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Addison Eliot Steeves

1949 - 1967

Biography

Addison Eliot Steeves was born on January 5, 1920 in Gray, Maine, son of Earle Raymond Steeves and Elizabeth Elvina Vosmus. At that time Earle Steeves was minister of Grey’s Congregational Church, but shortly afterwards, the Steeves family moved to Ayer, Massachusetts where he ministered to the Federated Church and where Addison attended elementary school. A decade later, Earle received a call from Federated Church in Leicester MA where Addison Steeves graduated from high school in 1937 and was accepted in the Colby College class of 1942. At Colby Addison earned honors grades in coursework for his dual major in economics and sociology. Moreover, Steeves earned the Gallert Award for excellence in writing, excelled at intermural sports, was on dean’s list, and served as the president of the Delta Upsilon Fraternity. After graduating from Colby, Steeves enrolled in Meadville Theological School in Chicago and, in June 1944, Addison and Marilyn Ireland, a schoolmate from Colby, were wed.  In his final year at Meadville Steeves served as student body president, commencement student speaker, and holder of the Billings Award for excellence in public speaking. After completing his course of study, Steeves received a call from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Stockton, California where he was minister from 1945 till 1949. Simultaneously, he was on the Board of Directors of the San Joaquin Valley Mental Hygiene Association, the Council for Civic Unity, and the Community Council, while also teaching at the University of the Pacific. However, having a shared desire to return to New England, the Steeves explored emerging ministerial openings and began negotiations with First Church resulting in Addison’s call from the Pulpit Committee. Steeves began his ministry in Dedham informally in September 1949 after which he was formally installed in January of the following year.

 

During their nearly two-decade tenure in Dedham the Steeves had an enduring impact on First Church’s organization, community presence and education. The main organizational transformation of Steeve’s ministry was first initiated twenty-five years before his installation. Massachusetts law and tradition had actually established two associated bodies that composed a religious society. On the one hand, the parish was a legal corporate entity established by law and required to provide towns with a public teacher of religion. On the other hand, the church was an unincorporated voluntary fellowship of men and women united by a covenant. Thus each annual First Church meeting was actually two-tiered: first, the Church would meet under the auspices of the Deacons to administer church property and funds and next, the parish would meet, led by the Parish Committee, to discuss matters related to parish activities. It is easy to imagine a minister’s potential frustration in trying to coordinate two different decision-making bodies with sometimes ambiguous areas of responsibility and contradictory purposes.  In 1924 First Church Reverend Charles R. Joy in his annual minister’s report recommended streamlining the governance of First Church and Parish by incorporating the Church and merging it with the Parish governing board, a process that had been enabled by Massachusetts 1887 legislation. Perpetuating this dual governance was dangerous, Joy held, because “it is inevitable under the present arrangement that the Church should dwindle in interest and importance, and that the Parish should come to be a semi-circular organization to be joined off-hand as one joins a choral society or a social welfare club.” 

Unfortunately for Joy and his successor Rutledge, it was not until First Church welcomed a new minister in 1949 that this reorganization was actually enacted. Steeves had not been in Dedham four months before the special committee composed of Deacons and Parish Committee members proposed an reorganization that “will eliminate many of the confusions and uncertainties involved with our ancient dual form and will so concentrate the responsibilities of administration so as to provide efficient government in a form clear for all.”  The proposed Bylaws stipulated that the officers of the church were to be a clerk, three Deacons and a Church Committee. What’s more, Deacons would no longer have life tenure: rather they would be elected for overlapping terms of nine years. Deacons would constitute one part of the new Church Committee, while the other part would consist of three pairs of Parish Committee members, each pair serving two-year stint in succession. The final three positions laid out in these Bylaws were: a clerk, an auditing committee and a nominating committee. (The office of Treasurer was not mentioned in these Bylaws!)  To transfer governing authority, the members of the now abolished Parish Committee simply resigned and were voted onto the Church Committee by the January 16, 1950 Annual Meeting attendees.   As we shall see, this organizational reform would provide Steeves with a more flexible and wieldy institution to confront the challenges of mid-20th century church growth.

Steeves identified growth of church membership and attendance early on in his ministry and undertook to address this problem in multiple ways.  First, Steeves apparently reactivated the First Church Membership Committee. As one congregant recalled, ”The first few years I have little recollection of any general membership effort, but when Ash and Marilyn Steeves came, a committee was formed and we began to work on increasing membership.” She went on to recount that the Membership Committee made personal calls on people who seemed to be interested in First Church.  The Membership Committee also held evening get-togethers at the homes of congregants to which both members and interested newcomers were invited. “Ash talked, answered questions and related Unitarian history… (T)here was considerable discussion of a stimulating nature.”  Steeves also raised the profile of First Church by means of explicit advertising. Starting in September 1953, First Church ran its first ad in the Dedham Transcript, namely “This historic church speaks in the language of our time to the men of our time about the concerns of our time."  Other catchy slogans included “No Faith Demands More to You... No Faith Gives More to You!” and ““Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?” For the next decade and a half, First Church ads appeared on a monthly basis in the Transcript.  Apparently, Steeves was pleased enough with the publicity newspaper ads obtained for First Church that in December 1962 he sponsored a Photo and News Coverage presentation by the Transcript editor for area ministers outlining how to post a church notice, including deadlines, space, and cost.  

Advertising was only part of the Steeves family effort to enhance the public presence of First Church in Dedham. After the First Church ads began to appear, the Dedham Transcript ran multiple stories per year about topics such as descriptions of the committees at First Church and notices about upcoming parent teacher curriculum meetings at the church school. In addition, the paper reported on a plethora of town events at which Steeves spoke, like a sports dinner run by local boosters, a League of Women Voters Panel discussion on Individual Liberty and National Security, and a conference on Denominations featuring Steeves along with Dedham Methodist, Baptist and Episcopal ministers.  Marilyn Steeves also was prominently featured in Transcript stories. In Dedham Mrs. Steeves was closely connected with the Dexter PTA (where she taught and was a parent). the Dedham Choral Society. the Inter-Church Council, the Cancer Society, and the First Church Women's Alliance. She was also chairman of both the personnel committee of the General Alliance of Unitarian Women of Boston and Its publication committee as well as locally and nationally conducting leadership training for the General Alliance. In addition, Marilyn was elected president of Dedham Family Services in 1958.Her activities in each of these roles were either featured or mentioned in many Transcript stories.

Lastly, Steeves attempted to grow church membership, with some success, by making curricular innovation, physical improvements, and leadership professionalization for the Church School program. Since the 1940’s the Church School had employed the New Beacon Street series of child-centered high interest curriculum units produced by progressive educator Sophia Lyon Fahs and her staff, units such as “From Long Ago and Many Lands”. Following World War II, parents of baby boomers endorsed First Church’s use of both Fahs units and the new Fahs teaching kits like “Human Heritage” and “Adventures of God’s Folk” that enabled busy First Church teacher volunteers to easily access all the materials for an effective (and successful) lesson in one box.  A second means of fostering the Church School growth was an expansion of its physical plant. In 1961 overcrowded classrooms in the Parish Hall necessitated the commissioning of a local architect David Dethlef to design a two-story wing of classrooms extending through the old parking lot from the rear of the auditorium. This addition provided the RE program with four new classrooms atop the Larcom Room (named after a recently deceased First Church congregant and donor), a large open space facility in the cellar to house its growing program. As for leadership empowerment, in 1966 Steeves responded to the urgent request of the Religious Education Committee for professional leadership of the Church School by hiring Frances Wayland Wood as Director of Religious Education. Wood had spent years as a Director of Religious Education at Unitarian churches in Detroit for 1927-38 and Chicago in 1961-66 during which latter period she was also Professor of Religious Education at Meadville/Lombard Theological school, Concomitantly, in 1938 Wood was appointed to the newly created position, Field Secretary for the Department of Religious Education of the AUA which she later transformed into the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) in 1949. Moreover, in the 1950’s Wood had conducted professional development sessions for First Church volunteer religious educators, so Steeves and the RE Committee were very cognizant of the quality of their 1966 hire. While at First Church, under Wood’s leadership the RE program grew, classes had competent teachers, and adult volunteers received high quality professional development and supervision until Wood retired at 65 in 1968. Nevertheless, although 1966-68 RE reports praised the development of individual programs like Junior Choir, Junior High Group, and the Church School Student Council, Woods and RE Committee leaders lamented the continuing absence of older teenagers in RE, difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers, spotty student attendance in in the Church School and an emerging problem, the lack of young parents joining First Church.

Addison Steeves moved on in 1968 to become minister of Unitarian Congregation of Melrose MA where he presided over the merger of his church with the town’s Universalist Parish into the Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church in 1974. In 1980 Steeves undertook his last ministry at the First Universalist Church of Auburn. Maine where he served until his retirement in 1989.  In retirement he was a member of Bowdoin’s Jung Seminar, the Bangor Theological Seminar and the Friends of Bowdoin. Addison Eliot Steeves passed away in Lisbon, ME on April 9, 1997, followed by his wife Marilyn’s passing on June 6, 2010. As First Church historian Helen Bancroft, recalled in “The Steeves Remembered” (1988), “Both Ash and Marilyn were friendly and kind. In time of trouble they were invariably on hand to lend a helping hand, and every member of the Church knew he or she could talk to either or both of them about anything. One member joined the Church because to him the Steeves exemplified Unitarianism.”

 

Bibliography


Committee and Minister Reports, 1964-71, 1983 First Church Records, Dedham Museum and Archive
Dedham Transcript 1949-1968
Ellis, George E.  The Church and the Parish in Massachusetts: Usage and Law. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1890
Fahs, Sophia Lyon (1876-1978) | Harvard Square Library
First Church and Parish in Dedham 350 Anniversary
First Church Parish Record, 1949-1954, Dedham Museum and Archive
https://uudb.org/articles/franceswaylandwood.html
Our History and Our Home - Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church (melroseuu.org)
Sophia Lyon Fahs - Wikipedia
Staff, Board, and Committees – First Universalist Church of Auburn, Unitarian Universalist (auburnuu.org)
uuworld.org : sophia lyon fahs, revolutionary educator

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