On September 19, 1948, a group of seven persons – Mr. and Mrs. John Cole, Mr. and Mrs. R. T. Hansen, the Rev. and Mrs. A. E. von Stilli and Lester Bonham – met on the front porch of the Cole home in Brownsville and organized the first Unitarian church in South Texas.
The Rev. von Stilli had been sent here as a missionary by the American Unitarian Association from Oklahoma City, where he had been a minister for 10 years. In his last years in Oklahoma City, Von Stilli told Bob Raible (Minister First Unitarian Church of Dallas 1942-1964) that he could “coast along for a little . . .until retirement age, but you know, Bob, I believe I’ve got another church in me yet.”
Von Stilli became a “circuit-riding” Unitarian minister in Rio Grande Valley. He held morning and evening services in various Valley towns, including Edinburg, McAllen, San Benito and Brownsville.
The first services of the new Brownsville church were held in the Chamber of Commerce building. Later, the meetings were moved to the ball room of the El Jardin hotel, and still later to Landrum’s restaurant. By this time, it was evident that the growing membership required a larger, permanent building, and in 1949 plans were being made to raise money for this purpose.
In late 1949, Brownsville Unitarians began an effort to raise the money necessary for the construction of a permanent meeting hall. Early in this fund raising drive, an “anonymous donor” presented the fledgling church with $6,000 – half the total cost of the building project. Rev. Von Stilli and his wife, Irene, never revealed the identify of this “anonymous” benefactor.
Construction began in early 1950. In the summer of that year, Rev. Von Stilli returned to his two former parishes in Oklahoma City and Tulsa and sold “imaginary bricks” of the new church. He managed to raise the $2,500 needed to complete the building costs. In September, the new hall was finished.
Dedication services for the meeting house of the Unitarian Church of the Rio Grande Valley were held on October 1, 1950. Johann Sebastian Bach, Josef Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart joined Dr. Dan H. Fenn, director of ministry, American Unitarian Association of Boston; Rev. Richard Gibbs, Director Southwestern Unitarian Conference; and Valley Unitarians in celebrating a new chapter for liberal religion in South Texas.
From the Dedication Hymn, the new congregation sang:
Through willing heart and helping hand,
Behold achieved our long desire!
And gathered here, a household band,
We light today, the household fire.
During the summer of 1947, the American Unitarian Association (Boston) authorized and sponsored a survey conducted by Alfred von Stilli. The purpose whas to determine prospects for Unitarian work in the Rio Grande Valley. The “Valley Experiment” that led to the creation of All Souls Unitarian Church began in April, 1948 when the Boston headquarters of the Unitarian Church voted to authorize and subsidize the Rev. Alfred von Stilli’s missionary effort in the Rio Grande Valley.
Early Unitarian services began in Brownsville in 1948 and Edinburg in April, 1949. In 1951, attempts to expand Hidalgo County Unitarian services in McAllen at the Casa de Palmas Hotel were discontinued after three months. Participation in the Edinburg and McAllen efforts were mere duplication. Meanwhile, in the lower Valley, services were being conducted in both San Benito and Brownsville.
The entire Unitarian presence in South Texas fell under the name of The Unitarian Church of the Rio Grande Valley.As the Brownsville Unitarians increased in number and built a meeting hall on Paredes Line Road, the offspring became larger than the parent organization. On September 22, 1950, San Benito membership in the Unitarian Church of the Rio Grande Valley resolved to join the Brownsville church and suspend services in San Benito.
It was not until September 18, 1951, that an organizational meeting was held in Brownsville to dissolve the Church of the Rio Grande Valley, draft a new constitution, and elect officers of the new church. Motions were made, seconded and voted down to name the new church: All Peoples Unitarian Church, First Unitarian Church, The Unitarian Church and Memorial Unitarian Church. Subsequent to the approval of the new church contitution, the name All Souls Unitarian Church was adopted.
“All Souls” is likely the most common name used by Unitarian churches in the US. It is a reflection of the words of William Ellery Channing, founding father of Unitarian Universalism: “I am a member of the living family of all souls.” (Sometimes recorded as: “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.”)
Channing was saying that we are family. That we’re related. From Church literature:
. . .this theme of interconnectedness resonates powerfully.
Even though on the surface we look and talk and act different, there’s
something that runs deeper, that’s more fundamental, that connects
us all. This is one of the great lessons of all mystic traditions: that
the individual self is an illusion of sorts, and that until we see and
feel ourselves as part of the whole of creation, we won’t know who we
In 1929, Rev. Alfred von Stilli had worked to build a strong All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Twenty years later in Brownsville, Von Stilli had organized his second All Souls Unitarian Church.
First officers of the new church:
Leslie Bonham, President; Mrs. R. P. Hansen, Secretary; William Bradley, Treasurer; and Trustees:
Dr. Beatrice Hawkins, Mrs. H. B. Livingston and Alan Lippman.
Committees created: Finance, Building and Grounds, Membership and Reception, Forum, Religious Education, Social and Housekeeping, Pulpit, Music and Church History.
After the construction of the education annex at the rear of the All Souls Church lot on Parades Line Road, the building functioned in a variety of ways. Though its primary use was for religious education (Sunday School) it also housed a kitchen, a “children’s chapel,” and the beginnings of a church office. It was generally referred to as “parish hall.”
Meeting on April 21, 1953, the All Souls Board of Trustees voted to recommend to the congregation that the parish hall be dedicated to the Rev. Von Stilli and designated as Von Stilli Hall. The Annual Congregation Meeting of All Souls Unitarian Church held on May 1, 1953, approved the recommendation.
The service of dedication was held on June 7, 1953. This service also marked the conclusion of the 1953 church year. Don Morris, past editor of the Brownsville Herald, led the dedication service. Sam Perl, Lay Rabbi of Temple Beth-el, gave the community tribute. The Rev. John Forwalter of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who would become the second minister of All Souls Church, conducted the regular Sunday services. Rev. Forwalter also participated in the dedication service. The plaque and badly deteriorated portrait of Rev. Von Stilli that still reside in the hall were unveiled.