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The First Finnish Methodist Congregation in United States

Elin J. Pitkanen

It was in the area of what is now known as New York Mills in the year 1864, that the first group of Finnish people settled as a community in the state of Minnesota.

In the following years, the growth of the original settlement increased to such an extent that many moved to the Iron Range. Others established large farming communities.

During the founding process and subsequent growth, the Finnish settlers had very little of religious teaching and training. Lacking trained spiritual leaders they endeavored to get along as well as could be expected with an occasional itinerant preacher who passed through on his circuit of travel. Services of worship were very slow in beginning until the arrival of a young sailor by the name of John H. Michaelson.

Before his arrival in the community, he had been converted in the Methodist faith in the year 1887. In the following year he joined the church and later was chosen as a local preacher. He spent two years doing missionary work among the Finnish people, traveling here and there teaching the gospel. But due to the necessities of making a livelihood (considering the remunerations received from his work) he was forced to leave his mission work and become a farmer seven miles out of Moose Lake, a community known as Split Rock Township, Carlton County. But the lure of the Lord's work was so strong within him that during his spare time he gathered together a group of people for services of worship. This group arranged regular meeting places for services, which resulted, in the year 1891, in forming a Methodist congregation. On the northwest side of Michaelson's farm, a land company donated five acres of land on which to found a church and cemetery. The following year, 1892, the congregation built a log cabin chapel from the timber cleared from the land. On Midsummer Day, 1892, the chapel was dedicated to the worship of the Lord. The cost of building the chapel amounted to the sum of $750.

In the year 1900 Rev. Gust Hiden, the first full-fledged Finnish Methodist minister from Finland, located in Moose Lake. Rev. Gust Hiden began to conduct services for the Methodist congregation at Split Rock Township which had waited for the past 14 years (according to some of the members) for a regular Finnish Methodist minister. In 1902 Rev. Hjalmar Salmi arrived from Finland to locate in Hibbing. But after a few years moved to Duluth from where he journeyed back and forth to Moose Lake and Split Rock Township to conduct services.

By this time, the log cabin chapel had become somewhat deteriorated and weather beaten. So Hjalmar Salmi drew up plans for the rebuilding of the chapel with a stone foundation and bell tower. The building was reconstructed inside, as well as outside, presenting a deeper impression upon the community. The congregation decided to hold a rededication service and name the church. So on January 3, 1904, the new church was dedicated as the "First Finnish Methodist Church, Salem." The contributions and collections of the community furnished the necessary amount to rebuild the church which had come to cost $1,000. At that time, the membership of the church totaled nine members. The dedication service was conducted by the District Superintendent of Duluth, E. C. Clemons, with Rev. Hjalmar Salmi and John H. Michaelson assisting.

In the later years, a school was built on the church property in which church and Sunday school services were held which in due time caused the church to be used less and less. Rev. Matt Pitkanen in 1910 conducted services there in the schoolhouse.

In the great fire of 1918, the church and surrounding property was completely burned. Mrs. J. H. Michaelson lost her life in the fire and was buried beside her husband.

After the fire period the "Salem" congregation proposed that with the fire insurance money they should buy the new school which had been erected on the church property or build a church in Kettle River Village for both the Finnish and English Methodist work, as there was no sort of church in Kettle River. But nothing ever came out of this proposal as probably the money was thought to be of more use in needed and other important matters.

In 1933, the Catholics bought the schoolhouse that was built on the church property as it had been in disuse for several years. The "Salem" congregation donated the land on which the school was built, to the Catholic church.

Several times I have held services at Moose Lake farm country and at Split Rock Township at the home of the only existing member of the original "Salem" congregation living in Minnesota - August Kauhanen and family from whom I have received much of the information regarding the "Salem" church.

On the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota

The Finnish Mission work of the Methodist Church started in the beginning of this century when Rev. Hjalmar Salmi, who had in 1903 arrived in Duluth, Minnesota, from Calumet, Michigan, made trips to the villages on the Iron Range. The First Quarterly Conference was held in Duluth, November 24, 1904, fourteen members having joined the congregation. Rev. Hjalmar Salmi returned to Finland, 1906.

Meanwhile Rev. Matti Lehtonen had arived in 1904 to this Iron Range, traveling around to the villages and the farms, holding services. In Nashwauk a congregation was organized August 28, 1905, twenty-two members joining. In Sparta a congregation was organized May 15, 1906, twenty-one members joining. After Rev. Hjalmar Salmi had returned to Finland, Rev. Matti Lehtonen continued the Mission work, started in Duluth, Minnesota. In the beginning of 1909 Rev. Jalmar Ketonen had arrived from Finland to Chisholm, Minnesota. He gathered the Finnish people and held services in the homes and in the English Methodist Church. The Finnish congregation was organized July 29, 1909, at a meeting where Rev. Mr. Ketonen was Chairman.

Rev. Jalmar Ketonen served here until 1912, when he moved to New York. He was followed by Rev. Matti Lehtonen, who moved to Chisholm from Duluth, Minnesota. He served in the Mission work faithfully, until his death March 31, 1937.

Also in the village of Aurora mission work was started in 1906. In the fall of 1910 Rev. Matt Pitkanen arrived from Finland and he assisted Rev. Lahtonen with the Mission work while Rev. Lehtonen attended the Hamline University. In the summer of 1912 Rev. Pitkanen was called to take charge of the Mission work in Laurium, Michigan. Also a Deaconess, Miss Alfina Thomson from the Duluth Deaconess home, made missionary trips to Aurora and vicinity. A church was built there and it was dedicated in May, 1915. The church still stands there, but for a few years there has not been any regular work. The work at Sparta did not continue very long, as the Finnish people at that time were constantly moving, looking for better working opportunities. The Mission field has been large, but the workers have been too few.

In Nashwauk, there was a Finnish meeting place, a hall, it sold later and the money was given to the English Methodist Church, when that church was erected, with the promise that the Finnish Methodists could use it, when they needed it. The Finnish members have mostly been transferred to the English Church.

After the death of Rev. Matti Lehtonen, Rev. Mrs. Elin J. Pitkanen took charge September, 1937, as Pastor of the Mesaba Iron Range Finnish Methodist work. She also traveled around the Range, holding services, but centering her work mostly in Chisholm. Here the church was in need of repair. After extensive remodeling, the Church was rededicated for use August 27, 1939. And since then, it has been made more and more practical and the church work has been carried on regularly.

Now as age has crept on her shoulders, Mrs. Pitkanen, now 70, desires to retire from active service. The Minnesota Conference at its session in St. Paul in June 1949, appointed as her successor to the Mesaba Iron Range, Rev. Peter Talikka from Helsinki, Finland. He arrived from Finland to take charge on November 18, 1949.

During the years there have been many different kinds of Church activities, as Sunday School, Vacation School, Confirmation School, Choir, Guitar ensemble, and our W.S.C.S. is still very active and of great importance in the Church work. The membership in the Chisholm Finnish Church is now 54 active members-4 preparatory members, and a number of inactives who have moved away.

Many of our older members have been transferred to their eternal rest and the young people who have moved away, have joined the English Methodist Church. We know that as immigration is now at nearly a stand still, there are not many Finnish people arriving here any more, but those that are here, even on this Range, still need the Finnish Methodist Church.

Page 131-134 in: Our Fathers Built: A Century of Minnesota Methodism, prepared by The Historical Society of the Minnesota Methodist Conference, Charles Nelson Page, Conference Historian and Editor, 1950.

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