Chestertown, Maryland

1991 – 2022

1991In December 1991, one phone call set the wheels in motion for the building of a liberal religious community in conservative Kent County, Maryland. One Protestant mom, Pat Bijorke, and one Jewish mom, Leslie Roche, unknown to one another before then, came together in their common quest to find a faith each could believe in. Both were seeking a religion that would allow them to express their own beliefs authentically, to pass on to their children. Independent of one another, they had each discovered Unitarian Universalism; but found to their dismay, that there was no congregation in existence on the Upper Eastern Shore of Maryland. In that first phone call in 1991, they pledged to one another they would start a congregation together.

Their search led them to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Easton, where Rev. Daniel Higgins passed along the names of Kent County residents Steve and Mariana Hitchner, and Peter Tapke. The five founding members then worked through the rest of that winter to lay the foundations for a liberal religious fellowship.


On May 27, 1992 the founders held a public informational meeting. Rev. Syd Peterman, the District Consultant, and Rev. Kenneth Reeves, the District New Congregations Organizer, spoke to more than forty interested attendees, a highly encouraging turnout. Work continued throughout the summer to organize the governing body, worship program, and children’s religious education.

The first worship service of the Unitarian Fellowship of the Chester River was held at 4:00 pm Sunday, September 27, 1992 in the Quaker meetinghouse. A well organized children’s religious education program overflowed with children and enthusiasm. Rev. Kenneth Reeves preached a sermon at that first service titled “Our Major Stories.” Worship services were held every other Sunday, with a potluck supper once a month to celebrate fellowship and community.


On January 17, 1993, the new congregation held its first Children’s Dedication ceremony. On Easter Sunday, 1993, the membership book was opened for signing of Charter Members. On May 3, 1993 the application was submitted to UUA to become a member congregation. Included in the application packet was a check in the amount of $101.43 – the full “Fair Share” to the UUA Annual Program Fund. UUCR has proudly remained a Full Fair Share congregation ever since. At the June 1993 UUA General Assembly, Rev. Dan Higgins presented the congregation’s request to join UUA, and it was approved. Founder Peter Tapke served as the Fellowship’s first president.

In September 1993 the congregation moved to the Common Room in the Casey Academic Center at Washington College and began weekly worship services at 10:30 am. Monthly potluck brunches fueled the growing membership.

1994 – 1996

Rev. Paula Annone Maiorano ministered to the congregation as a student intern in 1994. Paula provided organizational and pastoral guidance, and gave a feeling of permanence to the fledgling congregation. On June 2, 1996, the Unitarian Fellowship of the Chester River joined with First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, DE to ordain her. Under Rev. Maiorano’s guidance, membership grew to 38 members.

1997 – 1999

In December 1997 the congregation approved the rental of office space at 100 N. Cross Street in Chestertown, in order to provide a more public presence in the community and allow a central place to gather for board and committee meetings, adult lifespan education, summer discussion groups, and as a minister’s office.

Rev. Alex Richardson arrived in January 1998, following a unanimous vote of approval by the membership. Alex kept the growing congregation on their toes, energizing them and providing a passionate drive to address issues of social, racial, and gay justice here in the local community. In May 1998, UUCR joined with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster, PA to ordain him.

Rev. Daniel Higgins, always flowing in and out of the life of the congregation over the years, formalized his ministry with UUCR in September 1999. Dan helped guide the congregation in a process of discovering their core being as a religious community, and quietly prodded the development of professionalism and intentionality among the Board and membership.

We mourned the death of Peter Tapke on June 11, 1999.  However, his legacy was a very generous financial bequest from his estate. It was Peter’s deepest desire that the flame of Unitarian Universalism be kept alive along the banks of the Chester River, and his generosity would allow the congregation to do so.

2000 – 2003

In January 2000 the decision was made to move back to the Quaker meetinghouse for 9:00 am Sunday services. Carol Brown was hired as Director of Children’s Religious Education, and served in that capacity from September 2000 to May 2003.

With the congregation now growing at a rapid rate, Rev. Matthew McNaught was called in August of 2002 as a half-time minister. Matthew helped spur the congregation’s realization that the vision of a tangible “home” was a longing that must be met.

In 2001 the membership approved the process for what became a long and arduous search for a building that could be purchased. In 2002, having exhausted the possibilities of finding a suitable existing building, the membership voted to purchase a piece of land in the Crestview neighborhood of Chestertown.

2004 – 2006

In May 2004 the membership voted to proceed with construction of the new church building and began a three-year capital campaign. In October 2005 the land was blessed in a ceremony conducted by Chief “Winterhawk” Fitzhugh of the Nasaugh-Wawash tribe. Rev. Greg Chute became a contractual consultant to the Board in May of 2005, providing encouragement, experience and support throughout the building process and afterward.

On November 6, 2005, a ground breaking ceremony was held and construction began. Thanks to Peter Tapke’s generosity and a successful capital campaign, the building was constructed entirely without incurring a mortgage. On November 11, 2006, the congregation gathered to dedicate the new building at 914 Gateway Drive in Chestertown.

2007 – 2014

Rev. Chute served the congregation through 2009 when he retired. Rev. Chute recommended that UUCR identify and train Pastoral Associates to assist with pastoral duties; four Associates were trained and appointed in 2007.

Upon Rev. Chute’s retirement, the church hired Dr. David Newell in 2011 as a part-time contractual minister and he was ordained at our church as a Unitarian Universalist minister in May of 2012.

The congregation was certified by the UUA as a Green Sanctuary in 2007. It was recognized as a Welcoming Congregation in 2012 and sponsored the first PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In addition, UUCR founded an animal ministry program in 2013.

In 2013, we celebrated our twentieth anniversary as a church with a commitment to “twenty more.” Our hope at that time was to grow our membership by 20 in the coming year. Although we were not successful in increasing our numbers to that extent, we stood strong with 58 members.

In 2014, Rev. Dr. Newell announced his intent to retire in June of 2015. In October of 2014, the Board of Trustees called a congregational meeting at which the membership agreed to commence a search for a part-time minister. Under the guidance of Rev. David Pyle, the new JPD Executive Director, UUCR is seeking to create a Developmental Ministry Plan and hire a part-time developmental minister to guide our future growth.

2015 – 2017

In April 2015, UUCR was awarded a three-year $20,000 Chalice Lighter’s grant from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Joseph Priestley District, which gave support and guidance for the implementation of a three-year strategic plan focusing on congregational growth. A Developmental Growth task force was formed to elicit input from congregation members and younger adults in the community. After a lengthy search for a quarter-time minister, Rev. Christian Schmidt began his ministry with us on October 1, 2015; however, he left at the end of July 2016 to accept a position in California. UUCR’s Religious Education program continued, using various ways to deliver lessons to meet the needs of children and their parents.

To the delight of our Sunday service accompanists, a baby grand piano was purchased in December 2015 with part of the bequest from Lois Ward. In the winter of 2016, the Our Whole Lives (OWL) program, designed to help teenagers make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior, was presented to twelve youth from the area. An Emergency Preparedness Plan was adopted in November 2015. We developed a UUCR website. Following a lengthy development process, a Sexual Conduct Policy was approved by the Board in February 2017.

In January 2017, the congregation voted affirmatively to seek a half-time minister. On July 1, 2017 the Board entered into a contract with Rev. Sue Browning to serve our congregation as its half-time minister.  Since Rev. Sue also served as the half-time minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton (UUFE), more opportunities for collaboration and connections between the two congregations opened up.

Worthy of note is that the UUCR’s financial status is solvent, and we are able to support a half-time minister without assistance from the Chalice Lighters’ grant in the following years.

2018 – 2022   

In 2018, a Strategic Planning Group was tasked by the Board to develop a new, three-year strategic plan. The group engaged members and friends to establish four goals: continue “doing church well,” promote and brand UUCR (who we are and what we do), undertake a church-wide focus and community activism regarding racism and racial equity, and encourage and support local organizations, groups, and individuals who seek a community of connection and inclusion.  A revised and updated Emergency Preparedness Plan was adopted in June 2019. The Board also worked with a communications expert to “rebrand” UUCR with a new logo, a new template for the weekly newsletter Reflections, an updated Facebook page, and a redesigned website. A Religious Education support coordinator was hired to plan and teach RE lessons three Sundays a month.

The church’s commitment to Goal III, “to undertake a focus on racism and racial equity,” in its strategic plan is worthy of note here. Many members of the church attended “Undoing Racism” trainings held in Kent County, and various members joined the community’s Social Action Committee for Racial Justice, which undertook projects and programs for folks to talk openly about Kent County’s past and current status of racial relations and to take action to undo racism. We also read and discussed books and hosted discussions for community members to attend. In addition, members and friends of UUCR were active in the James Taylor Justice Coalition, a group devoted to healing within the black and white communities, and to also publicly recognize the terrible injustice done to James Taylor who was lynched in Kent County in 1892.

In March 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic impacted the world in ways that no one could have predicted.  Amidst the upheavals and uncertainty of this unprecedented time, UUCR endeavored to be a source of stability and support to its members and friends. At the end of March, after much collaboration between UUFE’s and our ad hoc “tech” teams, the first online Sunday service was presented on YouTube. The pastoral care associates reached out to everyone — members and friends — to find out how they were coping. Religious Education switched to a virtual format. Throughout the rest of the 2020 church year, and for the first five months of 2021, meaningful online services (many through Zoom) were presented each week, a result of the collaboration and creativity of the worship committee, the tech teams, members of UUFE, and Rev. Sue Browning.

In June 2021, UUCR made significant financial donations to two community organizations striving to address racial and economic inequities in our community. Both Minary’s Dream Alliance and Kent Attainable Housing received $5,000 grants to support their programs. By giving to these organizations with funds accumulated in our savings, we reinforced our commitment to activism and the elimination of racial and economic barriers in our community.

In May 2021, a Reopening Task Force formed to develop policies and procedures for reopening the church in the fall amidst the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. On September 12, 2021, UUCR held its first in-person worship service in over a year, with many safeguards in place. The service was also broadcast through Zoom.

As of September 2022, UUCR has continued to present both online and in-person Sunday worship services, relaxing or reinstating safeguards according to national health guideline and local positivity rates. The Board created a task force to re-imagine our ministry to children, youth, and families, to creatively develop programming for children and families, and to welcome children each Sunday. We currently stand at 62 members. On Sunday, October 2, 2022, the Unitarian Universalists of the Chester River will have a special service to celebrate 30 years of its existence, through faith in its principles, inclusion of all people, and dedication to our beloved community.

UUCR has had precious new babies born, beloved elderly members have passed away, and we have suffered the dramatic loss of young adults who took their own lives. We’ve celebrated marriages; mourned separations and divorces; proudly acknowledged the coming of age of teens we have loved and cared for since infancy. We’ve shouted in triumph, and wept in grief. We’ve held each others’ hands in times of intimacy, and held one another at arm’s length in times of stormy conflict. We’ve laughed; we’ve squabbled; we’ve danced; we’ve sung. We’ve said hello; we’ve said goodbye; we’ve fought and we’ve made up. We survived a global pandemic! Our history is recorded, not just in dates and events, but in our relationships to one another. Like our namesake, the Chester River, the ebb and flow of time changes us, both as individuals and as a body. We gather together to celebrate all that is our life.

© 2007 – 2022 UUCR – All rights reserved, amended 2022