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The 75-Year-Old Gloria Dei Church and Its Predecessor 1891-1966

G. Sjöblom

Many of the present-day worshipers and visitors who come to the Gloria Dei Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brooklyn may not know of the origins of the predecessor of this church and its congregation, which was known up to May 4, 1958, as the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, the 75th anniversary of which we are celebrating this fall of 1966. Therefore, it may be of interest to our readers as well to possible future chroniclers to relate briefly the highlights of its history.


In about 1860 and the following decades began the second influx of immigration from Finland to America, which reached its peak at the opening of the 20th century. (The first Finnish settlers came to the Delaware Valley in 1638 and the following years.) Most of the arrivals from Finland at that time found work in the copper mines of Upper Michigan or settled as woodsmen or farmers in Michigan, Minnesota and other Mid-Western states. Also (and this is of greater concern to us in our present story), some Finnish seamen left their ships and settled in South Brooklyn, brought their families here and encouraged their friends in Finland to join them. The reasons for Finnish immigration to America - meager living conditions, lack of opportunity, hope of a better life, etc. - are a vast sociological and economic subject in themselves and do not belong in this reminiscence.

Religious Organizations

The newcomers came easily to grief and lost themselves in the strange new land. Rejected, penniless, and unable to speak English, they met many pitfalls, the deepest of which was drunkenness and the ensuing demoralization. There were, however, many among them who became disturbed by saloon life, the intemperance and the absence of respect for the Divine. They began to organize along religious lines. In the early 1870's, the Finnish sect of Laestadians in Minnesota started to hold meetings, and already in 1867 the Laestadians of Hancock, Mich., joined other Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian Lutherans in forming a congregation. Largely under the capable leadership of Dr. J. K. Nikander, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Synod was formed in 1890. Finnish ccngregations throughout Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other States became members of the Suomi Synod.

Early Efforts in Brooklyn

Religious work among the Finnish people in Brooklyn began in 1887, when Pastor Emil Panelius came from Finland as a seamen's pastor and started to conduct services at the Greenwood Hall, corner of Third avenue and 22nd Street. Pastor Panelius' successor was Pastor Juho Korhonen, who came here in 1892 and continued to hold services in the same hall.

The church was incorporated on June 10, 1891, under the name of "The Finns Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Brooklyn." The first church council consisted of Anders Översti, John Aho, Karl Gröngvist, John Arola, Victor Heini, Herman Broenda, J. O. Hietikko and John G. Lehtinen.

Temporarily Closed

The high hopes of this newly-formed congregation received a set-back in 1893 when Pastor Korhonen returned to Finland and the renting of Greenwood Hall was terminated in 1894. By 1896 all activity of the congregation had ceased to the point that the church was declared "closed until further notice."


On May 23, 1897, two men from Finland, Akseli Järnefelt-Rauanheimo (who many years later became Finland's Consul General in Montreal, Canada) and Antero Riippa, editor of the Finnish-language newspaper "Siirtolainen", called a meeting of the people interested in the revival of the church work. As a result, ten former members and 22 new ones joined in the effort. Pledges in the amount of $595 were taken for the purchase of a building for the congregation. Such a building was found on 23rd street, near Fourth avenue. The price was $3,000. In a meeting held on June 13, 1897, the congregation voted to purchase the building. Loans from members and a $1,500 mortgage were arranged and the congregation began to function under the name of The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brooklyn.

But the church was without a pastor! The laymen of the church elected from their number nine deacons to conduct services and established three Sunday School classes. These pioneer deacons were Matti Saarinen, John Lehtinen, S. Pihl, H. Joutsen, Hanna Järnefelt, Ida Heini, C. Liljander and Victor Grant. Meanwhile the newly-bought church building was renovated. Gas lights replaced the oil lamps. John Lehtinen constructed the pulpit and Joseph Östman painted an altar painting; subject: the Ascension of Christ. After many efforts and much correspondence in 1899, Pastor Albin Hukkanen, who had served the Seamen's Mission of New York, accepted the call to serve the Brooklyn Church at a salary of $90 a month. So the regular worship services, the Sunday School, midweek services and youth work were begun.

Joined Suomi Synod

Pastor Hukkanen went to Finland in 1901 and did not return. Then the Brooklyn congregation decided to join the Suomi Synod at the annual meeting on Jan. 12, 1902, and by this move obtained the services of Pastor Mikko Havukainen, who came to Brooklyn from Eveleth, Minn., on Jan. 27, 1902. Unfortunately he was allowed to serve only three months. He died on March 16. In December, 1902, Pastor Evert Blomberg arrived from Finland and became the pastor of the Brooklyn church. He returned to Finland in 1905. In the interim while waiting for a regular pastor, the Pastors Hugo Winter and Nimrod Johnson served. In 1906, Pastor Salomon Ilmonen, who later gained recognition as the first historian of Finns in America, came to Brooklyn and served until 1907. (Pastor Ilmonen served our church the second time from 1916 to 1922.)

New Church On 44th Street

Pastor Alvar Rautalahti came from Finland in 1908 and was our pastor until 1911. (He served us for the second time in 1922-1925.) Dr. Rautalahti (he obtained his doctorate from Carthage College, Ill.) died in Waukegan, Ill., on March 27 of this year. Soon after Pastor Rautalahti's arrival in Brooklyn, the desire for a new church building grew. The congregation decided to sell the "Little Church" for $4,000. In March of 1908 it was learned that two lots on 44th street between 7th and 8th avenues could be bought for $2,000. The lots were bought and plans for a new church were approved on June 26, 1908. Construction began a month later. On Sept. 13, the cornerstone containing documents of the congregation's history, a hymnal, a Bible, etc., was laid by Pastor Rautalahti. The new church was opened for worship on Feb. 15, 1909, and the dedicatory services were held on Aug. 29.

In 1911, Pastor Rautalahti resigned. Pastors Eliel Sjöblom and Kalle Mäkinen, who were with the Seamen's Mission, intermittently conducted services. It wasn't until 1914 that we got a regular pastor again. Pastor Niilo Korhonen served us until 1916 when he went to China as a missionary. Then Pastor Salomon Ilmonen came here for the second time and served until 1922.


A parsonage apartment was purchased from ra Finnish co-operative house, 4404 Sixth avenue, and was occupied by the Rautalahti family. Pastor R. served us for the second time from 1922 till 1925. After his departure, Pastor Matti Kortesmäki served until 1934. In February of 1928 a pipe organ was bought and installed in the church, largely through the enthusiastic efforts of the organist, Jallu Honkonen, who then was the editor of the New Yorkin Uutiset.

When Pastor Kortesmäki resigned in 1934, Pastor Eero Vartiainen of New York, and seminarian Lauri Anderson served the congregation. In the fall of 1935, Pastor Yrjö Joki of Ashtabula, Ohio, accepted our call. He served us eleven years until 1947. A Girls' Group was organized under the leadership of Mrs. Joki and Miss Nancy Linden.

When Pastor Joki announced his impending resignation, a call was sent to Pastor (later Doctor) Bernhard Hillilä of Fairport, Ohio. He and his family arrived in Brooklyn in September of 1946. In many respects the work of Pastor Hillilä, even though it lasted less than three years, was of significant importance to our church. Until his time, the work had been carried on almost exclusively in Finnish. Pastor Hillilä immediately organized two worship services each Sunday, one in Finnish, the other in English. An English-language choir was formed to enrich services and to supplement the Finnish choir's work. A Brotherhood was organized as well as the Lutheran Women's Guild. The Sunday School grew in numbers. The church records were brought up to date. A new grasp on Christian stewardship was taken by members and friends of the church.

Damaged By Fire

A tragic blow was suffered on March 26, 1947, when the front of our church burned down. The damages were estimated at $21,000. But the members were undaunted in their resolution to go ahead. Perhaps never before in the history of the Brooklyn church had people so sincerely and freely offered time, talent and money to help rebuild the church Rebuilding began immediately despite the chilly season. All worship services continued in the church even in the coldest Sunday in March. The church with its modern facade was soon completed according to plans drawn by the architects Katz, Waisman (Väisänen) & Co.

New Parsonage

In the summer of 1948 Dr. Hillilä left the Brooklyn church to become the president of Suomi College in Hancock, Mich. His successor was Pastor David J. Halttunen (who later changed his name to Hartman). He took up the pastorship on Aug. 1, 1948. He and his wife performed very noteworthy work in our church. Among those achievements was the building of the new Parsonage adjacent to the church. The building was dedicated on May 6, 1951. Much of the work in its building was performed without compensation (which was offered but refused by the self-sacrificing volunteers.) Mr. Kalle Lindqvist and Mr. Hjalmar Koivu deserve special mention.

Dr. Bernhard Hillilä returned to our church in 1952 and served most efficiently until 1957. After his departure, and rafter several meetings of the congregation, a call was sent to Pastor Matt Sallmen who accepted and delivered his first sermon here on Feb. 2, 1958. He, too, continued bilingual services, as had Dr. Hillilä and Pastor Halttunen.

During Pastor Sallmen's time the Church Council presented a proposition to the congregation meeting that the name of our church should be changed, because "the name Finnish Lutheran Church has been found to give hesitation to some prospective members who would otherwise desire to join our church. Some of them think that our church is exclusively or preponderantly Finnish in language and operation, whereas some other name, Biblical or more universal, might obviate such misconception and we could gain new members from among the English-speaking people of our vicinity."

Change Of Name

After much discussion and many dissenting opinions, a vote was taken, and the choice, at the suggestion of Mrs. Sallmen, was Gloria Dei Evangelical Lutheran Church. It was pointed out that Gloria Dei would have historical connotation to Finns for the reason that a church of that name was built in Philadelphia by Finns and Swedes in the year 1700. So the majority of the congregation members present at the meeting voted in favor of Gloria Dei hoping that such a Latin name would not hinder anyone from joining our church.

The Work Goes On

Pastor Sallmen presented his resignation on July 28, 1960, having accepted a call from a church in Ely, Minn. On Nov. 13, 1960, a call was sent to Pastor Karlo Keljo, who was teaching in Maywood (Ill.) Lutheran Seminary. Pastor Keljo accepted and a reception to him and his family was held in January, 1961. After an efficient administration, Pastor Keljo resigned in the spring of 1964; he aimed to continue his studies in Princeton University.

In a special meeting of the congregation held on May 28, 1964, a call was sent to Pastor Wilbert Tormala of Quincy, Mass. We were delighted to receive his acceptance. He conducted the first half of the annual meeting of the congregation on Dec. 13, 1964, and has thereafter performed admirably as the leader of our church. During his present leadership our church accepted a new constitution in order to conform to the Constitution of the Lutheran Church in America, which country-wide organization our church had joined in 1961.

The various organizations in our church have continued to function under Pastor Tormala's guidance: the Sunday School, the Lutheran League, the Senior and Junior Choirs (English), the Finnish Women's Choir, the Boy Scouts, the Church Council, the Deaconesses, the Ladies' Aid etc. Some of the pictures of these organizations may be seen in this pamphlet.

Source material: 50th Anniversary Year Book; 60th Anniversary Year Book; Minutes of the congregational meetings.

Published in 75 Years. Gloria Dei Church. Brooklyn. N. Y. 1891-1966, p. 2-9.

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