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History of Zion Lutheran Church

Helvie and Elsie Silver

"Soikoon äänes kiitokseksi Herran Jumalan!" (May your voice ring in thanksgiving to the Lord God!) Such is the inscription on the bell of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Astoria, Oregon. The bell with its inscription is a legacy to the members of Zion Lutheran Church.

This is a Jubilee Year for Zion. August 22, 1958 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the church in Astoria, Oregon, for it was on August 22, 1883 that the first minutes of the congregation meeting are recorded. This was an historic occasion! Here was laid the foundation of an organization which has played such a vital part in the lives of the Finnish people in the vast, far West. Seventy-five years later that church is still serving the Finnish people, but more than that, it is serving all, - all who desire to worship there. Throughout its history, God's guiding hand is evident in all the years of its existence. To the members of that church the inscription on the bell is especially appropriate: May your voice ring in thanksgiving to the Lord, God!

The minutes of that first congregation meeting do not state where the meeting was held, nor how many were present, but it is known that much work had been done previously to make this first official meeting possible.

The far-sightedness of these early Finns is noted in the fact that hearing of a young Finnish seminary student at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, they began a correspondence with him, encouraging him to come to found a Finnish church in Astoria, Oregon. Some years later, upon his graduation, a call was sent him by the group. The newly ordained pastor, J. J. Hoikka accepted. *Pastor Hoikka, who was to shepherd the scattered flock to the fold, was an able preacher, a fine organizer, appreciative of the talents and abilities of the members of his congregation.

Pastor Hoikka's great faith in God is evident in his acceptance of the call to Astoria. In Astoria there was no congregation, - only a handful of determined people, no church building, no parsonage, no guarantee of an income, - nothing, but the knowledge of a field ripe unto harvest.

On August 13, 1883, Pastor Hoikka performed his first pastoral acts in Astoria, by uniting in marriage Mr. and Mrs. Nikolai Johnson, and by baptizing a child who became Mrs. Henry Salvon. The first Finnish church service was held in the Swedish Evangelical Church, the 14th Sunday after Trinity on August 19, 1883. The text was Luke 17:11-19.

On August 22nd, 1883, the first minutes of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church were recorded and begin: When the hymn was sung and the usual prayers said, Pastor J. J. Hoikka was chosen chairman of the meeting, and A. Saukkonen its secretary.

Pastor Hoikka had prepared a constitution beforehand, which point by point was accepted. Thus the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Astoria, Oregon was founded.

The first deacons to serve the congregations were: Joe Ostrom, Jacob Rinell, and Erik Maunula. The trustees elected were: J. Rinell, J. Ostrom and A. Saukkonen. Most of the founders were young. Jacob Rinell was only eighteen. (It is interesting that seventy-five years later, Erwin Rinell, a grandson of J. Rinell, is on the Church Board.)

In 1884 a church building was erected on a lot in the Scow Bay area, mostly by volunteer labor and supervised by J. Tuomala, who received three and a half dollars a day. According to Pastor A. J. Korhonen's history, this building was possibly the first church building in America built entirely by and for the Finns alone.

That same year the church affiliated with the Augustana Synod since there was no Finnish Synod in existence at the time.

In January 1885 Pastor Hoikka asked to resign but since the congregation was not able to get another minister, he consented to stay on until August of the same year. At this time Wille Williamson had come from Coos Bay, Oregon. He had been hired by the congregation "to instruct the children in Christian principles and to teach them to read Finnish".

The congregation was divided in selecting him for its pastor, but nevertheless, Mr Williamson continued to teach and preach until 1888 when J. W. Eloheimo, then residing in Finland, was called to become pastor of the church.

Many things were accomplished during Eloheimo's ministry. A parsonage was built, plans were made to withdraw from the Swedish Augustana Synod, a movement was begun to unite the Finnish Churches in America into a synod-like association. Gustaf Wilson, Finnish consul in Portland, was chosen treasurer of this organization. Because of Pastor Eloheimo's resignation soon afterwards, nothing came of this plan at the time. Pastor Eloheimo asked that he be released from the pastorate of the Astoria church before his three-month period was up, to which the congregation readily consented. Thus on July 28, 1889, the congregation was again without a pastor.

Pastor Adolph Riippa next served the congregation from 1890 to the end of year 1891.

Sometime between December 8, 1891 and December 13, 1891, a strong wind blew down the church building. The congregation started the new year without a pastor and without a church building. These must have been discouraging times for the small congregation; however, not a note of discouragement is recorded in the church minutes. The December 13, 1891 minutes of the Church Board read as follows: It was decided to hold the meeting of the congregation on January 3, 1892 at 2 o'clock in the American Temperance Hall, and to discuss the following items: 1. Rebuilding the church, 2. Finding ways for getting money, 3. Securing a pastor, 4. Deciding the amount of membership dues, and 5. Electing the officers for the church for the following year. Signed, Jooseppi Riippa, secretary.

The old church was torn down sometime between March and September of 1892. Plans for a new church were accepted at the September 2, 1892 meeting. By November 9, 1892 all the money was gone from the building fund and the congregation again met to decide what must be done. Finally Jooseppi Riipa was chosen to ask for additional lumber from Trullinger on credit, and for the paint from Charles Larson, also on credit. It was decided to get a $200 loan from individuals or from the bank, if necessary.

By September 17, 1893, Pastor J. J. Hoikka had arrived in Astoria from Sweden to take charge of the congregation for the second time. On the 15th of October of that year, Pastor Hoikka dedicated the new church building. Pastor R. Herberg of the Swedish Lutheran Church spoke and members of both congregations took part in the festivities.

At the annual meeting of the congregation on Jan. 2, 1895, Jacob Moore moved that the congregation join Suomi Synod as soon as separation from Augustana Synod could be accomplished. A request to leave the synod had been made during Eloheimo's ministry but had not been granted since there was no Finnish Synod at the time. Now the request was granted.

Pastor Hoikka served the congregation until November 28, 1895. On the 8th of December 1895, Pastor Henrik Tanner held his first worship service in the Astoria Church. The problems that confronted the church during Tanner's first year are given in his report to the congregation on Jan. 3, 1897: The Sunday School in Lowwer Town (Uniontown) had not been as successful as it might have been. Church attendance had been greatly hampered by street construction. The payroll had been very small since practically the only industry in the area, namely fishing, had been interrupted by a strike. A faction of the congregation had separated to organize their own church. During the rainy season people could not come so far away to attend services. On the bright side were the fine Sunday School festivals and the success of the Ladies Sewing Society.

As early as 1884, the Ladies Sewing Society had donated the baptismal font and the communion vessels to the congregation. On them is inscribed: A gift to the Finn. Ev. Lutheran Church from the Christian wives of the congregation. The ladies had donated $480 to the construction of the first parsonage. (The pastor's yearly salary was $360.) All through the years the pastors have spoken of the great help of the ladies sewing organization, and the secretaries have recorded the thanks of the congregation for their very great aid.

Pastor Tanner resigned in 1897 and the congregation turned again to Adolph Riippa who served from 1898 to 1901. It was during his second term as pastor, that the bell, mentioned earlier, was bought. The bell itself cost $55. The cost of raising it to the steeple was $16. Made of steel alloy in Hillsboro, Ohio, it weighed 875 "naulaa." Under Kalle Kankkonen's supervision, the bell was lifted to the steeple in August 1898.

Pastor Riippa listed in his yearly report the work accomplished during the year: Besides conducting the Sunday morning and evening worship services and mid-week prayer meetings, he visited Deep River, Knappton, Ilwaco, and Portland, once a month. He held services in Olney, Fort Stevens, Blind Slough, Crooked Creek, Gray's River, Brush Prairie, Independence and Aberdeen. He also visited "Vesikontri" (Beaver River) and Seaside, made trips to Canada and Pendleton, held confirmation school, performed 12 wedding ceremonies, baptized 65, buried 17, and confirmed 20. He helped with the Sunday School and spoke at Ladies Aid Society meetings.

After Adolph Riippa resigned, the congregation turned to A. A. Wirtanen, a Finnish Seamen's Mission pastor in Astoria. He was to preach at the church when he had time from his duties as a mission pastor. He served but a short time during the year 1901.

Pastor A. E. Backman came from Georgia in 1902. The Finnish Ev. National (Kansallis) Church members had finished constructing their church building in the west-end of Astoria. Pastor Backman was asked to dedicate it. (This church is now affiliated with the Congregational Church.) Its members also asked the Finn. Ev. Lutheran Church congregation if Pastor Backman could hold services for them once a month. Despite some opposition to this, the request was granted.

In July 1902 Pastor Backman resigned to accept a pastorate in Finland. On December 28, 1902 the first of many meetings was held jointly with the Finnish Ev. Luth. National (Kansallis) Church members to decide on a pastor who could serve both congregations. A temporary pastor, "katekeetti" R. G. Rissanen served both churches, alternating morning and evening services, until Hannes Leiviska came from Finland to take over the duties as pastor. However, before his arrival, the National Church members had decided against a joint pastor.

The December 5, 1903 minutes of the Church Board meeting note plans made under Pastor Leiviska's supervision, for the organization of a Christian Young People's Society.

After the church joined Suomi Synod, much work was done to aid Suomi (Opisto) College, and an organization was founded on September 4, 1901 to assist the school. Its secretary was Helena Kastell and Jacob Moore was its president. Its last official meeting is recorded on March 30, 1907, when plans were made to have a Mid-summer's Eve festival on June 22, 1907. This organization may have served longer, but its records are lost.

Pastor Leiviska served from 1902 to 1905. Besides serving the churches of the surrounding areas he also went to Portland, Oregon once a month. Astoria pastors served Naselle, Ilwaco, and Brownsmead until Naselle called its own pastor in 1951 and Brownsmead in 1953.

Pastor Ronka served from 1905 to 1910. The Young People's Christian Association was especially active during his ministry. In 1910 E. Hakala, a Seamen's Mission pastor, served the congregation a short time before returning to Finland.

Zion Lutheran Church of Astoria is fortunate that all the pastors who served from Pastor Hakala's time on, are still living and active in some capacity in the work of the Lutheran Church, either here or in Finland. Each one has a message which is printed in the 75-year festival publication. Thus we are able to get first hand greetings from each one.

Pastor David J. Elm came to Astoria on June 14, 1912 to remain until May 25, 1919. He was the first pastor of the Finnish Ev. Lutheran Church in Astoria to have received his training at Suomi College Theological Seminary. It was in Astoria that he was married to the former Anna Thompson. He, too, encouraged the work of the youth organization of the church.

Pastor F. V. Kava came from Negaunee, Michigan, on Sept. 15, 1919. Trained in Finland, he became homesick for his beloved Finland, and after two attempts to resign, his congregation reluctantly consented. During his time the Western Branch of the Finnish Lutheran Publishing Company was established in Astoria. He assisted in the publication of the "Lännen Suometar," official newspaper of Suomi Synod, for several months.

Pastor Arvo J. Korhonen served the congregation from 1922 to 1932. The pastor and his wife were especially interested in working with young people. During his pastorate the Aurora Club and the Bethany Society were organized. Both organiaztions began their activities in 1925. The Suomi Synod Convention met in Astoria in 1928.

Pastor Torkko came in September 1932. Although he served Naselle, Ilwaco, and Brownsmead churches also, somehow he found time to organize and direct the huge Delaware Tercentenary Chorus in Astoria, thus drawing into its ranks the churched and the unchurched. Mrs. Torkko was an able leader of the local Lotta Svard organization who did such wonderful work before and during the World War II years. Much help was given to local service men's groups, but the greatest aid perhaps was given to Finland during its dire need.

Pastor Torkko notes in one yearly report that there were 30 young people in the Luther League. This was a record number for the Astoria church. It was during Pastor Torkko's ministry that a fund was started for a new church building to be erected sometime in the future. Arvid Simonson, then active in the Luther League, became treasurer of the fund. During Pastor Torkko's ministry the envelope system was first put into use in the church. Up to that time, membership dues were gathered by the treasurer of the church and other Board members. It is during Pastor Torkko's time also that definite plans for regular English services were made. Pastor Torkko moved to Duluth, Minnesota on the first day of December 1941.

It would be interesting to mention all the members of the church who have made special contributions in terms of service to the congregation. Space does not permit doing this. However, one person should be mentioned in this history of the church. He seems such an integral part of the story that it would be incomplete without him. That person is Anton Johnson. On Jan. 27, 1889, Pastor Eloheimo wrote: "Since Anton Johnson and his wife Heleena and son Frans Wilhelm have been found to be honorable people, their request for membership has been granted." From that time on Anton Johnson acted in many capacities for the church, but it is as song leader or "lukkari" that he will be remembered. His voice, emanating from the balcony, resounded, filling the 18th Street church. Inspired, the congregation would join in the singing. As late as Jan. 8, 1934, already in his 81st year and a semi-invalid, he was once more elected to the position of "lukkari." Having served the congregation for almost 45 years, Anton Johnson's compelling and melodious voice was stilled here on earth.

Uuras Saarnivaara served during the summer of 1942 as an interim pastor. Pastor F. W. Kaskinen served from 1942 to 1947. Unfortunately the church records for this period are lost. We do know, however, that through his tireless energy many important milestones were reached. At this time a regular 11 o'clock English service was established in addition to the Finnish one. On August 1st, 1943 the name of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church was officially changed to Zion Lutheran Church. Much work was done in preparation for building a new church. On April 28, 1944, the Twelfth and Exchange Street lots were purchased for this purpose. In 1947 construction of the church was begun.

Pastor Melvin Hagelberg served Zion during 1948-1949. He continued the great task of a building project for the church.

In 1949 Zion members again turned to Pastor Kaskinen to come to Astoria. Pastor Kaskinen knew the tremendous task which faced the congregation and its minister during the building program. Nevertheless, he accepted. On July 30, 1950 the cornerstone was laid for the new building. Christmas services were the last that were held in the old church. On New Year's Day 1951 the first worship service was held in an unfinished room of the new church. On June 29, 1951, a formal opening banquet was held in the Banquet Hall. The large altar painting, so familiar to those who had worshipped in the old church, was placed on the east wall of the room. This painting, a copy of the familiar Hoffman painting depicting Christ teaching the multitudes, had been a gift from the Oldenburgs in 1894. Mrs. Oldenburg had "with her own artistic hand" painted the picture, as Pastor Hoikka stated in his yearly report.

In July 1951, the temporary Chapel was dedicated. Finally on June 14, 1953, the new church was dedicated. Years of tremendous work and sacrifice are represented in the church. Architects Wicks and Brown of Astoria drew the plans. Mrs. Brown studied under the famous Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen, and thus it reflects some of his style.

The simple lines of the church, with its beautiful entrance-way, stained glass windows, pews, marble cross, altar and altarware, altar rail, lectern, pulpit, hymn board, baptismal font, and light fixtures are gifts of members and friends of the church. Pastor Kaskinen was the moving force in this great building program and the members displayed the same faith shown by the early founders of the church in Astoria. The church was now complete except for the bricking and erection of the bell-tower.

The 64th annual convention of Suomi Synod was held in Astoria in 1953.

Early in 1954 Pastor Kaskinen received a call from the Messiah congregation of Portland, Oregon, and by June of the same year the church was again without a pastor.

The next eighteen months without a pastor were anxious ones for the congregation. The members felt the barrenness of a church without a pastor. Nevertheless, the work of the church went on under the leadership of the vice-chairman Neil Erickson. Pastors of the Columbia Conference of Suomi Synod willingly took upon themselves the added task of spiritual guidance of the Astoria congregation. Visiting pastors from Suomi Synod, and from Finland, found a receptive congregation. Astoria pastors, especially from the Lutheran churches, offered their services. All the organizations of the church continued their work. The Dinner Committee served lunches and dinners regularly to Astoria service clubs to meet the large monthly payments due on the church obligations. Many donated money and labor. The Sunday School enrollment continued to rise. The prayer life of the congregation became stronger as they prayed for guidance and the promise of a new pastor. Many times they were discouraged, but they would not give up. Despite the debts which were owed by the congregation, they assumed still another obligation: the purchase of an electronic organ. They also made plans and began the building of a modern parsonage.

Pastor Wayne V. Kuusisto, before his year's study in Finland, had indicated a willingness to come to Astoria. The congregation waited and worked. In September of 1955, Pastor Kuusisto and his wife arrived in Astoria. God's guiding hand had again led a pastor to Zion. The church debts did not seem to worry the pastor. That the parsonage was not finished and he and his wife had to live in crowded quarters did not deter him.

This faith in God and an appreciation of his congregation has accomplished much spiritually and materially. Both the pastor and his wife are interested in Luther League work. The young people of the church have had unusual experiences, the outstanding one being their chance to attend the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota last year. Some two hundred new members have been added to the church roster. The new parsonage was dedicated in 1956 by Dr. Raymond Wargelin, President of Suomi Synod. A lot adjacent to the church was bought, a new heat exchanger was installed for the chapel in 1958, and the last payment on the organ has been made. New hymnals were bought for the congregation. The pledge system was put into use for the first time in the fall of 1957. This year the church hopes to build a memorial tower and to finish the exterior of the church.

How appropriate it would be that the tower built in memory of the members past and present, should be built on this, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the church. How appropriate it would be to hear again the bell with its timely inscription: May your voice ring in thanksgiving to the Lord God!

* ( It is interesting to note that the president of Suomi Synod, Dr. Raymond W. Wargelin, is the grandson of Dr. Hoikka).

Published in Rejoice and Give Thanks. 75th Anniversary Zion Lutheran [Diamond Jubilee Publication 1883-1958. Zion Lutheran Church - Astoria, Oregon]. Astoria, Oregon 1958, p. 9-18.

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