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Finnish Unitarian churches celebrate centennial
The world’s first and second Finnish Unitarian churches, born in Virginia and Alango through the work of the Reverends Risto and Milma Lappala, are celebrating their centennial season. The congregations, merged in 2001 as the Mesabi Unitarian Universalist Church of Virginia, will host a community open house on Saturday, Sept. 29, from 1 – 4 p.m. There will be a special worship service on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 10:30 a.m. All are welcome to visit the church, located at 230 South 7th Street in Virginia, to join in this historic event.
Risto Lappala and Milma Tikkanen emigrated from Finland to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. They met at the Lay College for Ministry in Revere, MA, where Risto was teaching. They were married in 1906 following Milma’s graduation. Risto was originally ordained in the Finnish Congregational Church, but joined the fellowship of Unitarian ministers in the spring of 1910.
The American Unitarian Association, through its Department of New Immigrants, commissioned Risto to come to Duluth to try to develop a Finnish Unitarian congregation in northern Minnesota. Dr. John Raihala of Virginia was attracted by Risto’s articles in Finnish language newspapers and in early 1911 invited him to lecture on liberalism at the Finnish Temperance Hall (now Kaleva Hall). Several more invitations followed. That fall, however, unable to establish a church in Duluth, the Lappalas with their young son and daughter embarked by train for Seattle to try to establish a Finnish ministry there.
The following story is always told about this pivotal moment in the history of the congregation: “The telegram caught up with them somewhere in Utah. ‘Please come back,’ was the message. ‘We need you to lead us and help us start a church.’ Risto and Milma pondered. At the next station, they got off the train and headed back east to Virginia.”
Under the Lappalas’ leadership, the Vapaa Kristillinen Kirkko (Free Christian Church) was founded in December 1911. The first organizational meeting adopted this simple declaration of faith: “In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite in the worship of God and the service of man.” In January 1912 the following were chosen to act as the first Board of Directors: J.A. Kerttu, chairman, Mrs. Risto Lappala, secretary, John Ketola, treasurer, Verner Saranen, John Grym, and Dr. John Raihala. Sunday services were held at the Temperance Hall, with Sunday school at the Lappala home.
In March 1912 the congregation began plans to build a church. Two lots were purchased on the corner of Beech Street and Wyoming Avenue, now known as Seventh Street and Third Avenue South. Local architect and contractor John Okerstrom was commissioned for the project. The simple, sturdy rectangular building he designed has sheltered the congregation through its first 100 years and still stands on its original site.
Milma’s ministry to the rural communities north of Virginia began in early 1912 when she was invited to speak at the Temperance Hall in Alango. As the result of her work, the Liberal Christian Church of Alango was organized in 1916. Milma was ordained that same year and the Alango church became her parish.
The Virginia congregation suffered a stunning blow when Risto Lappala died in February 1923 at the age of 39. Milma, left the single parent of four children ranging in age from six to sixteen, was installed as minister of the Virginia church and thereafter ably served both congregations. Because of Milma’s sympathetic demeanor and uplifting messages, she was often asked to conduct funeral services for the unchurched, thus extending her ministry into the community at-large. The two churches flourished under her leadership and abounded with activities. The Women’s Alliance, the Young People’s Union, sledding parties, plays, and shared meals all provided a supportive community during difficult economic times.
Services in both churches were conducted in the Finnish language until the late 1930s when pressure began mounting to anglicize the Virginia church. Though Milma had a good command of written and spoken English, church leadership chose to replace her. It was a difficult and lengthy transition both for Milma and the congregation. In 1941 Milma moved to Alango and continued serving the Alango church until her death in 1950. She remains a revered figure in the history of the congregation.
The Alango church, built at the corner of what is now State Highway 22 and Samuelson Road, was destroyed by an arson fire in 1991, leading ten years later to consolidation of the two congregations. Today the church continues as a liberal religious voice, striving to live its mission statement: “Nurturing the spirit, honoring the earth, celebrating all life, fostering peace and social justice.” Jeanne Maki serves as president of the Mesabi Unitarian Universalist congregation. She adapted this article from her earlier piece published in the Virginia Area Historical Society newsletter.