Before we sail into Ponce land, let's salute some milestones of 2012

We're about to plunge into a mega-anniversary year, marking 500 years since Ponce de León named Florida in 1513. But before we leave 2012, let's tip our Flashback bonnet to a couple of milestones noted this year.

A century of 'leavening the loaf'

Like 2012, the year 1912 witnessed a presidential election, bringing Woodrow Wilson to the White House after he defeated both incumbent President William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt, whose Progressive Party platform was the first to include votes for women in its national platform.

In Orlando, leaders of the women's suffrage movement included founders of the city's First Unitarian Church, the oldest Unitarian church in Florida, which traces its official beginnings to 1912 and to folks who hailed from Iowa.

In 1905, former Orlando Mayor Mahlon Gore married his second wife, Caroline "Addie" Groninger of Iowa, in a ceremony presided over by a Unitarian leader, the Rev. Mary Safford. The new Mrs. Gore had been active in her Unitarian church in Sioux City, where she knew Safford and another minister, the Rev. Eleanor Gordon.

Addie Gore missed her church; joined by her husband, she hosted visits by Safford and then Gordon, both of whom would eventually move to Orlando.

In early 1911, the Gores hosted informal church meetings in the library of their home, called Sioux Villa. (The house was then at 211 Lucerne Circle; it still exists, but has been relocated to Waverly Place, off South Orange Avenue).

After the first few services, Gordon was invited to establish a permanent Unitarian church, which she agreed to do for a weekly salary of $20 plus traveling expenses. The congregation's formal beginnings date from early 1912 and a meeting at the long-gone McNeill home on East Robinson Street facing Lake Eola.

Now located at 1901 E. Robinson St., the church's home for many years was at East Central Boulevard and East Rosalind Avenue, across Rosalind from what's now the Orlando Public Library.

A century ago, on Jan. 1, 1913, church leaders let a contract to build "a plain little wooden chapel for $1,800" on the site, according to a church history (see orlandouu.org).

The first service, six weeks later, inspired an attendance of 85 and an article in the Orlando Sentinel in which Mrs. Gore was quoted as saying, "Unitarians are relatively small numerically almost everywhere, but they leaven the loaf."

Over the years, many community groups used Unity Chapel for meetings (only the Ku Klux Klan, who wanted to wear masks and robes, was ever turned down). In the early 1920s, pioneering architects Ida Annah Ryan and Isabel Roberts of Orlando supervised a remodeling of the chapel in a stuccoed English vernacular style. It stood next to a taller building, originally a Masonic lodge, that survives.

Over the years, the congregation continued "to be active in the community and on behalf of larger social justice issues," as its website notes, including during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and to carry on the spirit of the women of vision who founded it.

When suffrage leader Safford died in 1927, she left a message to comfort grieving friends that was typically forward-looking. "I am eager to find out what lies beyond the limit of our seeing and of our hearing," she wrote, "and do not think the Over There will be any the less interesting than the here, since the universe seems to be of one piece, offering boundless possibilities of growth."

A half-century of elder care

Congratulations, too, to Orlando Health & Rehabilitation Center, which recently marked a half-century anniversary.

Begun by Central Florida developer, state legislator, and gubernatorial candidate J. Brailey Odham in 1962, the facility at 830 W. 29th St. began as "Florida Care" and sprang from Odham's determination to improve care facilities for the elderly, according to Julie Cole, director of development. Today, it includes the innovative intergenerational program called Grandma's House (see grandmasgang.com).

Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at jwdickinson@earthlink.net or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.

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