In July 1907, a group of Black railway porters and their wives (founding members of the Coloured Women’s Club) convened a meeting. These men and women wished to worship in their own church in their own style with dignity, respect of person and equality of participation, regardless of gender, one’s ethnic origin or faith. On August 29th, 1907, they established a Covenant by which the church would exist as a distinct body, and which every member accepted. On September 1, 1907 a group of twenty-six people worshipped together for the first time as Union Congregational Church. The first pastor called to this Black institution was Rev. F.E. Bowser. Union Congregational Church was founded as a religious institution with a strong faith and spiritual base that was to become a centre for community activism.
Union Church persevered in the early days as a small congregation in the fledgling Black community in Montreal. As the city’s Black population increased, the congregation outgrew both the quarters on Mountain Street, and on Inspector Street. Union Church moved to rue Delisle, corner Atwater in 1917. This church edifice had been constructed in 1899 as l’Église methodiste française.
After the Great War, the congregation stabilized and grew. Union Church became a catalyst for social action and a resource for a host of new organizations growing out of Union. Devoid of the social-service network we have in place today, before the 1920s, Blacks in Montreal were left to fend for themselves. The women of Union Church led the efforts to minister to the physical, social, and economic needs of the congregants and of the Black community at large. The need was great.
In the early years, Union United was the “porters’ church.” At that time, the railroad companies were the main employers of Montreal’s Black men. Thus, the character of the church grew out of the concrete need to give support to porter families left alone for days at a time. As well, the church took on additional roles of a social-service nature such as supplying food, clothing, shelter, hospital beds and cemetery plots to the needy. Union United Church provided a warm and welcoming respite in a city where too often race defined privilege and access.
The congregation survived the Great Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 during the pastorate of Rev. Arnold E. Gregory, who was also a leader in the Prohibition Movement of the Congregational Church at the time. (October and November 1918, were one of the few times in its history that the doors of Union were forced to close.)
The church was continually enriched by the dedicated assistance of the Coloured Women’s Club (founded in 1902—Canada’s oldest Black women’s institution) from the period of Prohibition through to the Great Depression. These two events often divided religious communities, yet at the same time they formed the fabric that glued many cultural communities together. Up to today, the interaction between Union and the Coloured Women’s Club is strengthened by their mutual goals of community service. Women served the church in other ways as well. With intermittent male attendance due to the necessities of war and an unforgiving schedule on the railway, Union’s women banded together and actively supported the liturgy during Church services. These women took on leadership roles at a time when other women could not hope to lead in other Churches.
In 1925, Union Congregational Church was a part of the amalgamation of many Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Methodist churches that became the United Church of Canada. From 60 members during the first World War, the congregation grew to have 300 families during the 45 year tenure of Rev. Charles H. Este, who ministered from 1923 (while still a student ) until 1968.
In the 1930s and forties, while the country was experiencing widespread poverty, the arts and social programs of Union actually grew—Union Church was the origin and the centre for performing arts: the Excelsior Drama and Debating Club, the Negro Theatre Guild, the Phyllis Wheatly Arts Club. The Negro Community Centre (begun in Union in 1927) created programs and activities to improve the physical, social and cultural health of the community. Arts, and in particular the varied forms of praise-music became the signature contribution of Union. Many of the Church activities were accompanied by the musical energy and sometimes the sheer musical genius of congregants.
The voice of the Church was also raised in the area of social justice. For instance, in the late thirties and early forties with the push to war, Reverend Este protested vociferously against Canada’s official military policy of racial exclusion as many Union congregants who wanted to enlist were refused simply because they were Black. By maintaining the pressure and forming alliances, the government stance changed which then allowed many young men of the church to enlist.
In other areas, Union’s voice was quieter but nonetheless, just as effective. For almost 30 years, Union Church had played a significant role in the development of social-welfare policy through the maintenance of the Negro Community Center in the basement of its Church building. By 1954, the NCC, as it was called, moved to expanded quarters on Coursol Street. Their departure led to the first major expansion, and renovation of the Delisle building. By 1959 the Church had modernized facilities and in which to accommodate the growing congregation and the multitasking initiatives of its leaders.
The sixties, seventies, indeed right into the nineties, Union United Church was a pioneer in the dissemination of the culture of the African diaspora in Montreal. Union’s activists spearheaded programs to endorse principles of justice, freedom, and equality in work, education and cultural arenas. It has been on the front line promoting international unity of Blacks through close communication with Black leaders of the world. Over the years, many such leaders preached from the pulpit at Union, including Bishop Desmond Tutu, Mr. Walter Sisulu, Rev. Joseph Echols Lowery and Mr. Nelson Mandela.
Union makes a concerted effort to break the glass ceiling that has confined many in the community to the ranks of the socially disadvantaged. It has reached out to the incarcerated and recently released through its Prison Ministry. The Union United Church Outreach program is second to none. Aside from the strong leadership provided by its 8 pastors, Union Church has many competent lay affiliates who have stepped up to provide spiritual leadership. Encouraging lay leadership has been one of the hallmarks of Union United Church. Generations of Union families have benefited from the mentoring of their youth and the teachings on self-restraint and service to church and community. We believe our lay leaders, the women, the pastors have been a powerful spiritual and community force within Montreal. Union’s history and accomplishments continue to provide hope for people around the world as a living symbol and example of a thriving Christian faith-based institution in the midst of the urban landscape.