University Presbyterian Church was organized by a commission from Tuscaloosa Presbytery on October 9, 1966. The church’s roots have been in service to the University community since 1914 when First Presbyterian Church first called a Minister to Students.
University Presbyterian Church was a Student Center before it became a church. The Reverend Malcolm McIver was the first full-time Presbyterian campus minister at The University of Alabama beginning in 1944 and serving from 1946 to 1952. He led a vibrant group of Presbyterian college student pioneers who graced the campus right after World War II, a group that produced several ordained ministers, published authors, a nationally known Biblical scholar, and dozens of lifelong church members and good citizens. The present facility was built and dedicated as a student center in 1952. The Reverend Ed Payne Miller was the campus minister from 1953 to 1963. At a time when racial hatred polarized the city and the campus, Ed was a tireless advocate for a ministry and a community that was truly open to all of God’s children.
With funds from the Synod of Alabama, a Student Center was completed at the church’s present location on Eighth Street on January 25, 1952. Ministry to students and to the University was carried out through Westminster Chapel until discussions on establishing a University Presbyterian Church reached their conclusion in 1966. In these discussions, the new congregation was envisioned as a “university church.” This was defined as a church that:
maintains a lively interest in University affairs, seeks out faculty – especially newcomers – and engages in dialogue with them about the
ultimate significance of life in the light of the Christian faith….A university congregation appreciates and seeks to understand the preoccupations of the teacher, administrator and researchers, and hopes to relate vitally the faith to these daily concerns. If a congregation is to minister to the campus community in numbers and in depth, the campus community must set the tone for the congregation. The atmosphere of such a congregation should be such that the teacher and student can feel free to ask the most searching questions without fear of being misunderstood.
The preacher at the organization of the congregation was Dr. Frank Caldwell, then Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The congregation’s first pastor, The Reverend J. Robert Keever, was elected unanimously at a meeting of the congregation on December 11, 1966, and installed at a service of worship on Sunday, February 5, 1967. The Reverend Keever had been Minister to Students at the University since 1963. He was succeeded in the pastorate by The Reverend George Conn in 1975. In 1982, the congregation became a union church of the former Presbyterian Church in the United States
and United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. in a service presided over by Ms. Dorothy Barnard, Moderator of the PCUSA and The Reverend Margaret Towner, Vice-Moderator of the PCUSA. The Reverend Conn is now retired, living in Bristol, Virginia.
The Reverend Jack Shelton succeeded The Reverend Conn in the fall of 1983. Dr. Shelton served the congregation until November 1989. He remained in Tuscaloosa as director of the Program for Rural Services and Research at the University of Alabama until retiring in 2002. He was succeeded by The Reverend Matt Samson, who was installed on March 3, 1991. The Reverend Samson served the congregation until August 1995 and is currently pursuing doctoral studies in Albany, N.Y.
The Reverend Mary Porter who became the Interim Pastor in the Fall of 1995, now serves a church in Bismark, North Dakota.
The Reverend Dr. Sandra L. Winter, was installed on September 7, 1997.
Early in l999, the church began a campaign, Building on Faith, to raise funds for an addition to accommodate its growing student population. Late in 2000 the Presbyterian Women PCUSA announced that Building on Faith would receive a gift of $210,000 from its Birthday Offering. Among other donations, generous contributions were made from former students in honor of the Reverend Malcolm McIver, the first director of the Westminster Fellowship, and his wife, Mildred McIver, and in memory of the Reverend Ed Payne Miller, his successor, a civil rights pioneer in Tuscaloosa in the l950s and 1960s. Ground was broken on May 6, 2001, and construction began. The dedication of the new Student Center addition was held on February 24, 2002, exactly fifty years after the dedication of the original building.
In December 2001, after a time of prayer, study and discussion with the congregation, the Session of UPC voted to affiliate with “More Light Presbyterians,” an organization working “for the full participation of gay and lesbian…people of faith in the life ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).” UPC was the first congregation in Alabama and one of the first in the Southeast to become a More Light Congregation.
In 2001, UPC took the initiative in establishing a citywide campus ministry board. Early in 2002, the Tuscaloosa Presbyterian Campus Ministry Board was established for the purpose of working cooperatively with other Presbyterian Churches in meeting the growing needs of campus ministry.
On December 1, 2002, a second dedication service and room naming was held. The Campus Ministry Office was named the Kay Martin Ellis Office, honoring the work Kay has done in bringing together the former students. The newly renovated kitchen was named the Margie W. Harris Kitchen in honor of Margie Harris, a founding member and Elder of UPC and a strong supporter of campus ministry. The Food Pantry was named the Deacons’ Food Pantry, to honor the work of the deacons in establishing UPC’s food ministry to the community.
The year 2003-2004 brought UPC’s first seminary intern, John Napoli, from Columbia Theological Seminary. John served both the church and the campus ministry. On February 1, 2004, UPC celebrated the naming of the Student Center the “Winter Vallery Presbyterian Student Center,” in honor of Building on Faith Chair, Arlee Vallery and Minister, Sandy Winter. Distinguished alumni, Wayne Meeks and Anne Shaw Turnage participated in the event. The students, inspired by the history of the early Westminster Fellowship as shared by Anne and Wayne, decided to name the current student group “The Westminster Fellowship.” New stained glass windows, given by Annabel Stephens and Pat Dunbar, adorned the center and were dedicated at the celebration.
In 2004, UPC found that God’s inclusive love was being manifested in the diversity of community gathered at UPC. A series of potlucks dedicated to the theme “Living into our Mission” helped members claim the wonderful reality of the diverse community.
In 2006, UPC was named the More Light Church of the year and was honored at a special More Light banquet at the 217th General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 15, 2006. Just 10 days later, Rev. Winter preached her final sermon as UPC’s pastor and was honored in a special celebration following the service. She was named UPC’s first Pastor Emerita as part of the ceremony. Rev. Winter’s retirement officially began on July 1, 2006.
On November 1, 2006, Rev. Erica Durham was installed as UPC’s Interim Pastor. During her 14-month tenure, Erica made significant contributions to UPC that helped pave the way for the new full-time pastor including a consolidation and reorganization of the session’s committees, repair and improvement of the church facilities, development of a manual of standard procedures, and a more organized and transparent budget.
In January 2008, UPC called Rev. Ron Gilmer, Ph.D. as the next pastor of UPC. During his tenure, Rev. Gilmer placed an emphasis on Christian education and social justice. His sermons were known for their humor and for being academically intriguing and challenging. Rev. Gilmer presided at a number of services of witness to the resurrection of UPC members, and he also Baptized several UPC children. In August 2011, Rev. Gilmer resigned from UPC to pursue other challenges in the Atlanta area.