UUFWC marks expansion, return to in-person services

UUFWC marks expansion, return to in-person services

The nearly completed Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Wayne County's expanded sanctuary now has a 320-person seating capacity, hearing loop in the floor and updated audiovisual equipment. The altar, benches and tables made from a felled tree on the property will be part of the finishing touches.


The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Wayne County’s dedication service on March 6 marked both a building expansion and the congregation’s first time in the building for services since COVID-19.

Back in March 2020 when the pandemic hit, the UUFWC closed its doors to in-person activities like many other area churches, businesses and organizations. But with a large expansion project planned, it turned out to be a suitable time to address the growing congregation’s crowded space.

After outgrowing its previous buildings, the fellowship erected its church on a 6-acre field on Burbank Road in 2005, the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold-certified free-standing religious institution in the country. But even after adding an additional weekly service, its continued growth required expanding again. So in 2018 the congregation voted to begin a capital campaign to enlarge its sanctuary, provide more space for its religious education program, create new rooms for expanded community outreach and more.

The congregation returned to original architects Rothchild Doyno Collaborative, a Pittsburgh-based architectural firm, to design its $1.7 million expansion. Ken Doyno, senior principal at the firm, was on hand for the dedication. Doyno said the Peggy Jo Carter Nature Preserve framed by the sanctuary windows reminded him of the relationship people hold with nature.

“Everything we’ve done here is on the path to the building generating more energy than it consumes, reinforcing the relationship to nature,” he said.

Peter Schantz, chair of the UUFWC’s expansion team and director of facilities for the Akron-Summit County Public Library, thanked the architectural firm. “They have converted our dreams into an excellent design,” he said.

Schantz also gave a shout-out to the contractor, Campbell Construction, who Schantz said, “Did a great job during a challenging time."

"The pandemic created several challenges during the project," he said, "but it allowed us to complete most of the construction work while the building was unoccupied. We were able to accomplish almost all of our programmatic goals, complete the project well under budget, and finish construction at about the same time that masking and distancing requirements allowed us to safely occupy the building.”

Almost 200 members and friends of the congregation were greeted by their past and current ministers during the morning’s dedication ceremonies with memories and more than a few teary eyes shared.

"Never before have I been involved with something so ambitious. Being part of the expansion was the pinnacle of my career,” said Rev. Jennie Barrington, who served for two years as the interim minister.

Rev. Dr. Elaine Strawn, retired emeritus minister who spent 23 years at the UUFWC, returned to share the pulpit with the newly called minister, Rev. Walter Clark.

Strawn reflected on the world and said, “You have taught me what possibilities are. You have taught me how a community working together with soft eyes for one another can build something very strong, no matter what is going on in the world outside.”

And build it they did. The sanctuary, renamed to Strawn Hall, now has double the seating, a chancel accessible by ramps and upgraded audiovisual equipment for a live stream. A large group room at the east end of the building can now bring the entire children’s religious education program together at once or hold large meetings. Classroom space expanded by 34%. Offices, the library and kitchen have all been enlarged. Entryways are more spacious, and all was accomplished under budget.

Clark was called to the UUFWC in August 2021, most recently serving as the assistant minister in Arlington, Virginia. Clark was not deterred by joining the fellowship in the midst of a major building project.

“The fact that there was an expansion let me know that the congregation was healthy and growing," he said. "What really drew me to the congregation was the fact that their religious education program was growing. The UUFWC had a lot of families and young people that were excited about the community. That was when I knew they were doing something right.”

It was still difficult for the new minister not to settle into an office and easily meet congregants due to construction, but arriving in the middle of an expansion gave an opportunity to see who the most enthusiastic volunteers were.

"A healthy church is always in the middle of another project, so coming in while they were expanding was great,” he said.

Clark looks forward to the additional space. "It will allow us to have more meetings in the building at the same time," he said. "It would be wonderful to have an evening of growth and fellowship during the week that offers something for all ages: youth group for the school-age children, game night for the young adults, and book groups and in-depth theological study for everyone else. It will be a great opportunity to strengthen our community and welcome newcomers."

Rachel Relle, president of the board, shared the vision of welcoming others. After providing thanks to all who made the project possible, she said, “Our doors and our hearts are open.”

The church holds multi-platform services and children’s religious education classes on Sundays at 10 a.m. and can be attended in person with a mask or watched live on its Facebook page.

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