At one point in Finland’s history, everything had a soul.
The country’s oldest civilization, the Sami, believed the rocks, trees and animals around them were conscious beings. For centuries, these pagan reindeer herders worshiped their gods with chanting and drumming.
And then the Swedish arrived.
And then the Russians.
It would take another 700 years for Finland to reclaim its autonomy.
In Helsinki, four churches tell the story of Finland’s evolution from Swedish territory, to Russian outpost, to an independent nation with one of the highest standards of living in the world.
Our story starts in Senate Square on the steep steps of the Lutheran Cathedral.
If “Tuomiokirkko” is too much of a mouthful, you can call this place the Lutheran Cathedral. Its neoclassical white columns and green domes were commissioned by a Russian czar, but the churchgoers inside pay homage to a religion introduced by Finland’s first overlords, the Swedes.
Three hundred years after Sweden began its efforts to Christianize – and ultimately rule – Finland, the king broke with the Catholic church and adopted Lutheranism as the state’s official religion. Today it remains the most popular faith in Finland.
Tuomiokirkko was finished in 1852, its steep staircase designed as a towering testament to God’s supremacy. Inside, a sparse interior keeps worshipers’ attention on the sermons, not the decorations.
But the Swedish weren’t the only ones intent on spreading their religion and political power in Finland. Russia also had its eyes on the developing nation.
This brings us to our next church, just a few blocks away.
Russia took over Finland from the Swedes in 1809. They moved the capital to Helsinki and modeled it after St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital at the time.
The new ruler’s influence is most obvious today in the gold onion domes and red brick walls of the Uspenski Cathedral. The church rises from the skyline like a Russian gingerbread house. Inside, gilded panels depict the biblical stories of the last supper and ascension.
But Finland wasn’t keen to stay part of Russia forever. The country held its first elections in 1907. Ten years later, Finland became an independent nation.
Things weren’t easy at first. Finland immediately fell into a civil war that claimed more than 30,000 lives. But the country eventually found its stride, going on to win everything from the Nobel Prize to the Miss Europe competition.
The country also established itself as a leader in design, creating architectural masterpieces like the uber-modern Finlandia Hall, the art nouveau central railway station, and one of the world’s most unique churches.
Appropriately nicknamed the Church in the Rock, Temppeliaukio was carved from a massive slab of granite. Inside, the bedrock of Finland serves as the church’s walls. Piles of boulders hold up a ceiling made of 22 kilometers of copper stripping. Sunlight streams in from skylights that surround the pews.
Based on a design by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, Temppeliaukio was completed in 1969. The church’s stellar acoustics make it a popular concert hall. Its boulder strewn entrance makes it a popular climbing spot.
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Finland’s long and complicated relationship with its eastern neighbor ended. Four years later, Finland joined the European Union. Helsinki continued to evolve into the bustling capital city it is today. Malls opened. Restaurants thrived. Tourists streamed in.
A few years ago, someone decided there should be a pocket of calm in the middle of the action.
Kamppi Chapel of Silence
The wooden hull of the Kamppi Chapel of Silence towers over the city’s busiest plaza like a misplaced ship. Inside, skylights cast a warm glow on the rounded wooden walls. The only sound is the occasional click of a visitor’s camera.
You won’t find any baptisms or weddings at this church. This is strictly a spot for quiet reflection. It’s technically Lutheran, but all are welcome.
In a way, the Kamppi Chapel could sum up modern Finland: tolerant, safe, comfortable, a place of peace surrounded by a storied past.