St John's Helsinki (Exterior)

St John's, Helsinki, Finland


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John's
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 April 2014, 12:00pm

The building

Johanneksenkirkko is the work of the 19th century Swedish architect Adolf Emil Melander, who designed several churches in Sweden and Finland as well as a number of railway stations, private homes and villas. Completed in 1891, the church is in the neo-Gothic style with a cruciform floor plan. Near the main entrance is a statue of St John the Baptist, installed in 2003. In the back of the church were book racks holding both Finnish and Swedish versions of the Church of Finland's prayer book/hymnal. The altar is still against the east wall. A gallery surrounds the nave, including seating behind the altar. A painting of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus, by Eero Jarnefelt, brother-in-law of the famed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, is behind the altar. There are many chandeliers placed throughout the church. St John's has superb acoustics and is used as the site of many classical concerts, including an annual performance each Maundy Thursday of Bach's St Matthew Passion.

The church

The present parish community began operation on January 1, 2009, and at the beginning of 2011 claimed 12,000 members, with seven priests on staff. They have a wide range of Christian formation programs and social ministries, and an extensive music program.

The neighborhood

St John's is in Helsinki's Punavuori neighborhood, near the central city. It is on a hill where midsummer bonfires are built (on St John's day, June 24). A soccer field is right next to the church; in the immediate neighbourhood are a petrol station, apartments, and small upscale shops.

The cast

The Revd Maria Repo-Rostedt, pastor, was the celebrant and homilist. Cantors Rolf Löfman and Eva Henricson were in charge of the music.

What was the name of the service?

Familjemässa (Family Mass). The service was in Swedish. Finland is officially bilingual, with about eight per cent of the population having Swedish as its native language (I gather it's a very moneyed eight per cent!)

How full was the building?

This is the largest church in Helsinki, seating 2600, but there were only perhaps 110-120 present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed me a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not really. High back, with no curve in it. No kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived a bit early, and a children's choir of four young singers (eight or nine years of age, I would guess) were rehearsing. When the organ prelude began, it was quiet and reverential.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

They were in Swedish: "I Faderns och Sonens och den heliga Andens namn. Amen." (In the name of the Father, and of the the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Only the service leaflet that was passed out.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ by the famed Walcker Orgelbau, a German firm that can trace its history to 1780 and still exists today. The instrument is located in the rear gallery, was renovated in 1956, and now has 74 ranks. It is Helsinki's largest church organ. Also, a grand piano to accompany several anthems sung by the children's choir. The church also has a smaller organ, Baroque in design, that was not used in this service.

Did anything distract you?

The distraction was the beauty of such a large space, particularly when there were stretches of spoken Swedish that I did not understand. So much to marvel at.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A formal liturgy, made a bit more informal by the performances of the children's choir. It was a truncated communion service (only one reading and an abbreviated eucharistic prayer – only a short introduction and the institution narrative) interspersed with hymns and several children's anthems. The celebrant carried a veiled ciborium in the entrance and exit processions and was accompanied by six torch bearers, who also assisted in the gospel procession. Celebrant was veiled in a deep violet chasuble. One of the anthems was nicely choreographed, with the children raising the palms in their right hands, then raising the palms in their left hands, then raising both together. They nailed it. During the intercessions, a member of the altar party took a candle and lit the paschal candle as a way of remembering the faithful departed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – The pastor spoke very confidently and effectively, with no distracting mannerisms.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Not a clue. I guess it was on the gospel, which must have been about Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem – it was much too short to have been a Passion reading.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Singing "Halleluja! Sjung om Jesus" to the customary tune of Hyfrydol). I was seated near the back of the church, not near very many other congregants, so I took a stab at singing this old favorite in Swedish. Also, the sheer beauty of the space.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The worst part of the experience was walking the mile and a half from my hotel in a cold, drizzling rain under a grey sky. I berated myself as I settled into my pew for coming to Helsinki for a week without an umbrella.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I remained in my pew to listen to a brief but tuneful organ postlude on the church's magnificent instrument. I was in the back, and so was one of the first out the door, where Pastor Repo-Rostedt was waiting to greet worshippers. We chatted briefly; she was most welcoming.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Pastor Repo-Rostedt kindly invited me to a coffee, and told me just to "go with the flow." The congregants I chose to flow with, though, weren't headed to the coffee. When this became apparent, I was far enough along that I decided to head back to the hotel (I had a flight to catch later that afternoon).

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

0 – This "0" is not a negative comment about anything I experienced; I thought it was a beautiful way to spend Palm Sunday in a foreign country. But, realistically, if Materfamilias and I were to find ourselves living in Helsinki, we would seek out an English-speaking parish to join.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, indeed. I always welcome the chance to worship with fellow Lutherans in other national churches.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Walking back to the hotel in a cold, drizzling rain on Palm Sunday, with the strains of Hyfrydol running through my head. And the choreography with the palms.

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