Turku, July 18, 2019
Given the late Swedish creation of Helsinki (1550), the presence of the Catholic Church in Helsinki certainly does not have the history that the Catholic faith expressed in Finland’s city of Turku. The beautiful city of Turku with the Aura river flowing through reveals signs of its medieval and Roman Catholic past – and present. Turku, its Finnish name is also known by its Swedish name, Åbo.
Looking at the flag of Turku immediately present is the AM – Ave Maria -- on a blue background with the lily on four sides. The flag dates back to 1309 reflecting the earlier consecration of the cathedral to the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1300. The Cathedral of Medieval Turku was placed under the patronage of the Virgin and St. Henry, patron of Finland. These two elements, flag and Cathedral are indicative of a Roman Catholic town already settled and flourishing in the Middle Ages. The Dominican Order having arrived in Finlandia in 1249 established themselves in their new convent of St. Olaf in Turku close to the newly consecrated Cathedral. Turku was elevated to the status of Archdiocese and recognised as the most important Church in Finland. Blessed Bishop Hemming’s relics were located in the altar of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Bishop Hemming of Turku knew Pope Clement VI and was also friends with St. Bridget of Sweden. The town’s Marian flag, the cathedral under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin and St. Henry, the Archbishop’s cathedral chair, demonstrate Turku’s solid link with the Church of Rome.
King Gustav I of Sweden broke with Rome and established Lutheranism as the state Church of Sweden which included Finland. Under King Gustav, Swedish control of the Lutheran Church extended to Turku. Having banned Catholicism with Catholic properties expropriated by the Swedish State, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Turku was transferred to the Lutheran Church.
There was a moment of hope for the Finns to keep their monasteries and practise their Roman Catholic faith when John III of Sweden governed the Duchy of Finland. Unlike his father, Gustav, who shut down monasteries and prohibited the practise of Catholicism, John, Duke of Finland, sought to a peaceful solution in collaboration with the Roman Catholic Church, its hierarchy and the faithful. His wife Catherine Jagellonica was a devout Polish Catholic. A visit to the Turku Castle shows the “nun’s chapel” on display: a powerful Crucified Christ and Blessed Virgin Mary are included among the objects of devotion of the Catholic Queen.
In 1575 John III expressed his willingness to address the unjust treatment of Catholics especially especially since both monks and nuns were in vulnerable positions without papal intervention. The Duke of Finland permitted the Catholic convents that survived to receive novices in hope of continue the religious monastic tradition of Catholicism.
Fr. David Bellusci, O.P.
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