Our fellowship was founded in March 1958 as the Unitarian Fellowship of Fort Walton Beach three years before the Unitarian and Universalist denominations merged. Five persons constituted the new Fellowship including emeritus members Mac and Ann Piper who now reside in Gainesville, Florida. The group benefited from the advice of the chairman of Panama City Fellowship, Dr. Ralph E. Wagner. At the same time a group in Pensacola was forming a Fellowship. A joint meeting of the two new groups was held with a representative from the American Unitarian Association in Boston.Until the Fort Walton Beach Fellowship had official recognition from Boston, they were permitted to hold Sunday afternoon services in the lounge of the Chaplain’s Center, Eglin AFB. After official recognition was received, meetings were held in the library of Choctawhatchee H.S. in Shalimar, and also in the Women’s Club building on Beal Street. The first meeting as a Unitarian Fellowship was held April 20, 1958. Rev. Alfred W. Hobart, Minister of the Birmingham Unitarian Church, was the guest minister. His sermon topic was “What is a Unitarian Church?” Twenty years later he returned for a service in the Florida Blanca Street building.
A children’s Religious Education program was formed and 12 children were in attendance. In 1961, there were 17 children from 13 families. In 1962, the children’s Religious Education meetings were held in the Community Center.
In 1970, the Fellowship was meeting in such places as the Seventh Day Adventist Hall, the Moose Lodge, and the Knights of Columbus building. In 1972 the congregation purchased a small house on Florida Blanca Street, near Brooks Bridge, and converted it into a meeting place for adult programs and children’s Religious Education.
Following a period of growth in 1984, the congregation decided to try to obtain larger quarters in a building that would be easier for members and guests to find. They purchased a house at 204G Carmel Street, Fort Walton Beach. The Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston helped by lending the fellowship funds, and the members purchased $35,000 in bonds. This building was sold in 1992 and the Fellowship moved to our current quarters, formerly a Mormon Church, in June of 1992.
Although Unitarian Universalist and ministers of many other faiths have addressed the congregation, the fellowship has been largely a lay-led organization. In 1987 Rev. Michael Seider, a UU minister, started providing services on Sunday a month. He was referred to as a ‘circuit rider’ since he also visited other congregations on a once a month basis. Rev. Seider was with us for two years, and with his leadership the congregation grew in many ways.
The Rev. Harold Hawkins of Tallahassee, a former Baptist minister, and ordained in the Unitarian Universalist Church, served our fellowship twice a month from 1989 to 2000. Interim minister Rev. Roy Phillips served our fellowship and the Pensacola fellowship from 2000 to 2001. Interim minister Rev. Bob Eddy served our fellowship from 2001 to August of 2002. A major $100,000 building renovation was completed in early 2002 and additional property was purchased for future expansion. Interim minister Rev. Nels Oas served us through March of 2003.
A new chapter in the history of fellowship started on May 4th, 2003 with the calling of Rev. Rodney Debs as the fellowship’s first full-time settled minister.
Much has happened since this history was written. We are working on our updating our website. Here is a very brief synopsis:
After serving the congregation for nearly 11 years, Rod Debs resigned as minister in July 2014. Highlights of his ministry include expansion of our children and adult religious education programs, a significant capital campaign that significantly reduced the loan on our building and a strengthened presence in the community.
Rev. Karen Matteson served as Interim Minister, from October 2014 through December 2015.