Tag Archives: Flower Celebration

Sound of flowers

We had our Flower Celebration at First Unitarian in New Bedford today (sometimes inaccurately called a “flower communion,” but out of respect for Norbert Capek’s original intent I’ll refer to it as a Flower Celebration). Everett Hoagland, the former poet laureate of New Bedford, pointed me towards a haiku by Basho that, for me, beautifully explains how a Flower Celebration continues to influence us long after the ritual is over:

the temple bell stops
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers

Early “Flower Communion” in the U.S.

Some Unitarian historical trivia for you…

Just by chance, I happened across the odd fact that Maja Capek spent time here in New Bedford. Maja Capek was married to Rev. Dr. Norbert Capek, the Unitarian minister Czechoslovakia who was killed by the Nazis in the Dachau concentration camp. Maja Capek managed to escape Czechoslovakia when Norbert and their daughter Zora were captured by the Gestapo, and she settled in New Bedford’s North End, where she became a part of North Unitarian Church.

North Unitarian Church started as a Unitarian mission in the 1890’s among the millworkers and recent immigrants in New Bedford’s North End. It was originally called “Unity Home,” and it was similar to a settlement house. Before long, a Unitarian congregation gathered at Unity Home, and became a legal, corporate entity in 1920. First Unitarian continued to own the building, but the North Unitarian congregation now had a separate existence. It is said that at one point the membership of North Unitarian exceeded that of its parent church.

At the time Maja Capek arrived in New Bedford, there was a large Eastern European community in the North End; perhaps that is what attracted her to this city. Mrs. Capek quickly became the director of Unity Home. North Unitarian Church was listed by the American Unitarian Association (AUA) as a separate congregation beginning with the 1942-43 Yearbook. In that first listing, Maja Capek is listed as minister (!), “Unity Home Chapel Society” is listed as the congregation’s name, and 1941 is listed as the date the congregation originated. Presumably 1941 is when North Unitarian Church first affiliated as a spearate organization with the AUA.

It may well be that Maja Capek led the very first Flower Celebration in the United States with the North Unitarian Church in New Bedford; at least, that’s what David Rankin, minister at First Unitarian from 1968-1974, wrote in 1969. (The Flower Celebration, a distinctly Unitarian liturgical innovation, is widely known in the U.S. as the “Flower Communion,” but see the article by Isa Fiserova in the May, 2002, issue of Quest for an indication that the Czech Unitarians did not call it a “communion.”) You can read more about the saga of North Unitarian in the history section of the First Unitarian Web site.

My congregation, First Unitarian, is the inheritor of North Unitarian Church. Pretty cool to think that a minister of First Unitarian, I am following in the footsteps of Maja Capek. If any of you, my readers, have additional information about Maja Capek’s time in New Bedford, please let me know.

Update, June 30, 2006: Despite Rankin’s statement, I have been able to find no other evidence that Maja Capek led the first Flower Celebration here in New Bedford. Unless such evidence turns up, I’ll have to go along with First Parish Cambridge’s claim that they hosted the first U.S. Flower Celebration.

19th C. flower festivals

When did Unitarian Unviersalist churches start doing flower services? We usually associate our contemporary “flower communions” with Norbert Capek, even though he was quite explicit in not calling them “communion” services. But it turns out that Untiarian churches here in the Midwest were doing flower services long before Capek. Here’s an excerpt from the “Records of the Unitarian Sunday School of Geneva, Ills.” describing what was possibly the very first flower service in our Geneva congregation:

Flower Service was held in the church Sunday morning June 13, 1875. The church was tastefully decorated with flowers, the children gave good recitiations appropriate to the season, Rev. R. L. Herbert delivered a short sermon to the children and the choir sand some good selections of music. As the close of the meeting reports of Treasurer and Librarian were read by the Supt of the S. School, Mr Sherwin….

At this point in our history, the Flower Service looked pretty much like the Children’s Sunday it replaced, even down to the annual reports of Sunday school officers, and the recitations by the children. But by 1879, things were starting to change:

June 8, 1879 being the second Sunday of the month the annual Flower Service was held. The church was decorated in much the usual manner and well filled with spectators. The exercise conducted in a very happy manner by the Rev. R. L. Herbert, consisted of responsive reading, singing and recitation….

There were still recitiations by children, but the whole service seemed to be taking a different form. By 1880, there were still recitations by the children, but there was also a “prayer and chant,” a pageant by the children called “Ladder of Life,” and “Passing of the baskets of flowers by four little girls. While they were being passed Miss Ella Howell assisted by the choir sang ‘Consider the Lilies.'”

And by 1891, we read:

The Flower Service of 1891 was held the last Sunday in June. The Service was from Unity Festivals. The speaking was by the younger children of the school….

Unity Festivals, was a publications of the Western Unitarian Conference. This year, Lindsay, Craig, and I are planning to revive this worship service (with a few updates).

More on Unity Festivals later….