Maja Capek and an Immigrants’ Church

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from an unsigned manuscript in the church archives. This manuscript, titled “How our church began,” gives the history of North Unitarian Church. I should explain that when the author refers to a “Bohemian man,” she means someone who literally came from Bohemia, a part of Europe now part of Germany and the Czech Republic. Thus, the “Bohemian man” is a recent immigrant to the United States.

“In the year 1889 Mr. Paul Revere Frothingham came to New Bedford as assistant minister to Mr. Potter who was the minister of the Unitarian Church on Union and Eighth St. He had a very pleasing personality and was liked very much by young and old alike.

“In the year 1892 Mr. Potter tendered his resignation and Mr. Frothingham then became minister of the church.

“It wasn’t long after Mr. Frothingham became minister that he began looking around to see what he would do to improve the community. With Mrs. Frothingham they started a club for girls, called ‘Girls Social Union’ they met in the chapel of the Unitarian Church. There were classes in sewing, millnery, & cooking, besides having fun playing all sorts of games. This was given free of charge to any girl who was interested in becoming a member.

“In 1894 It was decided to hire rooms in the North end of the city 1651 Purchase St. where the firls could meet and they would be nearer their homes as they all lived in the north end of the city. It was in the same rooms Mr. Frothingham established a free kindergarten and secured a trained teacher for the children. Later this kindergarten was taken over by the city and called the ‘North end Day Nursery.’

“The beginning of this movement is quite interesting, for at that time a Bohemian man living in the north end, having read of the day nursery and of a sermon by Mr. Frothingham translated was deeply impressed, and said this is what I believe, and would like my children to go to the Sunday school where Mr. Frothingham is the minister. The children went to Sunday school, soon other children joined, and this was the beginning of our Sunday school. Don’t know the exact year but think it might [be] 1896 or 1897.

“Sunday school was held in a house 1378 Acushnet Ave. just across from St. Anthony’s church…. The Sunday school became so large in attendance that we were over crowded, so Mr. Frothingham decided we should have a place of our own. So in 1901 Unity Home was built….”

The second reading, from another manuscript in our church archives, is by Audrey Steele and gives her memories of North Unitarian Church.

“I started to attend Unity Home Sunday School when I was four years old.

“I have many fond memories of the years I attended there as I was growing up.

“We were a happy, congenial family-oriented congregation made up of many nationalities. All the children were close friends…. The Sunday School teachers I remember most were Miss Hanford, Miss Seguin, and my favorite Esther Grundy Grew….

“In those days we learned a lot from the Bible and we were taught the Unitarian creed which was popular and believed by the congregation. I will always remembeer we were taught, the fatherhood of god, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, the salvation of character and the progress of mankind onward and upwards forever. We had many fine ministers. Those I remember most are Mrs. Robert Cross who was the church director for many years, Mrs. Majda [sic] Capek for her interest in the young people. She planned many things to do at the church service as on mother’s day we would give each of the ladies attending church a plant or some flowers. She loved flowers. Before Mrs. Capek died I received a nice note from her saying she also had fond memories of Unity Home and especially of the young people.”


This is the second in a series of occasional sermons about the history of our congregation. We are the direct institutional descendants of three congregations:– First Congregational Society (Unitarian) of New Bedford; First Universalist Church of New Bedford; and North Unitarian Church (Unitarian). 2008 will mark the three hundredth anniversary of the oldest of our three antecedent churches, First Congregational Society, later First Unitarian; in honor of that anniversary, this fall I plan to tell you about several unsung heroes and heroines from all three of our antecedent churches.

In the first sermon in this series, I told the story of John Murray Spear, and I said I consider him to be the most remarkable minister who was ever called to serve in one of these three churches. Well, he may be the most remarkable, but only if he is tied for first place with Maja Capek, minister at North Unitarian Church from 1940 to 1943.

Marie Veruna Oktavec Capek, known as Maja, was born in 1888 and grew up in the city of Chomutov, then in Western Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic. As a young woman, she rejected Catholicism — the religion that had been imposed on her land by an invading army centuries before — and became quite liberal in her religious outlook, though not a member of any specific church. She, with her sister and parents, emigrated to the United States in 1907, graduated from Columbia University’s School of Library Science, and began working in a branch of the New York Public Library. There she met another Czech emigre, Norbert Capek, and though he was 47 and eighteen years older than she, they fell in love and married in 1917. Capek was a Baptist minister at that time — or rather, he was barely a Baptist minister, since he was suspected of liberal tendencies and accused of heresy. As a married couple, he and Maja drifted further into religious liberalism, until at last Norbert left the Baptist ministry, and in 1920 he and Maja joined the Unitarian church in East Orange, New Jersey, where they were then living.

But all this while, Maja and Norbert considered themselves to be only in temporary exile from their true home, and when the new country of Czechoslovakia was formed in the aftermath of the First World War, they longed to return there and start a liberal church. They appealed to the American Unitarian Association, who provided money and moral support, and off they went, back to Prague.

In Prague, Norbert and Maja Capek organized a church that grew from nothing, to some three thousand two hundred full members in twenty short years — and another five thousand Czechs, while not officially members, considered themselves Unitarians. This was the congregation that ordained Maja Capek into the ministry in 1922 [?]. In the late 1930’s, the Prague church headed by the Capeks was the largest Unitarian church in the world.

But larger events would prevent the further growth of Unitarianism in Czechoslovakia. Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938. In February, 1939, Maja and Norbert decided that Maja should go to the United States, to speak to Unitarian churches across the country and raise funds for relief work in Czechoslovakia. As they said good-bye, both Maja and Norbert knew it could be the final time they saw each other.

Maja went on her lecture tour, and soon it became clear that she would not be able to return to Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation. She settled in the north end of New Bedford, where there was a large population of Czechs, Bohemians, and other people who had come from central Europe. And she became a part of North Unitarian Church.

Now I must back up a little bit, and tell you about North Unitarian Church. As we heard in the first reading this morning, Paul Revere Frothingham, the minister at First Unitarian during the 1890’s, and his wife decided to get their church involved in outreach in the greater New Bedford community. Since Unitarians have long been involved in education reform, it is not surprising that the Frothinghams started working with kids: first by creating a girls’ after-school program, then a Sunday school, and then a free kindergarten. They were so successful in their efforts at attracting children, particularly children from the central Europeans who lived in the North End of New Bedford, that it soon became necessary to have a dedicated space for all these children’s programs.

A father of one these children, a recent immigrant who may not have been fluent yet in English, was naturally curious about these programs, and the church that was sponsoring them. Someone had translated Mr. Frothingham’s sermons into his native language, and he said: But this is what I believe about religion! I am a Unitarian! What began as an outreach to children grew to become a liberal religious movement among their parents. And so the Frothinghams and First Unitarian founded Unity Home in rented rooms in the North End, as a religious outreach to religious liberals in the immigrant community there.

Unity Home seems to have begun with a Sunday school, but it was quickly followed in 1895 by a branch of the Women’s Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women — the national organization that later became the Women’s Alliance, and still later the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation. Other activities for adults and children followed, and by 1901 First Unitarian built a building for Unity Home. This new building included a chapel, and by 1904 regular religious services were begun, led by a Mr. Brunton, and held under the auspices of First Unitarian. Music was supplied by a talented quartet of singers chosen from the ranks of the Sunday school. A succession of men and women were directors of Unity Home over the next few two decades, some of whom were ministers; at other times, it appears that the minister of First Unitarian led worship services in Unity Home. Finally, on May 8, 1920, the religious community at Unity Home incorporated as a separate congregation. First Unitarian continued to own the building called Unity Home, but the religious congregation which met in Unity Home was officially and legally called North Unitarian Church.

North Unitarian Church had its ups and downs. The church ordained a Mr. Pratt to the Unitarian ministry in 1924, but he soon left. Following his departure, there was a Sunday school but no worship services at North Unitarian from 1924 through 1938. Beginning in 1939, Duncan Howlett, minister here at First Unitarian and arguably the greatest minister at First Unitarian during the 20th C., began working with the people of North Unitarian Church to resume worship services. Howlett found a student minister named Robert Holden to lead services for a year. And then, out of the chaos of the Second World War, North Unitarian Church encountered some amazing good luck; a Unitarian minister named Maja Capek decided to settle in the North End of New Bedford.

Even though Maja Capek must have been worried sick about her husband Norbert, who had been taken into custody by the Gestapo, she managed to help revive North Unitarian Church. Her ministry at North Unitarian lasted from late 1940 through most of 1943. As we heard in the second reading, she did much work with the young people of the church. She introduced the annual Flower Service, an innovation of the Prague Unitarian church that we still observe each year; indeed, the Flower Service or Flower Communion has spread to nearly every Unitarian Universalist congregation in North America.

Maja Capek also re-vitalized North Unitarian as a church, as something more than a community center and a Sunday school, with the result that in 1941 a re-organized North Unitarian could once more affiliate with the American Unitarian Association — which proved to be important because it meant that North Unitarian could draw on the resources of the American Unitarian Association to find a new minister once Maja Capek left. By 1944, Maja Capek was working at the headquarters of the American Unitarian Association in Boston, doing work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, helping to provide relief to Europeans ravaged by the Second World War.

I tell you these two interlocking stories — the story of Maja Capek, and the story of North Unitarian Church — because these stories have a great relevance to our church today. By 1971, the membership of North Unitarian Church had gotten so small that it ended its legal existence and merged back into First Unitarian. Sometimes we think of First Unitarian Church as an old New England Yankee church — and no doubt about it, we are an old New England Yankee church — but we also have this amazing history of welcoming recent immigrants into our liberal religious community. Of course, we all know that today, our church is still has some New England Yankees as members, and on any given Sunday morning there might be four or five of us out of forty people present in the worship service. Yet on any given Sunday morning, a fifth of the people present here might have been born in one of six or seven different countries. On any given Sunday, another fifth of the people present here might be the children of immigrants.

The stories of North Unitarian Church and of Maja Capek tell us that you can be a religious liberal regardless of where you were born. Our Unitarian Universalist faith includes people who are Native Americans, and people who immigrated to New England twelve or thirteen generations ago, and people who were born in another country but now live here. Our faith knows no national boundaries, our faith is not specific to a certain people, or a certain language. Fifty years ago, Unitarians promoted a religion founded on reason, a religion that affirmed “the fatherhood of god, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus of Nazareth, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards.” We still welcome anyone who craves a religion founded on reason, a religion that looks upon the universe with awe, that believes that all humanity must learn to work together, that acknowledges the great religious leaders of the past like Jesus, that finds salvation in the improvement of our personal characters, and believes in progress through the work of men and women of good will. Among everything else that we are, we are still a church of immigrants, just as we were in the days of Maja Capek’s ministry here in New Bedford.

And the interlocking stories of Maja Capek and North Unitarian Church have yet another layer of meaning. As a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we have covenanted to affirm and promote the principles and purposes of the Association. One of those principles states that we shall affirm and promote “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” Although the current wording of this principle only dates back to 1985, nevertheless Unitarians have actively supported world community for centuries. Maja Capek lived out this principle in her life: she was one of the ones who resisted the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, that is, she resisted a military invasion that destabilized all of Europe, a military invasion that threatened to extinguish the flickering light of world community that had begun to shine in the early 20th century. North Unitarian Church also lived out an ideal of world community, right within the walls of the old Unity Home building that once stood on Tallman Street in the north end of New Bedford. No matter what your national origin, you were welcomed into North Unitarian Church.

We have inherited the legacy of North Unitarian Church, and we have inherited the legacy of Maja Capek. Here at First Unitarian Church, we affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. We hold this goal because we know that all persons, all peoples, in the world have equal rights for peace, liberty, and justice. We stand up against tyrants because tyrants threaten our sacred principle of free inquiry. We stand up against tyrants because tyrants threaten our sacred value of love for all humankind. We remember the legacy of Maja Capek and North Unitarian Church by continuing to welcome all persons, regardless of nationality or citizenship status, into our congregation. We continue the legacy of Maja Capek and North Unitarian Church — and the legacy of both First Unitarian and First Univeersalist — by working in the world towards the goal of world community.

So it is that we continue to honor the memory of Maja Capek — a woman who built up a church here in New Bedford that welcomed immigrants, a woman who stood up against the tyranny of Nazism, an amazing woman who deserves to be remembered by future generations.