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Ralph Norman Helverson

1979 - 1980


Ralph Norman Helverson was born on May 23, 1912 in Kansas City, Missouri, son of Guy E. Helverson and the former Hilda Hendrickson.  After attending Kansas City public schools, Helverson was admitted to Anderson College in Illinois from which he graduated in 1937 with a BA degree. After marrying his college sweetheart Wynanda Vanderzee, Helverson traveled north to Evanston to enroll at Garrett Theological Seminary, where he earned a BD degree in 1940.  Next, the Helversons traveled to Ithaca, New York so that Ralph might enter Cornell University where he studied to obtain a Master of Arts degree in 1943 while serving as settled minister at the city’s First Unitarian Society. Helverson remained in Ithaca for a decade and a half as Unitarian minister and Cornell University’s chaplain where he also established a reputation as a community leader serving on diverse non-profit boards, ranging from settlement houses to family services, to public and mental health clinics, and even the Consumer Cooperative Society. In 1959 Helverson accepted a call from First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he helped initiate numerous innovated programs, including the Cambridge Forum for discussion of important national issues, the Nameless Coffeehouse, co-planning the re-design of Harvard Square, and expanding the elder care and guidance resources of Paine Social Services. In addition, Helverson broadcasted regular Sunday morning messages about Unitarian Universalism on his radio show “Window on Harvard Square”.


In 1977 Helverson embarked on a new career path within the UUA: interim ministry.  Traditionally, interim ministers were older retired pastors who acted as “placeholders” during the congregational search committee campaign to recruit a new settled minister. However, in the late 1970’s Loren Mead and other researchers with the Duke Divinity School’s Alban Institute proposed that during the interval between settled ministers, interim ministers should take a more proactive role in fostering positive church renewal. Among the tasks they advised interim ministers to undertake were to help the congregation 1. come to terms with its history, 2. discover a new identity and 3. commit to new leadership. Between leaving Cambridge in 1977 and arriving in Dedham in September 1979, Helverson accrued experience in church renewal by serving as interim minister at San Diego’s First Unitarian Church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Greater Naples Florida, and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton. Thus when Helverson began his interim ministry at First Church in Dedham, he had developed skills which he immediately put to use. He did so by delivering an October 7th 1979 sermon titled “What Holds Us Together” in which he declared his interim mission for the coming year. His charge would be to help the congregation “To relate to our roots and interpret it for our day; 2. To excite the desire to have and learn the contexts of what we do not know; 3.  To foster a sense of caring and of hope.”


Helverson’s first task was helping the congregation to come to terms with history, or as he termed it, “relate to our roots and interpret it for our day.” This he accomplished mainly through his sermons. For example, Helverson explored the historic roots of Unitarianism in his sermon “William Ellery Channing: Defender of Human Dignity”. And he applied UU principles to current-day issues in his Thanksgiving sermon “Our Holy Earth”, a meditation on human responsibility to preserve the environment as a common trust because “The earth is not a commodity belonging to us, but a community to which we belong.” As for exciting the desire “to learn the contexts of what we do not know”, Helverson modeled this behavior by, for instance, leading a series of after-service open-ended discussions with teenage youth group members on such topics as their beliefs about God and their takes on ethical questions, such as the moral difference between minor and major lies.  Even in his role as a community representative of First Church, Helverson took an exploratory stance concerning other beliefs. For instance, he chaired one monthly meeting of the Dedham minister’ group by enumerating propositions they all believed in “and then presenting three that they may not agree with; 1. The Humanist/Theist Controversy; 2. The reasoned and non-rational components of religion; 3 and church liturgies.” As for fostering a sense of caring, the Helversons maintained an open-door policy in the parsonage, inviting congregants to feel free to drop by to discuss problems, concerns or to merely socialize.  And as for instilling congregational hope, shortly after assuming his interim position in Dedham, Helverson and the ministerial search committee held a service during which he facilitated a whole church exploration of the desired qualities of a good liberal minister candidate.  Helverson kept the congregation well informed about the search for a settled minister, and when David Hubner was selected, Helverson in April 1979, Helverson drove to David’s church in Hudson, MA for a service which initiated his transition to Dedham.

Ralph Norman Helverson concluded his interim ministry at a farewell dinner at First Church on June 9, 1979. He went on to serve as an interim at the Universalist Church of West Hartford, Connecticut.  And on January 10, 1982 Helverson was installed as settled minister of First Unitarian Church in Palm Beach where he was pastor till his retirement in June 1989, after which he was named Minister Emeritus. As a retiree Helverson stayed active in the denomination as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. His publications include many sermons, plus collections of meditations, such as Speak to the Earth, Impassioned Clay, and Living the Questions.  Helverson passed away on 9 April 25 at Carleton-Willard Village, Bedford, MA, at the age of ninety-five.  Helverson’s obituary celebrates his career as follows; “A distinguished preacher, thinker and writer, he was also a beloved pastor and colleague.”



24 Sep 1949, 4 - The Ithaca Journal at
29 Apr 2007, 25 - The Boston Globe at
Alban at Duke Divinity School » Rethinking Interim Ministry
Collection: Helverson, Ralph Norman. Papers, 1932-2001. | HOLLIS for (
In Memory . . . Rev. Ralph N. Helverson - UU Ministers Association (
interim_ministry_primer.pdf (
Journal, September 1, 1979-May 31, 1981, September 1, 1979-May 31, 1981 | HOLLIS for (
The Church in Harvard Square: Outreach To The World Community | Harvard Square Library
transitional_ministry_handbook.pdf (

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