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The Orthodox Church of Finland

Dec 16, 2010, 10:00
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Source: Bonovox



The “Scandinavian countries[1],” are usually thought of as being Lutheran, and this holds true when speaking of the nation of Finland, which has just over 80%[2] of its inhabitants professing the Lutheran faith.  It usually comes as no surprise that Lutheranism is an official state religion.  What often does come as a surprise however is the fact that Finland has a second state religion.  Orthodox Christianity is also an official religion of Finland, although The Finnish Orthodox Church claims just over 1% of the population, around 60,000 adherents.  How did this relationship between Orthodoxy and Finland come to be?

Christianity came to Finland in the 13th century, both from the Roman Catholic West (Sweden) and the Orthodox East (Novgorod), although recent archaeological evidence has pointed to the earliest Christian influence coming from the East[3].    The Orthodox mission was centered chiefly in the region known as “Karelia,” a strip of land that extends from the White Sea Coast to the Gulf of Finland.

The Orthodox influence resulted in the establishment of two monasteries, Valamo (or Valaam in Russian) and Konetvitsa, both on different islands in the large Lake Laatokka (Ladoga in Russian).   Valamo was traditionally thought to be founded in 992, although modern research has made the window of late 12th to late 13th cent more likely.   It was founded by Saints Sergius and Herman.  Sergius is said to be an Athonite monk, who brought hesychastic style of spirituality and monasticism to North Western Europe. Less is known about Herman, who was either a contemporary and partner, or a spiritual heir.  He preached the Gospel throughout Karelia and was either a Greek, or of Karelian descent himself.[4]  What is known, is that Valamo became an important center for both spirituality and mission; sending missionaries to such faraway places as Alaska.

The Uspenski Cathedral on the Katajanokka peninsula in Helsinki

Konetvitsa Monastery, founded on the island bearing the same name, was begun by St. Arseny, who was a Russian Monk, but who had spent at least some time on Mount Athos, bringing the Hesychast tradition from there to Karelia.  Like Valamo, it too became a place of spiritual pilgrimage.

There was also mission work in the far north among the Skolt Sami (sometimes referred to as “Laplanders”) by St. Trifon in the 16th century.    Between 1533 and his death in 583 he established the Monastery of Petsamo, and planted the Orthodox faith in the region.  The monasteries, particularly Valamo would become very important in the history of the Orthodox Church in Finland.

But the next centuries were not to prove to be peaceful.  Caught between the two powers of Roman Catholic Sweden and Orthodox Russia, Finland would become the battleground of East and West, Orthodoxy and Catholicism.  There were two crusades out of Sweden into Finland in 1239 and 1293, which resulted in most of Finland converting to Roman Catholicism.  The middle of the 13th century would prove to be important, as Western expansion was halted and Russia would have dominion in Karelia for years to come.  But by 1400 there were seven well organized parishes in Karelia.[5]

The first bishop was appointed for Karelia in 1595, but did not make that big of an impact at first as the bishops would dwell in Novgorod, thereby stunting their ability to lead.  It wouldn’t be till the beginning of the 20th century that the Karelian church would be governed by a local bishop; the new see of Viborg.[6]

In the 17th century the situation changed, as Sweden, which had recently dropped their Catholicism in favor of Lutheranism, occupied Finland and attempted to drive Orthodoxy out of Karelia.  The Swedes burned Valamo and Konevitsu to the ground, and any monks (or peasants) who did not flee, were killed.   The Swedes inacted restrictions, that did not allow them to receive priests from Russia, and the people were forced to learn Lutheran theology.  About two thirds of the Karelian population escaped these persecutions by fleeing to Russia.    Those who were left survived much persecution and pressure, but as time went on, the Swedes became more and more tolerant.

Most of Karelia was captured by Russia under Peter the Great in the 18th century, and by 1809 the entirety of Finland, which was organized as a Russian Grand Duchy.  This not only gave the Orthodox Church freedom, but reestablished ties with the mother church in Novgorod.    Valamo was reestablished in 1719, and a new church consecrated.    Konetvitsu experienced the same rebirth.   The Czars themselves paid for much of the rebuilding of the burned out parishes.  During the 19th century the Orthodox population of Finland grew to ten times its size.  But there was more struggle to come.

By the end of the 19th century, there was a great struggle in Karelia and Finland to nationalize the Church.  They began to celebrate the Liturgy in Finnish and translated not only liturgical texts, but spiritual works into the Finnish language.  In 1892 a separate administration for the Finnish church was set up under the diocese of St. Petersburg, which very shortly became the Orthodox diocese of Finland.   After the Russian revolution of 1917, The Finnish state declared independence; thus the Finnish Church effectively became autonomous and officially so declared by Patriarch St. Tikhon in 1921.  In 1923 the Orthodox synod of Finland petitioned to be taken under the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarch, which was granted making it an autonomous archbishopric under the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Throughout the history of Finland, most of its Orthodox Christians were located in Karelia.  But during WWII and after, many Karelian residents fled deeper into Finland as Karelia became a battleground, and then most of its territory was conceded to the Soviet Union.  Valamo, once counting over 1,000 monks in its brotherhood, was abandoned as all of Lake Laatokka came under Soviet control, and an estate near Heinävesi was established as “New Valamo.”  Eventually the monks were joined by monastics from Konetvitsa and Petsamo.  New Valamo along with its sister Convent of Lintula, which is located nearby, have become important institutions in the modern Church in Finland.     Because of the migration, Orthodox churches sprung up all over Finland, resulting in the Church being divided into two dioceses in the 1950s.

The Church of Finland experienced a decline in members and attendance after the War, but in recent years has experienced much of resurgence, as modern Finns search for something lasting and meaningful, as Finnish society deals with life in the modern consumerist age.  The diocese of Oulo was added in the late 1970’s to the two existing dioceses: Kuopio in the Finnish Orthodox heartland of Karelia, and the Capital district of Helsinki.  The Finnish Church was very optimistic that it would receive autocephaly when the book Orthodoxy in Finland: Past and Present came out in 2nd edition in 1982.  Unfortunately they are still waiting for it.

Currently the Church is headed by Archbishop Leo the bishop of Karelia and all Finland,  He is assisted by an auxiliary, Bishop Arseni of Joensuu.  Metropolitan Ambrosios  of the Diocese of Helsinki and Metropolitan Panteliemon of the Diocese of Oulu sit on the Holy Synod with Archbishop Leo.    They are assisted in governing the Church by  a body known as the “central synod”  or “Church Assembly,” which includes not only the bishops, but 11 rectors, three cantors and 18 laymen and women.  The Orthodox Church, by virtue of its being a “state church,” can levy taxes on those who live in a particular parish and identify themselves as “Orthodox.”

The Finnish Orthodox Church not only celebrates its “fixed feasts” on the Gregorian (or “new calendar”) as many Western countries do, it is unique among Orthodox churches in the world by the fact that it celebrates all the moveable feasts according to the Western Paschalion.

For 70 years the Church of Finland had a full-fledged seminary (1918-1988), but since 1988 those preparing to serve the Church have been largely trained at the University of Joensuu, which has a department of Orthodox theology.  The seminary that is attached to the Archbishops chancery in Kuopio, does provide the liturgical training and spiritual direction, under the guidance of the archbishop.  Along with the seminary, there is a Finnish Orthodox Church Museum attached to the Church’s headquarters there in Kuopio.

Finnish Orthodoxy is a gold mine waiting to be explored.  There is unfortunately a dearth of reading material in English on the subject.  The best book on the subject, Orthodoxy in Finland: Past and Present, a collection of essays edited by Viekko Purmonen, is outdated, its most recent edition being 1984.  Among the many topics that could be explored: the Orthodoxy of the Skolt Sami people whose Orthodoxy dates to the early 16th century, the ramifications of Orthodoxy in Finland being a “state church,” the synergy of the Orthodox faith lived out within the unique culture of the Finns.

The Finnish Orthodox Church has faced a lot in its history.  At present it is an “official state church;” it’s a pretty independent autonomous church in the patriarchate of Constantinople; they have a monastery with a rich heritage; they are not subject to “cross jurisdictions” (two little Moscow Patriarchate churches in Helsinki don’t count.)  Perhaps it is time for autocephaly.



Purmonen, Veikko. Orthodoxy in Finland: Past and Present. Kuopio, Finland: Orthodox Clergy Association, 1984

Ramet, Pedro. Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988

Oorni, Soili. Autocephaly and its Meaning for the Finnish Orthodox Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1986

Kirby, David. A Concise History of Finland.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006




[1] Finns don’t view themselves as “Scandanavian.”

[2] All stats taken from the Finnish Orthodox Church website.  Retrieved 4/15/09

[3] Kristinuskon Varhaisvaiheet Suomessa. Retrieved 4/25/09 (translated by

[4] Veikko Purmonen, Orthodoxy in Finland: Past and Present, 2nd Ed. Rev. and enl. (Kuopio, Fin: Orthodox Clergy Association, 1984) 15

[5] A Parish in the Finnish/Karelian context seems to be a little different than the way it is thought of in the US.  A Parish can include several churches and chapels.

[6] Pedro Ramet, Eastern Christianities and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1988)268

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