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Arland O. Fiske: The great church in Helsinki

One of the cleanest cities you can ever visit is Helsinki, Finland. If you enter by the sea, the commanding building to rise before your eyes is the national cathedral (Lutheran) called “Suur Kirkko” or “Great Church.” It’s an imposing structure that dominates the view.

Completed in 1852, the cathedral is of neoclassic design with Russian influence. A statue of Czar Alexander II, who ruled Russia stands in front of it. The statue was erected in 1863 and is the work of Walter Runeberg, a famous Finnish sculptor.

Finland had been under Swedish rule from 1362 to 1809 when it was seized by Russia, part of a deal made by Great Britain to secure Russia’s help to fight against Napoleon. For political purposes, the government offices were moved from Turku to Helsinki, a location closer to St. Petersburg, which was Russia’s capital. Turku had strong Swedish influence.

Helsinki was founded in 1550 by the Swedish king, Gustav Vasa, but had suffered severely from fires. It was rebuilt during the Russian period in elegant design with wide streets and a central marketplace. Since the Tsars (“Caesars”) were head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Holy Trinity was built in 1827. The Orthodox cathedral was built in 1868. Both the Orthodox (1.2 percent) and Lutheran churches (91.5 percent) receive support from the government.

The Lutheran cathedral, designed by C. L. Engel, was originally called St. Nicolas’s Church and is located in the famed Senate Square. It is one of several buildings constructed in the neoclassic design. The others are the University and the Government Palace. Six huge columns stand across the main entrance. A monumental set of stairs (I counted 50 steps) is laid out across the entire front of the building. This is a challenge to climb.

Once in the church, the effort is worth it. The interior is filled with light. The cathedral is in the shape of a cross. The altar stands in one of the transepts with the pulpit on the inside corner of the nave. The preacher has to look at three imposing statues. At one corner is Michael Agricola who studied with Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. Agricola returned to Finland and helped to establish the Reformation.

At the other corners stand Luther and Melanchthon.  A massive pipe organ covers an entire wall. The acoustics and lighting are impressive and different from the dimly lit cathedrals built in the Middle Ages. The cathedral was the site of the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in 1963.

Helsinki was the last European city to be built as a work of art. It stands in contrast to many of the other cities in Europe with their narrow and crooked streets. The Finns are justly proud of their architectural achievements with their simple line. Alvar Aalto has been acclaimed as Finland’s most influential architect.

Among the other things one should see in Helsinki is Finlandia Hall used for international meetings, conventions, concerts and the performing arts. President Reagen gave an address in this hall en route to Moscow to see Prime Minister Gorbachev in June 1988.

Close by is the Jean Sibelius monument, honoring Finland’s most famous musician. Kaivopuisto Park with its sidewalk cafes, restaurants and open-air concert area is located in the diplomatic section near the foreign embassies and consulates. Wherever you go in Helsinki, the “Great Church” stands out most of all.

Next Week:  Molde – the “City of Roses”

ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.