The roots of University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, or UniLu, stretch back to late 19th Century Philadelphia Lutheranism. In the 1880s, West Philadelphia was just beginning to expand west of 42nd Street. Rev. William Ashmeade Schaeffer, D.D., pastor of St. Stephens’s Church at 40th and Powelton Avenue, noticed the development that was beginning to occur around 49th and Chester Avenue near the Pennsylvania Railroad station there, as well as clusters of residences which occurred along Darby Road (now Woodland Avenue) between the railroad shops, farms, lumber yards and cemeteries.
As is written in History of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, published in 1938 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the old Incarnation Church, “Between Forty-second Street at Woodlands Cemetery on the east, and Fiftieth Street on the west, Dr. Shaeffer decided there were enough people to justify opening a mission. He found a hall over a store in a building located at the northwest corner of Forty-sixth Street and Woodland Avenue. People came to the store on weekdays to buy meat for bodily nourishment. On the second floor and on ‘the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday,’ the first assembly of people to receive meat for their souls’ nourishment occurred. Any time we of this church become snobbish because of the culture of our founders, we might reduce our self-esteem to proper size by remembering that the Holy Spirit’s grace became available to the first of our membership when they met in the hall over a meat shop.” There were 29 persons in attendance at the first service, which was held on November 25, 1888.
By July of 1889, Dr. Schaeffer had purchased a plot of land at 46th and Kingsessing, and on Sunday, June 29th, 150 people attended the opening service there, in a structure of Avondale stone with brown stone trimmings. It was largely through the faith and financial assistance of the founder that so young a congregation could so quickly afford so fine a building. By 1901, however, it was determined that the area surrounding the church was not growing quickly enough. Land was swapped, and a new structure was begun at 47th Street and Cedar Avenue.
Among the early visitors to the services prior to 1900 were students from the nearby (49th and Greenway) school which had been established for young male “American Indians.” The school was one of two located in Philadelphia at the time (the other for young female students) and “was independent of US government’s care” of the indigenous peoples of North America.
For a period of time, the congregation met in a rented hall on Baltimore above 49th Street. The new chapel on 47th Street at Cedar was occupied by 1902 (though it incorporates the cornerstone from the earlier 46th Street structure dated 1889), but it was destroyed by fire in 1905. Within a week's time the congregation had erected a temporary roof and resumed worship on the site. By Thanksgiving they had completed a parish house with a second floor auditorium where they continued to worship until July of 1906, when a service of confirmation celebrated the completion of the rebuilt church.
UniLu’s campus ministry has roots dating back to 1916, when “the first congregational reception to students of the University of Pennsylvania was held in March … at which sixty-five students were present and received a real welcome by a large number of the congregation” (although correspondence in the 1960s indicates that in the 1930s there was some campus ministry opportunity offered to the congregation, which was rebuffed).
The congregation and the neighborhood continued to flourish and grow through two world wars. At the end of World War II, many of the large homes in the neighborhood were divided into apartments. As the suburbs surrounding Philadelphia developed with new housing divisions, the apartments in the neighborhood became homes for African-American families looking to better their lives after moving North. Many parts of West Philadelphia experienced rapid departure (white flight) of long-term residents as a result. The area surrounding the Incarnation Parish faced integration much better than other neighbors, due to the foresight of the Roman Catholic Parish, St. Francis de Sales. Determined to not allow their neighborhood’s destruction through fear and ignorance, the people of de Sales welcomed their new neighbors and set an example of working together to find common interests and experiences. This spilled over to people of the Incarnation Parish as well, who welcomed African-American families into the congregation in early 60s and worked with the city Human Relations Commission to ease racial tensions in the neighborhood. The same approach to assimilation of newcomers occurred in the 70s and 80s when UniLu gave extensive assistance to a Hmong immigrant family. Refugees continued to be a part of UniLu, with 4 members who were among the "Lost Boys" from Sudan (now South Sudan) who arrived in the 90s.
Despite best efforts made in the 50s and early 60s, Incarnation’s membership had dropped to the point the regional Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod was concerned. In 1961 a University Parish Committee was formed to discern the possibility of a merger between the Incarnation Church and the Lutheran Campus Ministry, which had been active on the University of Pennsylvania campus since the early 1950s and was being served by pastors associated with the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion at 21st and Chestnut. In the mid-60s, gathering in the old Christian Association building at 36th Street and Locust Walk, their weekly Sunday evening worship was drawing 15 to 20 students.
By 1963 a building site was selected at 37th and Chestnut Streets, which was to be tied into relocating the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia to University City. It was conceived at that point to have a small chapel to serve the seminary and Campus Ministry, with Incarnation Church as a secondary component. Arrangements were made to share the building at 47th and Cedar with St. John Latvian Lutheran Church, which wished to buy the old church after completion of the new structure.
By 1964, some members of the parish grew tired of the complicated process involved with creating the new entity, and felt that their second class status after the priorities of campus ministry would be a mistake. They wanted to back out of the arrangement. The area surrounding 47th & Cedar was improving, and 35 new members had been added to the rolls since the original relocation was proposed. The congregation was looking forward to reaching out to their new African-American neighbors. A special congregational meeting was held where the Synod clarified that there was no backing out of the earlier agreement. Eventually a vote was taken to re-affirm the move, but some contention always remained.
By December 1964 the architect Pietro Belluschi was hired and was working with the University Parish Committee on a building program and site design. The congregation continued to worship at 47th and Cedar for several years. They completed the sale to St. John and for a period rented their former building from its new owner. The design phase would last several years, as budgets were revised and program needs redefined.
Construction started on the new building in late 1969. One significant story from the earliest phase was how the concrete floor slabs were poured and set and, before walls could be raised, the two-ton free-standing altar had to be brought in and placed on the raised platform which was to be the chancel. Quite literally, the church was built around the place of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
“Belluschi’s design was governed by a philosophy ‘of an austerity which relies for its impact on the sculptural form of the building.’ Color was of great importance, as were form and texture, which Belluschi saw as providing the building’s strength and integrity. He wanted the structure, small as it was, to be distinctive enough to be easily identifiable at a distance.” (Spiritual Space: The Religious Architecture of Pietro Belluschi by Meredith Clausen)
The first worship service was held in late November of 1970, on a particularly cold weekend. The stained glass curtain wall had not been installed, and the entire west wall of the sanctuary was covered with sheets of plastic. Large gasoline heaters were brought in which emitted noxious fumes and loud noise, but worship went on. As Pastor John Kinzel recalls, “We had a choice of being asphyxiated or freezing, and we chose the former.”
Pastor Donald Heist served the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Incarnation 1957-1968, which covered the boom years through decline in the neighborhood and church membership. Pastor Heist was vice-pastor appointed by the Synod in 1968-1969, during the transition to merge with the existing Lutheran Campus Ministry at Penn. Pastor John Kinzel served 1970-1975 as the first pastor of University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation after having been the Lutheran Campus Pastor at Penn in 1968-1970.
Pastor Thomas B. Chittick served from 1976 to 1982. His leadership brought students to the forefront of ministry and honed the liturgical focus of the congregation while increasing the geographic range of the parish from neighborhood to regional. He more actively involved students in the leadership and governance of the congregation.
Pastor Jeffrey A. Merkel served 1983-1995 and worked to blur distinctions between students and non-students. He attracted members who demographically filled in the gap between "old Incarnation members" and students in their teens and 20s. Pastor Merkel raised the intellectual bar in homiletics and spiritual growth areas, focused on creative and innovative worship, began the Feast Incarnate ministry, led the "Into Our Second Century" capital campaign that resulted in installation of the baptismal font and repairs to the building, laid the theological foundation for the immersion font in the narthex, and promoted the congregation becoming a Reconciling In Christ congregation.
Pastor Barry J. Harte served from 1996 to 2006. He provided stable leadership with emphasis on worship and quality music, expanded involvement of LGBT persons in the congregation, oversaw the addition of Bible Study and evening prayer to Feast Incarnate, and the extension of welcome to these guests to become part of Sunday morning worship. Pastor Harte initiated the "Raising the Roof!" capital campaign directed at major repairs and improvements to the building.
In 2008, Pastor Jay A. Wiesner was installed as the congregation's pastor and served until the end of 2012. In 2010 the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of the merger that established University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation. To keep up with current methods of communication, that year the congregation's website was completely overhauled and updated to version 2.0.
A capital campaign—"Restore | Rebuild | Renew"—to complete the building work proposed in 2006 was launched in 2014. Building repairs have been completed, the organ has been repaired and improved, a grand piano was acquired, Feast Incarnate has become a separate 501(c)(3) organization, and the congregation’s original focus on ministry to the West Philadelphia campuses has been renewed.
Pastor Fritz E. Fowler was installed as Pastor on November 1, 2015. The congregation was privileged to have Pastor John Kinzel, the first pastor of University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, attend the installation service.
In addition to speaking with Pastor Kinzel, who served as UniLu’s first pastor from 1970 to 1975, other sources used to compile this history include the 50 Year book prepared by the congregation in 1935, as well as congregation council minutes from the 1960s, and the earliest editions of “University Lutheran News and Notes.”