs became prohibitive, we rented space in various places: Washington Twp Historical Society, Schooleys Mtn Fire House, Port Murray United Methodist Church, the Washington Township Library Community Room, St James Episcopal Church in Hackettstown (in the Parish Hall from 4:30 to 6 pm), Classic Ballroom in Hastings Square (where the reflections in the corner mirrors gave the illusion that we had quadrupled our membership), and most recently for the past 10 years in the Mini-Mall in Hackettstown.

Until 1999, this fellowship had been lay-led. Services when we first joined had very little structure, and no singing. In the mid 1970s the candle and chalice were introduced, we made a songbook, and we sang with me playing the guitar. RE was essentially the one-room school concept.

Through the years we had a wide variety of speakers and discussed many topics—I will mention just a few here:

1970s-  – Values Clarification, Amnesty, the Casino Gambling Referendum in NJ- its moral and social implications, The Invisible Minority (homosexuals), and an energy sharing workshops with George Prehmus and Luis Cavallone

1980s – Freezing the Nuclear Arms Race,  Self Image/Self Esteem with Sue Montfort, the “Building Your Own Theology” curriculum,  and  Allen Wells

1990s- Paul Callendar (from Newton UUF) and Rich Balzer on Zorastrianism

Various special activities began in the 1970s, including: a Thanksgiving Sunday service with special foods, gingerbread house making at Christmas, Rites of Spring in March, retreats, potluck dinners, and more recently, the Seder (introduced to the fellowship by Joan and Denis Sullivan)

Religious Education - In 1969 we don’t remember any RE programs for the kids, but by the mid 1970s there was a dedicated core of parents who worked hard to have an interesting RE program. We had many self-generated RE activities, and we used some of the UUA materials- “Haunting House” and  “Man the Cultural Builder”, and the Quaker Creative Response to Conflict Resolution, with a strong emphasis on art projects and nature, due to the interests of the adults who took turns doing RE. We all wanted RE to be a home and an extended family for the children, free of imposed religious dogma, but there were frequent debates about whether the emphasis should be on content or on social skills.

The women’s group was started in the early 90s, with Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, and it continues to be an important part of our fellowship life today.  

It is interesting to note that when several members of our Fellowship moved away, they established Unitarian Universalist Fellowships in their new home areas:

Cis and George Prehmus moved to Prescott AZ and established the Prescott UUF.

Karl & Virginia Brecheisen and Art & Sally Friedman moved to Stroudsburg,   Pennsylvania, and established the Pocono UUF.

I mentioned that the first singing in our services began in the late 1970’s, from a songbook that we all put together. In the 1990s, we were given some copies of “Singing the Living Tradition” by the Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Hill, NJ.  Recently, we have added additional copies through a generous donation from the family of Richard Balzer… we appreciate those hymnals very much and are pleased that Balzer family is here with us today.  

One of the issues that was discussed at various times through the years was how to increase our membership—in the 1970s we grew mainly by “word of mouth”. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s with the leadership of Joan and Denis Sullivan, Jim Hall, and others that we changed our name to Skylands Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to broaden our geographical area and then we advertised our fellowship more actively, especially through the Internet.

Another issue that was discussed at various times through the years was whether we should have a minister, and whether we could afford one.  In 1999 we hired our first part-time minister:  Ron Sala, followed by Rosemary Bray McNatt, Allen Wells, Linda Goonewardene, and Julie Newhall.

In addition, we have been fortunate to have various Unitarian Universalist ministers come to lead our Sunday morning services. I am pleased to see that some of these ministers are here today.


Through the years there are some features that I think have been consistent here at the fellowship:

1.      A place where people could express themselves and test their ideas in an accepting atmosphere

2.      A place where people could search for meaning and would accept the fact that people were in different places, from different religious backgrounds, and could agree to disagree.

3.      A place where people valued justice and were concerned about social issues

4.      A place where people were supportive of each other, where people would reach out and try to help when members were having difficulty.

So these are some of my thought about our 45 year history…. And it is wonderful to be here today to celebrate in this building.


Some new activities since May, 2009, now that we have our own building:

Annual Christmas Eve service for congregation and community

Film series

Concerts:  Lew Gelfond and Andy Goessling, Concert for Haiti in 2010 with Jody Price, Kate and Paul, Mef and Angela, Nadine and Brian, and Renee Paddock

Riverside Rhythm and Rhyme Coffee house 4th Saturday of each month:  open mic plus featured performers

Tuesday Evening Series:  Tai Chi,  Belly Dancing,  Shamanic Journeying,  Green Tuesdays (films and speakers),  Singing Bowl Meditation

Welcoming Congregation activities:  speakers, discussions, workshops, films