Amid recurrent news that Catholic churches are increasingly being shut in Europe—especially in northern Europe—it is certainly newsworthy whenever this trend is bucked there. And especially in a place one could least expect: Kuopio, the capital of Savo province and largest city in eastern Finland (it is the eighth largest city in the country), a country in which the process of secularization is considered among the most pervasive and rampant in the world.
In a conversation while in Rome for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25), the bishop of Helsinki, Msgr. Teemu Sippo, SCJ, confirmed what was reported in the January issue of the official journal of the Helsinki diocese Fides: a new Catholic church will be consecrated in May in Kuopio. While Mass has already been celebrated there, the new church will become officially operational after its consecration on May 3rd, 2014, in Kuopio.
Bishop Sippo was part of the Finnish ecumenical delegation which the Holy Father warmly received in a private audience at the beginning of the Week of Prayer, a meeting which this year took place on Thursday, January 17, 2014. This delegation, which also included the head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, Archbishop of Turku Kari Mäkinen, and the head of the Orthodox Church, Archbishop Leo of Karelia and All Finland, was also in Rome for its annual pilgrimage to honor Saint Henrik, the martyr patron saint of Finland, whose feast day is January 19th.
The church in Kuopio will be dedicated to St. Joseph and is due to initially function as a chapel in the district of St. Olav’s parish church, which is located some 150 kms (slightly over 90 miles) away in Jyväskylä, with Mass scheduled to be celebrated once or twice a month.
Interestingly, the church was not built from scratch, but is a pre-existing Evangelical-Lutheran church, the Männistön vanhan kirkko (named after the area of the city, Männistö), which the Evangelical Lutheran Church sold to the Catholic Church on November 27th, 2013, for €800,000 (over $1,080,000), according the Finnish Catholic Information Service KATT. It is obvious that the newly-purchased building, although in good condition, will have to be suitably renovated and adapted in order to be turned into a full-fledged Catholic parish. The deal was made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor.
If, on the one hand, the Evangelical Lutheran church had come to the difficult decision to sell the building also due to financial constraints, on the other hand, the Lutherans were more than happy that it was purchased by the Catholic Church and thus could continue being used for religious purposes. Bishop Teemu Sippo was quoted as saying that “we were warmly received” and “I would also like to emphasize the church doors remain open to all those who would like to come in” for prayerful recollection.
According to latest available figures, Finland has the lowest proportion of Catholics in all of Europe, 0.2%, numbering almost 12,000 out of a population of over 5 million people. Nevertheless, as also reflected by the establishment of this new church in Kuopio, the Catholic Church has grown considerably, from about only 3000 faithful thirty years ago. This growth due in part to immigration, but also to conversion. For example, Timo Soini, presidential candidate and the leader of the main opposition party in Parliament, Perussuomalaiset (in English, the “Finns Party” or “True Finn Party”), is a convert to Catholicism who has often come under media fire for his open pro-life and pro-family standpoints.
Kuopio, with a population of over 105,651, was founded in 1653 by Governor Peter Brahe, but officially proclaimed a city by King Gustav III of Sweden on November 17, 1775, when at the time Finland was still under Swedish rule.
Since the Reformation was introduced in mid XVI century, it appears this is the first Catholic church ever built in the city. Interestingly, Kuopio is home of the Finnish Orthodox Church, which has the second largest following among Christian bodies after Lutheranism, and whose primate, Archbishop Leo (Makkonen) of Karelia and All Finland, is seated there. An autonomous cell within the autocephalous jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, it is the only mainstream Orthodox denomination to celebrate Easter on the Latin date and the Catholic community have been able to celebrate their liturgy once a month in a hall-turned-chapel made available by Archbishop Leo in the parish complex where the Orthodox cathedral is located.