|Suomi Zion Lutheran Church, circa 1920s.
The first couple married in the Suomi Zion congregation were my great-great-great-uncle John Heikki "Henry" Hirvi (1860-1935) and Justiina Johantytar Somppi Hirvi (1875-1935). The marriage was performed by the congregation's first pastor, Reverend Abel Kiviola, on January 26, 1892. Henry Hirvi was also a signer of the church charter and from 1898 to 1903 held the office of vice president of the congregation.
Construction of a simple church building on Seventh Street was finished in July 1892. The building was dislocated and damaged by a storm in 1893, but put back in place and repaired.
On July 12, 1896, a lot at the corner of Fifth and Eagle Streets was purchased. The church building was moved and substantially renovated. A foundation, a steeple, and a belfry were among the additions. My great-great-great-uncle Henry Hirvi and Oscar Hill Sr. built a new altar. My great-great-grandfather Matt Hietanen Sr. built the pulpit.
|Suomi Zion Lutheran Church sanctuary, early twentieth century. The pulpit on the left was built by my great-great-grandfather Matti Hietanen Sr. My great-great-great-uncle Henry Hirvi helped build the altar.
An eight hundred pound bell was installed in 1898. The purchasing committee for the bell included my ubiquitous great-great-great-uncle Henry Hirvi. The bell still tolls today. The number of times it strikes indicates things such as the beginning of the Finnish service, the beginning of the English service, the death of a congregation member, and a funeral.
In 1901 the parsonage was built on the lot next door. The chairman of the parsonage committee was—take a guess—my great-great-great-uncle Henry Hirvi. The congregation agreed that members would take turns filling his position on the Pennsylvania and Lake Erie Company docks if Hirvi had to attend to parsonage affairs during the workday. The old parsonage remained beside the church until 1941 when it was moved to 428 Sixth Street and a new parsonage was built. Also in 1901 the church balcony was enlarged to accommodate a manually-pumped pipe organ. About 1950 the most recent organ was installed, an M.P. Möller, Opus 8550.
The church established a Summer School in 1902 to instill patriotic and religious feeling into the youth of Fairport’s Finnish community. Confirmation classes were held beginning in the early years of the church. Members of my family appear in early photographs of both the Summer School and Confirmation classes.
In 1920 the original church building was moved to what eventually became the church parking lot and a new brick church was built on the old site. The new building was completed in 1925 and still stands at the corner of Fifth and Eagle Streets in Fairport Harbor today. The old building was converted into a gymnasium for a while. Then the building materials were reused to build what is now the Potti Funeral Home at 538 Fifth Street. This was the funeral parlor for my grandmother, "Muumma," in 1971, and all I could think of when I saw the name Potti—it was stenciled on the backs of all the chairs—was "potty." My mother was not amused.
Organizations within the church through the years have included choirs and singing groups, orchestras, Ladies Aid societies, the Luther League, the church council, and various committees as needs arise.
The church has continued to be a center of community in Fairport Harbor, especially for the descendants of Finnish immigrants to the USA. Church services in Finnish, in addition to weekly English services, are still held on the first Sunday of every month, as you can see on the church's website here.
Suomi Zion Lutheran Church—or simply Zion Lutheran, as it’s been called for decades—has been a touchstone in my life, too. It was where my parents were married in August 1962, although I was not around for that event. I was around in the summer of 1970 when I attended Vacation Bible School for a week. My great-aunt Adela Mirjam Stuuri Bixler (1918-2003) was teaching it.
Many of my relatives are buried in the church cemetery on East Street between Fifth and Independence Streets. Land for the cemetery was purchased in 1902 and clearing began in 1903. Among my family buried there are my grandmother Arlene Wilhelmina Stuuri Hietanen (1917-1971) and my grandfather Everett John Hietanen (1915-1998). I attended both their services at the church and their burials in the cemetery. The memorial service of my grandfather, “Paappa,” was the most recent time I was inside the sanctuary.
|Suomi Zion Lutheran Church sanctuary today, from the church's website.
The most memorable feature of the sanctuary is the painting above the altar. It has nothing to do with my family directly, but all of my family who have attended that church can’t fail to have been struck by it. Painted by Reverend Hannes Leiviskä, pastor at Suomi Zion in 1905, it pictures Christ in Gethsemane. It’s based on the oft-copied Heinrich Hoffman original from 1890, now in Riverside Church in New York City. But Leiviskä used the Hoffman original merely as a starting point, adding substantial touches of his own. The most curious touch is what has always looked to me like a bolt of lightning in the sky. I remember attending Suomi Zion Lutheran as a child and trying to figure out exactly what was supposed to be represented by the brush strokes and paint colors forming this bolt. When I’ve seen the painting as an adult, it immediately evokes overwhelming nostalgia. Now it looks to me that what I thought was a lightning bolt is actually light reflecting from a cliff.
|"Christ in Gethsemane" by Hoffman, 1890.
|"Christ in Gethsemane" by Leiviskä, 1905.
I thank my second cousin once removed Sharon Ojanpa Mackey and Elaine Kangas of the Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, for providing the Zion Lutheran Church 90th Anniversary booklet from which I took the black and white photos in this blog post.