Since Harrisburg was named the capital city of Pennsylvania, the newly formed American Unitarian Association (AUA) asked Reverend Kay to establish a church in the city. In 1826, the new congregation purchased land and a church building was constructed on the site of what is now the Federal Building in Harrisburg on Locust Street.
While visiting ministers led services at the new building, including the Reverend Dr. Walker of Charlestown on February 4, 1827 and the Reverend Dr. W. H. Furness of Philadelphia, the AUA was unable to secure a settled minister for the congregation. In 1836, a Methodist congregation purchased the building, bringing an end to the first Unitarian Church of Harrisburg. No other Unitarian or Universalist churches were formed in the area for nearly one hundred years.
In 1927, a corporation lawyer named George Ross Hull, who knew nothing of the earlier attempt, assembled a group of six liberal-minded people; they were drawn together by articles written by Hull which appeared in the local newspaper. This small group formed what would become our current church. They considered themselves a church rather than a fellowship and met from 1927 to 1958 in various locations. Their first meeting place was the old Penn Harris Hotel, which they used for 30 years. A number of part-time ministers served this congregation during that time, including William A. Vrooman (1928-1940), the Reverend E.A. Optiz (1941-1944) and the Reverend Hardey Swanson (1948-1951).
The church grew in membership to 40 families and by 1951, the congregation employed a part-time minister named Dr. Amos Horlacher, who was a Professor of English at Dickinson College, located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His wife, Thelma Horlacher, organized the first religious education program for children. An early church historian declared, “With Dr. Horlacher the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg really got going. “
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the congregation met in a converted stone mansion at 3809 Front Street in Susquehanna Township, just north of Harrisburg. Since the mid-1960s, various interim and full-time ministers have served UCH. The congregation built and moved into its own building on Clover Lane, Swatara Township, just southeast of Harrisburg, in 1963. Sixty-four members dedicated this church building. The building was renovated and expanded twice, in 1982 and 1996. Our religious education program, originally staffed by volunteers, has had professional leadership since 1984. To further serve the growing presence of Unitarian Universalists in Central PA, the congregation of UCH supported the start of a new congregation in 1996, called the Unitarian Universalists of Cumberland Valley, located in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania.
The oldest tradition of the Harrisburg Unitarian Church is its monthly newsletter, The Reporter. Richard Folkers, known for his memorable one-liners which peppered the newsletter, served as the editor for 25 years. Dick died in 1989. Gary Forseth, Della Hoke-Ulvick and current editor, Bart Carpenter have ably continued the editorship of The Reporter.
Our church was too small to accommodate our growing needs. For many years, UCH remained located in one facility on a bucolic, wooded campus in suburban Swatara Township, about 20 minutes from the center of Harrisburg. We drew congregants from many suburban communities on both sides of the Susquehanna River, as well as from a relatively small number of people living within the city limits. In 2006, under the ministry of the Reverend Howard Dana, UCH was awarded the National O. Eugene Picket Award for growth and vitality.
As the church grew in membership, added an associate minister, and expanded worship to include two services on Sunday mornings, the decision was made to investigate options for providing additional space to accommodate further growth. Ultimately, that process led in 2009 to the purchase of a beautiful century-old church in the city’s Allison Hill section. The existing resident congregation, a combination of a former United Methodist Church and a United Church of Christ church, was dwindling, and could no longer afford to maintain the building. With the purchase, a rental agreement was negotiated with the in-place congregation so it could continue to hold services and social outreach programs at the facility. UCH Sunday services were held at both the Clover Lane and Market Street church buildings, beginning in 2010. The rental agreement with the former congregation ended with its dissolution in November 2014.
However, the continued growth that was anticipated did not occur, and church attendance diminished over time. Following, the resignation of Reverend Dana in 2013 and two failed attempts to call a new minister, the congregation’s financial capability of maintaining both properties, especially with the older building needing many repairs, became impossible and the difficult decision to sell the Market Street location was made. That decision was of some benefit to the community, however, as the building was bought and refurbished by an organization that addresses the needs of local women and children.
Since July 2019, the entire membership has been meeting once again at the Clover Lane building. The congregation has begun growing in numbers, stabilized its finances, and become energized to move positively forward into its next chapter of service, fellowship, and growth.