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The liberal saints

Andrene Kauffman’s murals in Chicago’s Third Unitarian Church honor heroes of the liberal spirit.
By Donald E. Skinner
Summer 2009 5.15.09

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Martin Luther King Jr. mural

Andrene Kauffman's mural of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the last in her series of murals to Chicago's Third Unitarian Church, completed in 1969. (David Boulanger)

They are there every Sunday in the sanctuary of Third Unitarian Church in Chicago: Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Addams, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Jefferson. Many Unitarian Universalist places of worship are adorned sparingly, having at most a quilt or a congregational banner on the wall. But Third Unitarian is rich in artwork. Twenty-four “saints of liberalism” circle the sanctuary or greet people in vestibules and stairwells, their painted images gazing down on the gathered congregation.

In 1956 Andrene Kauffman, a Third Unitarian member who was a muralist and longtime instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago, was inspired by a sermon to create the portraits. The sermon, by the Rev. E.T. Buehrer, minister at Third Unitarian from 1941 to 1969, was entitled “The Saints of Liberalism.” The sermon led Kauffman to paint twenty-four figures, many of them mentioned in the sermon. She finished the first one, of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, in 1956. She made most of the rest of the series between 1957 and 1963. She added a final mural, of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1969, a year after he was killed.

The figures, ranging from twenty inches to six feet tall, are painted on ceramic tiles and mounted on the brick walls of the sanctuary.

The figures include the ancient sages Socrates, Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama, and Confucius; Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century Baptist preacher and advocate of church-state separation; the nineteenth-century Unitarian ministers William Ellery Channing, James Martineau, and Theodore Parker; and the eighteenth-century scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley. Depicted alongside the Unitarians in one mural are two American patriots and freethinkers, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

Other murals honor U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln, who freed America’s slaves, and Woodrow Wilson, who promoted the League of Nations. Kauffman dedicated murals to a variety of social justice leaders: settlement house founder Jane Addams, the Progressive-era governor of Illinois John Peter Altgeld, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the African American abolitionist and suffragist Harriet Tubman.

Kauffman also dedicated murals to writers Albert Camus, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Walt Whitman.


Longtime church member Eleanor Lukazewski, a member of the Women’s Alliance, noted that not all the “saints” were Unitarian or Universalists, but all of them supported at least some Unitarian or Universalist beliefs. There are common threads of peace or justice-making, she said.

At the close of the sermon that inspired Kauffman, Buehrer described the saints this way: “Our saints come from every age, every nation, and every race, black and red, brown and white. They are Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Confucian, Buddhist, Pagan, and Jew. They are not in the familiar Christian tradition. We do not think of them as intercessors in heaven with special access to a divine source of purity and truth. They are real men and women, fighting the battles of the world and leading the progress of mankind.”

Kauffman’s portrait of Buehrer faces the main entrance of the church. Another mural not in the sanctuary is that of Walt Whitman, which hangs in a stairway to the second level of the sanctuary. “Whitman didn’t approve of organized religion and so we didn’t think we should put him in the sanctuary,” said Lukazewski.

In 2008 a self-portrait of Kauffman was found in a closet at the church. The Women’s Alliance had it framed and hung in a special ceremony as part of Third Unitarian’s 140th anniversary. Other drawings by Kauffman were found at the same time, and some were sold to collectors.

The Rev. Brian Covell, Third Unitarian’s minister since 2003, said the murals add another dimension to worship. “I find it inspiring and more than a little daunting to preach while surrounded by our ‘saints,’” he said. “They are inspiring due to the depth and range of philosophical insights that they represent. It’s easy to think about Gautama and Goethe in symbolic, on-going conversation with themselves and others.

“At the same time,” Covell said, “I’m challenged by the standards of eloquence, profundity, and ethical living set by the Reverend Buehrer’s heroes. I suspect many in the congregation have reached similar conclusions. Ms. Kauffman’s art adds, in my view, an understated level of adornment to our otherwise unadorned and uncluttered sanctuary.”

He added, “While it’s possible to see the pieces as dated—and some folks do, expressing concerns about a lack of gender balance (far more men than women) and low representation from a wide range of cultures—most of the comments I hear from guests and members alike are positive.”

He said more than one person has viewed the sanctuary and made a comparison to the figures in Catholic churches, gazing down from their niches.

Lukazewski said the congregation has tried but hasn’t been able to learn much about Kauffman. She was apparently most active in the 1940s and ’50s at Third Unitarian. “After that I think her health was not good,” Lukazewski said. Born in 1905, Kauffman served for forty years as an instructor in drawing and painting at the Art Institute and was chair of the school’s Division of Fine Arts for part of that time. She died in 1993.

Kauffman created thirty other murals and twelve bas-reliefs for public buildings in the Midwest under the Depression-era Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.


See more of the murals online at UU World’s photo gallery: flickr.com/uuworld. See sidebar for links to other related resources.

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