The History of Unity of Tampa
A Decade of Expanding Possibilities
As the First World War ended, a new decade began: the 1920’s! Despite the recession that followed the war, this was an exciting time of innovation and opportunity. Advances in transportation and communication had opened up the country. People were on the move as never before. Trains and early automobiles might not seem like much compared to today’s mass transit, but compare a train ride to a journey in a horse-drawn wagon, or a trip on foot. Down in Florida, the town of Tampa was thriving and expanding as tourists and sun-seeking Northerners made their way south.
But there was more to celebrate in 1920, especially for women of the era. On August 18, 1920 the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. And that was just one sign of the times. As the restrictive clothing and customs of the Victorian era receded, perceptions changed and new opportunities arose.
Unity and the New Thought Movement
It seems only natural that this increasingly independent generation of women would be drawn to the New Thought spiritual movement that had evolved in the later part of the 19th century.
Traditional religious institutions of the past had a history of patriarchal authority. The New Thought movement offered women equal opportunities to participate as teachers and leaders. By 1920, the New Thought inspired organization known as Unity had established itself throughout the country. Unity was founded in 1889 by former Christian Science Ministers Charles and Myrtle Fillmore. The practice focused on the power of prayer, healing, and channeling “the Christ Spirit Within.” Although Unity’s headquarters were located in Kansas City, MO, teaching materials were available to study groups across the country through correspondence classes.
Ruby Miller Comes to Tampa
It was in the middle of this unprecedented decade that a young woman named Ruby Miller came to Tampa. She was from New Kensington, Pennsylvania, and in 1925, when she was 26 years old, she moved into town with her family. They settled in the Riverside Heights area, not far from Tampa’s downtown. Ruby was drawn to the New Thought movement and the teachings of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore.
At the time of Ruby’s arrival in Tampa, there was a Unity study group led by Louise Beaty that met across the bay in St. Petersburg. It was one of many such groups across the country offering Unity’s spiritual message via correspondence materials. It would have been a long drive in 1925, but Ruby may have attended meetings with the St. Petersburg group. Or perhaps she met like-minded individuals in some other way. However it came about, it was in 1928 that Ruby collaborated with three other women to form a Unity study group in Tampa. Louise Beatty would later join the them.
The First Unity Society
Ocoa Moore had studied Unity since 1912 and had established Unity study centers throughout the United States. In 1927, after teaching for six years in Florida’s Lakeland Unity Center, she moved to Tampa’s Hyde Park and resided near her sister Laura Hyer on South Rome Ave.
Louise Ramey was born in Tampa in 1892. She had been one of the first students to attend the Unity School when it opened in 1919, making the long journey from Tampa to Kansas to do so. In 1921, she may have started a study group in Tampa. However, in 1928, she, Laura Hyer, Ocoa Moore and Ruby Miller co-founded the First Unity Society, modeling it after the Fillmores’ Unity Society in Kansas City, Mo.
The First Unity Society met in a donated office space inside the Lafayette Street Arcade building, on what is now Kennedy Blvd in downtown Tampa.. It was during these classes that Ruby would meet her future husband, a concert musician named Karl Wagner. When they married, she took his last name becoming Ruby Wagner. They would later joke about how she had married her “student!”
The Unity Movement
“The Unity Society is not a church, but a school for the training and discipline of all who would develop spiritually.”
– Charles Fillmore, Weekly Unity publication, April 1913.
Although Unity had been able to incorporate as a not-for-profit due to the religious and educational aspects of its mission, Charles Fillmore did not conceive of Unity as a religious institution. He viewed Unity as a spiritual and educational institution separate from the New Though religious organizations.
In spite of the views of its founder, the Unity movement eventually evolved into the more formalized (and perhaps more familiar) establishment of churches and the Unity School was created to meet the demand for Unity ministers.
A Growing Group in Tampa
In 1936, the First Unity Society moved to the ballroom of the prominent DeSoto Hotel on Marion Street in downtown Tampa. Listed in the 1937 Unity Directory, the study group included Ocoa Moore, Laura Hyer and Louise Ramey as ministers, and Ruby Wagner as a licensed Unity teacher.
Rev. Ruby Wagner
Ruby Wagner was ordained in 1944, and by 1946, the First Unity Society had grown too large for the Desoto Hotel and services were held in the Tampa
Women’s Club on Hyde Park Ave. It was perhaps during this period of growth that Ruby was inspired to build a permanent home for the Society which had grown from a study group to a spiritual organization, a “church.”
When Ocoa More moved to New York to be with her daughter, Ruby assumed leadership of the First Unity Society. Ruby was a strong leader and a powerful, inspired speaker, emphasizing healing and prosperity in her ministry. Hundreds of people would come to hear her preach on Wednesday afternoons when special services and lectures were held to raise money for the building fund for the new “temple” she envisioned. She was also known as a spiritual healer.
“Whenever she spoke to me, she made me feel good about myself.” – Kay Tritt Vitittow (in an interview with Peter Klingman for his book, A Right and Perfect Place, The History of Unity of Tampa 1928-2010)
The Unity Temple
In the space of two years, money was raised, property was purchased and the Unity Temple was constructed at 626 North B Street, near today’s University of Tampa.
The First Unity Society with its 82 members was incorporated as a not for profit organization in December of 1947. Ruby Wagner was listed as its president and treasurer. None of the three women who had co-founded the Society with Ruby (Ocoa Moore, Laura Hyer or Louise Ramey) were listed as officers or directors. Ocoa had moved, leaving the ministry to Ruby. For reasons unknown today, Laura and Louise had separated from the Society they were instrumental in creating.
Unity Temple was completed in 1948. Under Rev. Ruby Wagner’s leadership, the First Unity Society flourished and grew for over 20 years. Her husband, Karl Wagner, served as Choir Director. He was ordained in 1958 and eventually became the Associate Minister.
Throughout that time, groups within the church assisted with classes and community service. Keepers of the Light held fundraisers and hosted social events and gatherings. The Caring Circle assisted with services, visited the homebound and met to discuss Unity’s spiritual principles. As the congregation expanded additions were made to the building including a choir room, Sunday School rooms, a kitchen, nursery and a library.
The International Youth of Unity
“As a Spirit-led youth movement, we empower individuals around the world on their spiritual journey.” – Youth of Unity
In 1950, the First Unity Society established a Youth of Unity (Y.O.U.) group for teens, which became affiliated with the International Y.O.U. in 1951.The Youth of Unity is a Unity group for high school aged teens. It seeks to support the spiritual growth of Unity’s young people by providing them with the opportunity to explore Unity’s principles and truth teachings and to demonstrate these in their daily lives.
The Y.O.U. usually meet on Sunday mornings to discuss and learn a variety of spiritual teachings, attend social gatherings, and become involved in their church and community. Over the years it apparent that Unity of Tampa’s Y.O.U. group has truly made a difference in the lives of the young people fortunate enough to be a part of it.
Leaving Their Mark
In the Y.O.U. room at Unity of Tampa’s Horatio Street location, the painted image of a tree encompassed half of one wall. It was composed of the handprints of the many, many members who have grown up at Unity of Tampa. The long fingertips on many of the hands represent the continuing Y.O.U.’ers who reprinted their handprint every year.
Throughout the years, Unity of Tampa has been blessed with dedicated Y.O.U. sponsors who facilitated the group, chaperoning trips to conferences around the country, organizing outings and providing guidance to teens when they need it most: during those difficult high school years. Often, even after they have gone on to college and careers in other cities, a former Y.O.U.’er will come back to look at their hand print on the wall, revisiting the meaningful moments spent at those Sunday meetings.
Rev. Ross Goodman
Ruby Wagner retired from the First Unity Society in 1972. At that time, Ross Goodman had been the minister of the Unity church in Evanston, Illinois for the past seven years. He was a native of Canada. Being a Unity minister had been his goal since his involvement with the Toronto Youth of Unity as a youth. He trained at the Unity School in Kansas City, Missouri where he was fortunate to have Rev. James Dillet Freeman (Unity’s Poet Laureate) as a teacher. On his first Sunday visit to the Unity Temple (Unity’s mother church), he attended a Y.O.U. meeting. He was introduced to a young woman named Joan. They would be married in 1951. Rev. Ross had served Unity in Ohio and Oregon before his taking his position in Evanston. When he was offered the ministry in Tampa, he and Joan were ready for some warmer weather. They moved to Tampa in 1972. They settled in near the Unity Temple, close enough to walk (with their seven children!) to church on Sundays. Joan dedicated herself to the Youth Education department of the ministry, and to working with the Keepers of the Light to organize social and community service events and groups.
New Year’s Eve of 1981 started out as a normal day. Rev. Ross was at home preparing for the evening’s New Year’s Eve Burning Bowl Ceremony to be held at the Unity Temple. Everything changed when he received a call that the Temple was on fire. By the time he arrived on the scene, the fire had been extinguished, but there was too much damage to hold the service there. The University of Tampa offered its McKay Auditorium for the evening services and the Burning Bowl Ceremony went on. It was clear, however, that the First Unity Society would not be able to hold services at the Unity Temple in the foreseeable future.
Undaunted and true to Unity Principles, Rev. Goodman later stated, “The fire has given us a great opportunity for spiritual growth.” The Board of Trustees apparently agreed with him, and instead of investing funds to repair North B Street Temple, they elected to seek out a new location and expand. A poll of the membership revealed that two thirds were in favor of a larger facility with room to grow: space for classrooms, workshops, and retreats.
The University of Tampa was also expanding and interested in purchasing the North B Street property. In addition, there was an insurance payoff on the fire. These funds, together with those in the building fund started by Ruby Wagner in 1946, were available for purchasing a new property. Still, it took over a year to find the “right and perfect place.”
In the meantime, the First Unity Society was “homeless.” Their offices moved to small quarters on Grand Central Ave in Hyde Park and services were held in various borrowed and rented spaces including the Tampa Preparatory School auditorium and the First Seventh Day Adventist Church in Forrest Hills.
A Site Selection Committee was diligently hunting, but it was a congregant who happened upon the ideal location. While visiting a friend in South Tampa, long time member Eve Menendez learned that the Seventh Day Adventist Church at the corner of Lincoln Street and Horatio Ave had recently been put up for sale. She passed this information onto Ross Goodman.
All the pieces fell into place: location, financing, features. The property was purchased. A new era was beginning for the study group that Ruby Wagner had founded back in 1928. The newly empowered Board of Trustees decided that along with a change of location, a change of business practice was needed. The First Unity Society was in need of catching up with the times. During Ruby’s tenure, she had handled not only the spiritual aspects of the ministry, but the financial ones as well. The Board felt that modern times called for modern accounting practices. Among other changes, the First Unity Society was reincorporated as Tampa Unity. Budgets were created and financial statements made available to members.
Tampa Unity continued to grow and prosper at its new location. The facilities were expanded to include a youth education wing. More classrooms were added in the 1990’s along with a new courtyard and landscape design.
An Ending and a Beginning
Ross Goodman retired in 1997. He had served Tampa Unity for 24 ½ years. As Rev. Ross was ending his career as a Unity minister, another man’s Unity career was just beginning.
Allen Moss already had a successful career in finance when he embarked upon his second, that of a Unity Minister. He was born into a Southern Baptist family in a small Georgia town. Later he went on to graduate from college and a career in corporate banking. But through the years, his thoughts would return to an event from his teens. It wasn’t something that might generally be thought of as a huge epiphany, but for Allen, it stayed with him the whole of his life and eventually lead him to Tampa Unity.
The event is described in Peter Klingman’s book, A Right and Perfect Place. Allen went out hunting alone one afternoon when he was 14 or 15. It was a chilly day and he was drawn to a sunny spot on a hillside where he simply laid down and looked up into a brilliant sky. It was there that he had the personal experience of knowing God – just by watching the clouds and feeling the natural beauty of the day. A short time later, while he was listening to a minister he knew and respected, he the feeling that he should be a minister, too.
He kept these thoughts inside throughout his business career, but in 1070’s he became involved in New Thought programs, eventually facilitating classes and workshops. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that Allen began his Unity coursework. When he graduated and was ordained, Unity of Tampa was in the market for a minister. Even though he was just newly ordained, the Board was impressed by Allen’s background in finance as well as his high recommendation from Unity. Although there were more experienced candidates, Allen was offered the position and gave his first Sunday talk on October 5, 1997.
Allen steered Unity of Tampa towards a “community centric” course, one in which the members, rather than the minister assume leadership of the organization. In this way, members are directly engaged and active in their spiritual community. He also sought to include the “Children’s Ministry” by having the Sunday school children come to the Sanctuary with their parents before going to their classrooms.
Rev. Debbie Moss
With Allen came his wife, Debbie Moss. She had also had a successful professional career – in sales and marketing. Vivacious and personable, Debbie was deeply caring as well, and worked tirelessly to support the congregation with prayer and action. She was responsible for bringing the chaplain program to Tampa Unity. While working on the requirements to become a licensed Unity teacher, Debbie became involved in pastoral care at St. Joseph’s Hospital. She realized the need for a program at Tampa Unity and attended Unity’s chaplain training to bring the program to Tampa Unity. In 2007, Debbie completed her studies to become a Unity Minister and was ordained. She joined Allen as Co-minister of Tampa Unity.
An important component of the community-centric model was the creation of Vision Teams, which offered opportunities for the congregation to actively participate in Tampa Unity’s growth and future. Volunteers created or selected groups they wished to join, such as the Facilities Team, the Fundraising Team, Garden Angels or EarthCare to name a few. They worked together to create and accomplish goals supporting their spiritual community.
New Thought Music
John and Tanya McEwen were brought in as music directors. John, a graduate of USF’s music department, was an experienced musician, teacher, and choral director. He had grown weary of the traditional “church music” and was drawn to the New Thought music movement. In addition to a choir, a band was formed with a percussionist and bass player, John on guitar and Tanya playing piano for a sound that was fresh, relevant and uplifting. John worked with the minister to present music that was complimentary to the theme of each Sunday’s talk. He was also a composer/songwriter whose original composition made the Sunday service a unique experience.
Unity of Tampa
In 2012, Unity Worldwide launched the Unity Identity Program. Using a common logo combined with the local chapter’s name below it, the goal was to present a consistent image and increase Unity’s public recognition and understanding. Churches were offered a set of tools which included logos, colors, fonts and website development. To conform to the logo, “Tampa Unity” became “Unity of Tampa,” registering the DBA with the State of Florida.
Rev.’s Allen and Debbie accomplished many things during their time at Unity of Tampa. They expanded community outreach by providing affordable space to support groups like AA. They brought in New Thought Speakers and Guest artists. Classes in meditation, yoga and even ballroom dance were offered. Audio/Visual technology was updated in the Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall. The Courtyard, front entrance and Sanctuary were given a major makeover which included the addition of the tower. When Rev. Allen retired in 2014, Debbie continued as Unity of Tampa’s Minister bringing her of Unity warmth, humor and in-depth understanding of metaphysics to each Sunday talk.
Rev. Debbie retired in 2016, and the Board of Trustees faced a challenging transition period. The shift from small community churches to larger, flashier organizations had been building costing many of the smaller churches their congregations. There was a need to attract the younger generations to Unity of Tampa, but it proved difficult, especially without a minister in place. Guest speakers were brought in to fill the gap, but it was clear that the continuity was in need of a full time spiritual leader.
In the fall of 2016, Rev. Clive deLaporte was brought in as an interim minister to assist with the transition as Unity of Tampa searched for a permanent minister.
Rev. Bob Uhlar joined us as senior minister in 2017. Despite all efforts, the downward trend continued. When the Covid-19 Pandemic struck in Spring of 2020, Unity of Tampa, like most public places was forced to shut its doors. Out of necessity, Rev. Bob was replaced with guest speakers. Aided by a local network of spiritual messengers, the congregation pooled talent and resources to keep Unity of Tampa together. During this time, Unity of Tampa was brought down to the foundation previous generations had built. The decision was made to sell the property on Horatio Street to relieve the financial burden it had become for the small congregation. Property values in South Tampa had seen a huge increase since 1983 and the sale would allow Unity of Tampa to purchase a new site in another area of Tampa, allowing for new growth and financial stability.
New Leadership Arrives!
By fall of 2020, things were looking grim. Although the church had reopened under Covid-19 safety guidelines, attendance was sparse. The first contract for purchase had fallen through. Although a second one was in the works, the search for a new location had come to a standstill. It was at this tenuous time that Rev. Nancy Mercurio and Jeffrey King were offered the opportunity to take leadership of Unity of Tampa.
Nancy and Jeffrey are not new to Unity of Tampa. In fact the husband and wife team are longtime members who were instrumental in establishing the Vision Teams. Jeffrey has been a member since 1999 and served as the Board of Trustees president for six years. Nancy sang in the choir for 13 years and completed 130 hours of Unity SEE class credits. She substituted occasionally for Allen or Debbie, providing the Sunday talk to an enthusiastic congregation. Using the teachings of Unity as a springboard for her spiritual journey, Nancy was ordained as an interfaith minister in 2013, and completed her doctorate in ministry in 2019.
In 2013, she and Jeffrey co-founded Together In Peace Inc., (TIP) a global non-profit mission focused on peace, tolerance and acceptance since 2013. Through their bi-weekly broadcasts and online efforts, TIP has built a following of 8,000+ social media followers. TIP is consistent with Unity of Tampa’s path to be a mission-centric organization. Its strength will be of benefit to the future growth of Unity of Tampa.
In addition, Nancy and Jeffrey have built an extremely successful business: Leadership Training Systems Inc. which specializes in executive training and organization. In his role as Unity of Tampa’s Executive Director, Jeffrey will apply his proficient skills in organizational development and technology. His online leadership courses have served over 2,000 leaders worldwide.
Under their guidance, Unity of Tampa is growing once again. Following Covid-19 safety recommendations, Sunday services have resumed in the Sanctuary and are broadcast live on Facebook for those who cannot attend in person. Attendance increases with each passing Sunday. And, everyone is excited about Unity of Tampa’s new home on Silver Lake Ave.
As we approach the move to our new location, we acknowledge that it is challenging to leave our home of nearly 30 years. But it is not the location, not the institution, not the building, but the people that make Unity of Tampa special and vital. We look forward to fulfilling Unity of Tampa’s mission providing a thriving spiritual community that embraces diversity and inspires personal transformation by living Unity principles: a true spiritual center, just as Charles Fillmore envisioned it.