Kuopio is Finland’s eighth largest city and the capital of Northern Savonia, the country’s important eastern region, and on March 19, 2016, the Feast of Saint Joseph, it saw the first Catholic church established in that part of the country, at least in modern times. It is also the country’s first church specifically dedicated to the most important Saint after the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The circumstances leading to this unprecedented development were summarized in a circular letter the newly-established parish sent to its local parishioners in late February 2016. Noting that despite the Christian heart of Europe no longer pulsating as it once did (due to much of the continent rejecting its Christian roots) the letter stated that at Europe’s northern most periphery “we are witnessing to a miracle”, the miracle of a full-fledged parish being established in just a handful of years.
The process consisted of three main stages. On November 27, 2013, the local Evangelical-Lutheran chapter sold the “Old Church” in Männistö to the Catholic Church, and it was established as a simple chapel as part of the district of St. Olav’s Parish in Jyväskylä, the largest city in the region of Central Finland and on the Finnish Lakeland. On Saturday, May 3, 2014, the church was consecrated to Saint Joseph, becoming the first Catholic Church in modern times in eastern Finland, but still part of St Olav’s Parish. And finally, March 19, 2016, again a Saturday, when it was erected as a parish church in its own right, with a solemn high Mass whose main celebrant was the bishop of Helsinki, Teemu Sippo, S.C.I. During the celebration Bishop Sippo entrusted the new parish church to two young members of his clergy, Fr. Francisco Garcia from the Dominican Republic and previously attached to the St. Olav’s Parish in Jyväskylä, and the Maltese-born Fr. Matthew Azzopardi, who was previously serving in a parish church in Helsinki.
Bishop Sippo is all too aware of the daunting challenges which lie ahead for the two clergy, but during his homily he also offered the simplest and most effective solution to any problems, however complicated they might be: put all your confidence in Saint Joseph. Besides being the patron and protector saint of the universal Church, as proclaimed by Pio IX on December 8, 1870, Saint Joseph is also the patron and model of all fathers, a fatherhood which is to be seen primarily in its spiritual rather than just material dimension. “Saint Joseph’s parish becomes fully operational today and I’d like to use the words of Jesus: ‘do not be afraid’,” said Bishop Sippo. “Surely the Lord will take care of you and … Father Francisco will have precisely the role of the father”—the spiritual father of the local Catholic community.
In a subsequent brief conversation during the refreshments and lunch which were served in a nearby venue after the solemn liturgy, Bishop Sippo brought to our attention a number of powerful signs showing how the Saint was supporting the establishment of this new parish, starting from the obvious consideration that it was the first church dedicated to him in the whole of Finland. But not only that, it is a fully wooden church and Saint Joseph was a carpenter, and the church is located in a neighborhood known to be inhabited mostly by craftsmen and workers in the sector. The bishop also pointed out that this church is the ideal setting for the recovery of a large painting of the saint, which was almost forgotten after it had been removed from the cathedral of Saint Henrik in Helsinki following renovation works and then stored for decades in its basement.
Bishop Sippo also hinted in his homily of another important aspect of the new parish: its ecumenical significance. As previously reported two year ago, the Evangelical Lutheran community was happy for the church to have been purchased by the Catholic Church and thus continue being used for religious purposes. On that occasion Bishop Teemu Sippo was quoted as saying that “we were warmly received” and the church doors would remain open to all those who wished to come in and pray.
But whereas on the occasion of the May 2014 consecration there were invitations officially extended to high-ranking national representatives of Evangelical Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox, this recent event was of a more internal and local nature, and only emissaries somehow related to the church were in attendance. These included two senior members of the local Evangelical Lutheran clergy, Pastor Kauko Pirskanen, who was in charge of the church when was under Lutheran jurisdiction, and Pastor Jukka Helle, responsible for international and ecumenical relations of the Kuopio diocese. They also stayed on for lunch, sitting together with Bishop Sippo and its clergy at the table reserved for the special guests of honor.
Among the hundreds of attendees of the Mass on March 19, which included a number of young families with many children also from abroad, there were also native Finns who had come a long way from other cities, such as Kajaani, 200 kilometers from Kuopio, and others who have been in one way or another associated to the church for many years. A case in point is my wife, a convert to Catholicism who could not believe her ears when we were informed that the church would be named after Saint Joseph. It is all the more incredible when one thinks that this church, closely connected to the primary school which my wife was attending at the time, is where she as a Lutheran pupil used to go with her classroom mates for all the important religious services (Christmas, Easter etc.) and where her mother was even singing as a member of its choir! Moreover, we are living witnesses to the countless graces received from Saint Joseph since the very first moment we resorted to him, asking for support when we took our decision to form a Christian and—God willing—large family.
And here we are back to square one, echoing the words of Bishop Sippo: place full confidence in Saint Joseph, whose power of intercession is second only to his spouse Mary Most Holy, and you will not be disappointed. St. Thérèse wrote in her memoirs that “whatever grace is asked of him it will be certainly granted”: this statement appears in a special month-long prayer to Saint Joseph called “Sacro Manto” (holy cloak), one of several prayers disseminated by the Pia Unione del Transito di San Giuseppe, an association based in the Basilica of San Giuseppe al Trionfale in Rome and whose aim is the worldwide spreading of devotion to the Saint. This basilica, a few minute walk from the Vatican, was built in early twentieth century by Don Luigi Guanella with the full support of Saint Pius X, a pope who had a special devotion to Saint Joseph.
The Sacro Manto ends by calling for the Saint to grant those graces he knows are “instrumental to my real good, my eternal salvation, and I’ll do all I can to not make myself unworthy of your special protection”. And we also ought to bear in mind that the best way to deserve his protection and favors, and duly honor him, is to imitate and practice his virtues. Although the St. Joseph Catholic Church is young, the Faith is ancient, and its parishioners will do what they can, in practicing the virtues of the foster father of Jesus Christ, to keep alive the Christian roots in Europe.
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