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A Sketch of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Conneaut*

The history of Finnish folk in Conneaut, Ohio, stems back to the early 1890’s. Already in October, 1890, a company of sixteen Finns from Ashtabula Harbor came to the city to excavate mains for the waterworks then being constructed on the lake front. Their stay in Conneaut, like that of another labor crew in 1891, was short.

It was the construction of the iron ore unloading docks in late 1892 and 1893 that provided a magnet drawing Finns into the town for permanent settlement. In the autumn of 1892, the Pittsburgh and Conneaut Dock Company officials authorized a William Mäki to procure Finnish laborers for unloading iron ore. Largely as a result of his efforts, there were some twenty men, two wives, and six children in the settlement by the end of April, 1893. A group of thirty-five Finns remained at the harbor through the winter of 1893-94. The demand for workers continued so that by 1895 there were some 150 Finns shoveling the heavy iron ore during the navigation season, most of whom had come from Ashtabula Harbor, a few from Fairport, and others directly from the Old Country. By the close of the decade (1899) the number of foreign-born Finns living in the north end of the city was nearly double the 1895 figure, some 300 in all.

It was not long after the first permanent settlement of Finns in Conneaut that the traditional religious urge prompted the immigrants to establish their familiar spiritual institutions. The influential visits to the community of the able and active Rev. A. Kivioja, who with his wife Liisi had come to Ashtabula Harbor in November, 1891, resulted in the founding of a Lutheran congregation on July 14, 1895. The church records this gathering in these terms: "This meeting had been called together for the purpose of forming a congregation, a matter which has been discussed among our people for some time. It was decided unanimously to establish a congregation here." Fifty-eight Finns, all men, inscribed their names on the church roll, agreeing to pay monthly dues of twenty-five cents; four officials were chosen at the same time, A. Märkälä, I. Lemponen, J. Lemponen, and John Palo. The church was inactive during the fall and winter of 1895-96 inasmuch as most of its members had to leave the community in search of work during the winter months. At a meeting on May 17, 1896, "it was decided to restore the congregation to its former position, which on account of the emigration of members had disappeared from our community." A new set of directors was selected, among them K. Nelson, S. Hakola, A. Märkälä, and K. Tuuri. For three years services were held at the Kilpi Temperance Hall; in October, 1898, the congregation bought a small frame building and moved it to the corner of Broad and Erie streets. Soon, however, this meeting place became too small and was replaced by a more substantial church edifice in 1901. The Conneaut Post Herald in its issue of July, 22, 1901, described the dedicatory services held on the previous Sunday; among the honored visitors were the Rev. J. K. Nikander and Professor John Kiiskala of Hancock, Michigan, and A. Jalkanen, the well-known editor of the Siirtolainen. Earlier a reporter of the local newspaper visited the new building. He was impressed with the beauty of the fixtures: "In the center of the room a large twenty-two light chandelier is hung. It is entirely of highly polished brass and is a beauty - probably the finest thing in the county or this part of Ohio."

On September 1, 1897, the Rev. Kivioja, who had been caring for the immigrant churches in Ashtabula Harbor and Fairport as well as in Conneaut, reluctantly resigned his pastoral work in order to return to his beloved Finland. During the following three years, 1897-1900, the ministry was in the able hands of the Rev. Kaarlo Huotari, formerly pastor of the Ironwood, Michigan, church. In March, 1900, the Conneaut and Fairport congregations united in sending a call to the Rev. K. Salovaara, a gifted preacher then residing in Finland. Upon his arrival in the fall of 1900, the Rev. Salovaara, in addition to his labors in Conneaut (where he brought the church into affiliation with the Suomi Synod in August, 1900) and Fairport, began to sow the seed for the rise of Lutheran congregations in Cleveland, Warren, Girard, and Youngstown. His fruitful work in northern Ohio came to an end in July, 1904, when his parishioners regretfully accepted his resignation.

The two congregations were served from 1904 until August 18, 1905, by the Rev. Hannes Leiviskä, a Church of Finland clergyman who had come to Astoria, Oregon, 1903. His successor was the Rev. Torsten M. Hohenthal who served with genuine ability until December, 1906, when he took up new duties with the New York Seamen's Mission. In 1907 the seven year joint arrangement between the Conneaut and Fairport churches was terminated and for a short time the Finns living in the former settlement as well as those residing in Erie, Pennsylvania, had their own clergyman, the Rev. Rafael Hartman. In 1908, however, the local church joined with the Ashtabula Harbor institution in maintaining a single religious leader; from 1908 to 1917, immigrants in both communities were blessed with effective ministry, first under the Rev. Frans Kava and later under the widely-known Kalle H. Mannerkorpi. Once again in late 1917, the Conneaut Finns ventured to set up their own and separate religious household. The Rev. M. I. Kuusi, ordained in Finland in 1904, was asked to become pastor; accepting the call, the minister’s pastorate lasted two years. He was succeeded by the veteran preacher, Matti Pesonen of Michigan, who filled the pulpit from 1919 to 1924. The next incumbent was the Rev. Urho Valtari, a young cleric trained and ordained in the Old Country, emigrating to America in 1921. Universally recognized for his ability, resoluteness, and frankness, the Rev. Valtari accomplished much during his four-year term of office. In July, 1928, he and his family, like many another clergyman, returned to Finland, land of birth. The Rev. Valtari was followed by the Rev. Anton Korhonen, who came to Conneaut in October, 1928. During his long ministry extending over a decade and a half, many immigrant Finns found comfort and solace in his message of the gospel.

The present spiritual shepherd of the congregation is the Rev. Sakari Halkola, who assumed the position in June, 1944, following able service of 20 years in three pastorates in Suomi Synod and over two years in Canada with the United Lutheran Church. To him as to ministers serving immigrant churches everywhere in the New World has fallen an important, if difficult, task: the adjusting of an institution immigrant in origin and immigrant-centered to the religious needs of youth whose heritage is largely Finnish but whose citizenship, ideals, and culture are typically American. In Conneaut, as elsewhere, the first steps in uniting fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, in a common religious experience were taken many years ago. Yet during the brief pastorate of the incumbent, as a result of the effective leadership of pastor and wife, the process of building a common church home for immigrant and native-born offspring has been accelerated.

Thus, as the old pioneering immigrants pass to the Great Beyond, leaders are being prepared to carry on the work of Lutheranism in America. New figures take the place of the old generation: new pastors, new parishioners, new modes of religious expression. But the work of the church established by the immigrant forbears goes on - into eternity.

* This sketch has been adapted from several of Professor J. I. Kolehmainen's writings, among them: "A History of the Finns in the Western Reserve" (doctoral thesis, Western Reserve University, 193'7); "Founding of the Finnish Settlements in Ohio", Ohio Arch. & Historical Quarterly (1940); "Finnish Lutherans in Ohio", Lutheran Church Quarterly (1938). Finnish readers are referred to K. H. Mannerkorpi, "Conneautin suom. ev.-luth. seurakunnan historia 20 vuotisajalta, 1895-1915", Paimen Sanomia (1915); and Matti Pesonen, "Kertomus Conneautin ev. luth. seurakunnan kirkosta", Kirkollinen Kalenteri (1922).

Published in Finnish Lutheran Church of Conneaut. Fiftieth Jubilee Festival July 8th to 15th 1945. Conneautin suom. ev. luterilaisen seurakunnan viisikymmenvuotis-riemujuhla heinäkuun 8 p.--15 p. 1945, p. 17-19.

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