Finnish church home

The Young Finnish Women Pioneers of Montreal

Finnish maids in Quebec ca 1930

The earliest waves of Finnish immigrants to Montreal consisted overwhelmingly of young Finnish women. Unlike in other areas of Canada, where Finnish immigrants engaged in forestry or other labour, in Montreal the gender balance was definitely female! These determined and resourceful young Finns often worked as domestic help in the ‘grandes maisons”, or the large and rich homes of the Montreal wealthy. They were the primary movers behind starting the congregation, and the initial financial offerings they raised came from their own, often meagre, earnings. Through the years, unlike in many other churches, women and men together have always been on church council, and active in the direction of the congregation, its music and its social life. Newly arrived maids on the steps of the Finnish Immigrant Home in Montreal ca 1929 Victor Kangas Collection

It’s not surprising that so many of the Suomi activities planned for fall 2017 in Montreal – a Finnish bus trip to the Eastern Townships on Oct 14, the sold-out Suomi 100 Ball in December – are likewise spearheaded by women. The historical video can be watched here:

The Promised (Fin)land

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I really LOVE Montreal, one of “my” Finns will say. It’s a great city. It’s so exciting. But….But then the Finn will get a dreamy look on their face: “But you know, I’m only here temporarily. It’s a two-year contract. And then our plan is to move back to Helsinki.”

Montreal, nice as it is, is just the waiting station. For many, the land of their dreams is, was, and always will be, Finland. We’ll talk about Mount Royal and how nice it is in the spring to look out over the city. We’ll chat about going out for a sugaring-off and maple syrup, or skating on Beaver Lake, and we’ll all agree that there’s nothing like the taste of tire-sur-neige when there’s still snow on the ground and sap flowing in the trees. We’ll talk about going to La Banquise for poutine and the night life on St-Denis and the jazz and the great music and the outdoor terrasses for a cappuccino or a café au lait.

And that’s where I, for my part, would stop, maybe. But sooner or later, something, maybe talking about the Laurentians, will set the others on to Finland. Oh, the forests, they’ll say. You don’t have to go far out of Helsinki you know. The birches. I miss the birches. And then their conversation will be all about the saunas, and swimming in the deep dark lakes, and picking lingonberries and the quiet of the northland woods. And they’ll get this smile and this far-away look on their faces: You can be SO happy there, so easily! Even just dreaming about going back is what gets us through.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, writes John the Elder, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Life, frankly, looks a lot more like traffic jams on Atwater street than either the idealized Finland of some folks I know, or the heavenly Jerusalem. But you and I CAN find glimpses of how things should be, even here, even on Monkland Avenue or Sherbrooke Street or Victoria avenue St-Lambert, in how we treat each other and the world around us, around the table, with all of our faults and warts and misgivings and hesitant happinesses.

Then, and then truly, we will experience that voice Revelation describes, speaking to us from the throne. The voice we cannot always hear, but the one we know is calling, and more than calling, promising. Telling each one of us. Behold, I make all things new even you.


Deconsecrating but not Disappearing

(a homily for the deconsecrating of the Finnish church home in Montreal)

stone fence removed one 

Do you remember the famous leaning wall of Simpson? We never called it that. But that’s what it was. The Finnish leaning wall. The stone wall that, over the years and over the decades, decided it didn’t want to stay in one place anymore. That wall started moving even before we did.

I remember one day meeting Frank Berninger, Kati’s husband, standing by the wall with cement, trying to fill in some of the cracks that had developed as it ever-so-gently tipped out over the sidewalk. Or more often, poor Ismo, out there how many times a year?, measuring the angle of the stones, how much every winter freeze up and spring thaw would nudge the stones just a few more centimeters out of place. All those church council meetings where we sat thinking, and worse, imagining, not daring to say it out loud to each other: what will happen if someday that whole humpty-dumpty arrangement comes tumbling down and there’s a car, or God forbid, a person walking by when all those stones let go and gravity takes over completely?

How can we forget? All that beautiful field rock. And now? In the words of Jesus about a different Temple, not one stone is left upon another. The wall – that long, beautiful wall that looked so permanent – is gone. As is the garden. As is the day when young Finns would sit and pose by the fifties and the hundreds for black and white photos like we have hanging in the dining room. All gone.

But WE are still here. By your endurance, Jesus said to his disciples, you will continue. Life, hope, growth, vitality. They are not so easily measured, nor given up.

We human beings are easily fooled. We think that bricks and stone, mortar and wood will outlast us. That might be true, in terms of us as individuals. But in terms of us as the children of God, as the family of the Almighty, and as the realm of the Creator in this age, that kind of thinking is dead wrong. Brick and stones will NOT outlast us.

The God of the Bible is big on promises – big on vision. And it’s almost a constant, that the most certain time for a promise is precisely the moment when things seem at their darkest, when it feels like the whole world, and not just a wall, is tipping.

If ever a congregation was facing tough days, it would seem to be our little community of Finns. Here we are, wondering how it will be for us to move in with the Estonians. Here we are, dividing up books and looking at odds and ends, and recycling and taking home bits and pieces of this and that and the other. We’re like survivors of a shipwreck. This building that is so loved it is called not just a church, but a church HOME for so many years, will change. Its façade will stay. But when the massive front end loader shovels dig in behind, it won’t be pretty.

So what a day to receive such words of promise!

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, says the Psalm we have heard in the greeting and in the liturgy. Not only now – but from this time forth, and forevermore. This is a vision for AFTER the stones come tumbling down. When not one is left atop another. This is a vision of care and concern and support. It’s a FUTURE. We should make no mistake. It is a promise. Not as the world judges it, but in the eyes of the one who knows us better than the world. I will pour my spirit out, says God through the prophet Joel, so that your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old folks shall dream dreams, and your young people shall see visions.

If we are people of faith then we are always in some kind of crisis, because crisis is where God takes us in order to move us forward. In the midst of THIS crisis, this closing of the Finnish church home, it’s especially important to hear this call: in what ways, right now, are WE supposed to dream dreams and see visions?

In the “great and terrible” day of the LORD, things are reduced to their essentials: what is the ministry of this community? What can we do to reach out, not just to the church, but in God’s world, which is so much bigger and more exciting a place? How can being reduced to nothing (to speak like Paul in 1 Corinthians) …how can being reduced wind up being a beginning point of great opportunity for you and for me and for the Finnish community?

The days are surely coming, and are here, not just for this little congregation, but for all of us who call ourselves Christian, when you and I will be called on to do something NEW. We have no choice. The church is changing all over Europe and North America. There will be no walls to protect us. No false securities. The old has passed away. The new has begun. The Lord is your keeper. The Lord is your shade at your right hand, so that the sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night.

SO: let us remember that God is the greatest dreamer of all.

The leaning wall of Simpson wasn’t just the leaning wall. It was the leaving wall. What seemed so solid has detached and is gone. It led the way and now it is our turn as a community, also to leave, and to go forward into a future where we do not know our paths, but only the one who walks those paths with us.

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forevermore. In these coming weeks, and in this coming year, which will surely be unsettled, may we see where our TRUE foundation lies. May we see the liberation that comes with losing something so that we might gain something else. May we recognize our Lord in the wilderness. May THAT be what inspires us, and the point of view that gives us direction. Our heads are raised. May God grant us a vision, and through this present passing, bring new life to us all.