Lutherans in Minnesota

When Finnish Americans gather, Lutheran theology is part of the mix

Standing on top of the hill, protecting grapevines from an invading pest, St.
Urho, the mythic patron saint of American Finns, thundered, “Heinasirkka,
heinasirkka, mene taalta hiiten” (or, in English, “Grasshopper, grasshopper,
skoot”). With those powerful words, the grasshoppers left Finland and St.
Urho’s reputation was sealed. March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day is
celebrated, is the commemoration of St. Urho’s great deeds.

At least, that’s how the story goes. According to Holidays and Anniversaries
of the World by Beth Baker, this story can be traced back to 1956 and a bar
dispute between Finn and Irish residents of Virginia, Minnesota. The virtues of
St. Patrick were matched and exceeded by the adherents of Urho, and the
legend was born. But the questionable origin of Urho does not take away
from the contributions made by Finnish Americans, especially in Minnesota.

Minnesota has the highest percentage of Finnish descendants of any state,
with two percent claiming this heritage. Finnish Americans were at the
forefront of developing workers movements, consumer cooperatives, and
political party involvement in the state.

Contributions within the faith experience are likewise deep. The Finnish
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, or more commonly Suomi Synod,
was created by late-19th century immigrants, with deep roots in Minnesota.
Through various mergers, the Suomi Conference is now a special interest
group in the ELCA.

Minnesota is home to about 6,000 Laestadian Lutherans, a revival movement
within the Lutheran church that reached North America with Finnish
immigrants in the 1860s. The Laestadians are a pietistic branch of
Lutheranism deeply committed to lay leadership.

Minneapolis also hosts Christ Church Lutheran, a building designed by famed
Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. Built in 1949, the education wing was added
years later by his son, Eero Saarinen. Christ Church Lutheran was added to
the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

People of Finnish descent have an annual national conference to celebrate
such on-going contributions. FinnFest USA draws thousands of people,
rotating to different communities around the U.S. “FinnFest opens with a ‘Day
of Theology’,” according to Marianne Wargelin, co-chair of the 2008 FinnFest
and Honorary Consul for the Republic of Finland in southern Minnesota and
South Dakota. “This day allows for appreciation of the contributions of the
past, as well as the current situation.”

Dr. Risto Cantell opened the Day of Theology by looking at the reform-
minded 25th bishop of Turku, Finland (then Sweden), Mikael Agricola.
Agricola, a student of Martin Luther’s at Wittenberg, Germany, was a reformer
of Finnish culture, and is known as “the father of the Finnish language.” He
was a mentor and spiritual teacher of the Finnish people.

Agricola was a reformer, not a revolutionary, advocating the balance between
reform and continuity, according to Cantell. But as a reformer he was
committed to translating the prayers and liturgies of the church into the
common language of the people, and so translated service texts from
Swedish into Finnish. Cantell explained, “Agricola thought that Almighty God,
who created the world, could hear prayers in Finnish.”

Still today there are many prayers offered in areas that are populated by
people of Finnish heritage. One such place is the region of northwestern
Russia that abuts Finland, an area called Karelia.

Pastor Pekka Palosaari serves the Sodder Parish, a large area of small
communities and churches in the Karelia region of Russia. This area has a
long history of Finnish connections.

The church in Karelia suffered persecution under the Soviet Union, but a
small cadre of believers kept the church going in difficult times, according to
Palosaari. “Now there is a hunger for the gospel” in Karelia, he added.
The missionary work for the church in Karelia (the Ingrian church) receives
support from the Church of Finland, as well as the Northeastern Minnesota
Synod of the ELCA.

“But in missionary work we have to go away ourselves,” Palosaari said, “and
give the place to those that live there. We have learned to help from the side,
not from above.”