Portland's oldest place of worship opens a new, woman-led chapter

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PORTLAND — Over the past 335 years, the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church has had a history of transforming its trials into triumphs.

A Revolutionary War cannonball that tried, unsuccessfully, to demolish the church in 1775 is now a link in a chain supporting the massive chandelier that graces the First Parish Meeting House.

A more recent chapter in the history of the Congress Street church illuminates how the congregation faced adversity and used it as an opportunity for reinvention.

August 2007 was a joyful time for the church when it welcomed the Rev. Tim Jensen, after a year-long, nationwide search. But tragedy struck a few months later when Jensen was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Despite his rapidly deteriorating health, and a median life expectancy of eight months, he was determined to continue his ministry.

The congregation was faced with difficult choices.

“While many people really championed his cause, on the same hand, people were also anxious and fearful about having a very sick minister in the pulpit,” said Sue Veligore, past president of the church.

Collectively, the congregation rallied around its ailing, freshman minister. Over the next 1 1/2 years volunteers walked his dog, brought him meals and supported Jensen in other ways, enabling him to serve as parish minister until he died in August 2009.

“This congregation could have easily fallen apart after his death,” recalled  longtime parishioner Jackie Oliveri. “We had a one-year interim minister prior to Tim, and then everything we went through with him, and now we had to complete another year-long search with an interim minister at the helm.”

“As a congregation, we had actually grown stronger, we learned ministry,” said Oliveri. “In the UU world, we became known as ‘the little congregation that could.'”

So the lengthy search process mandated by district church rules was conducted with a fresh perspective.

“We felt really good about what we were able to do with, and for, Tim,” said Veligore. “It also made us more open-minded, flexible about who we were looking for in a minister. We knew we were going to find a great person because we were ready to receive it.”

This is where the Rev. Christina Sillari, with her cascading curls and piercing eyes, joins the journey of “the little congregation that could,” as its first female lead minister.

Sillari grew up in a traditional Greek Orthodox and Catholic family in a working-class neighborhood outside of Boston, where it never occurred to her that ministry was even an option for women.

“Clergy were men. Period,” she said.

As an adult, Sillari forged her own spiritual path, spending years studying yoga and meditation and attending a Unitarian Universalist church in Connecticut, where she lived with her husband and daughter until she heard her “calling.”

“I was sitting in a pew at my church with my husband in Connecticut when I received this energy coming in through the top of my head and I heard a voice inside me say ‘you need to minister. You need to go to seminary.'”

“When I told my church’s minister about the experience, she told me ‘come back when you get another calling,'” Sillari said. She laughed when asked if she was surprised or disappointed by her minister’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction.

“I was relieved,” Sillari said. “Ministry is not an easy path.”

But three years later, when she had another intuitive calling, she embraced it and enrolled in Yale Divinity School in 2004. She later transferred to Andover Newton Theological School, where she graduated in 2009.

Sillari said she had visited Portland many times and knew of the recent struggles at First Parish. She answered their “call for minister,” and after an extensive vetting process, congregation members unanimously voted in favor of her becoming its first “called, settled” woman minister.

While acknowledging the historical significance of her new position, Sillari credits her predecessors with paving the way for her.

“There have been male lead ministers at this church that have brought the feminine in, were openly gay… shook things up a bit,” she said. “I feel like it’s not so much about me being a woman as much as it is about me bringing forth the female energies and balancing it with the male energies.”

As for her future plans for the church, Sillari said she intends to continue supporting and strengthening its long tradition of social service outreach. “I liked that First Parish has historical connections to many social service organizations. And I want to create new ones,” she said.

Sillari is already making connections with local immigrant groups and recently arranged for a group of Sudanese Christians to use the parish meeting house for its Arabic services.

Her eyes lit up when talk turned to the upcoming new minister installation ceremony on Sunday, Dec. 5, where she will become the official lead minister. “It’s going to be a huge event,” she said, with guest speakers and special musical performances.

Every aspect of the event will be steeped in significance, from a belly dance performance invoking the awakening of feminine energy to a presentation of her new minister’s stole, sewn by church members with fabric from Sillari’s daughter’s baby clothes. The installation ceremony will also include congregation members and Sillari making vows to each other, not unlike a marriage ceremony, she said.

Like any new bride, Sillari said she is both excited and nervous. “It feels a little scary, but I feel I’m well-equipped to take on my new role.”

The public is welcome to attend the 3 p.m. ceremony, with a reception to follow, at the parish house at 425 Congress St.

Heather Gunther can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or hgunther@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements


First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland will formally install the Rev. Christina Sillari as lead minister on Sunday, Dec. 5. The event begins at 3 p.m. and is open to the public, with a reception to follow at the Parish House, at 425 Congress St.

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