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Åbo Cathedral


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Finland's first bishop was an Englishman named Saint Henry. It is mistakenly claimed that he baptized Finnish pagans into Christianity. However, the story of Saint Henry's trip to Köyliö is true. On his way home he was followed by a farmer named Lalli who attacked the bishop on the frozen Köyliönjärvi lake with an ax. The bishop was probably killed in 1156. The murderer's farm, which was taken over by the church, served as the Köyliö Bishop's Estate. Henry was succeeded by Bishop Rodolphus, whose term is unknown. His successor, Bishop Folkquinus, remains obscure as well.

It is the strong bishops that stand out, such as Hemming (1338-1366). Maunu (sv. Magnus) II Tavast (1412-1450), Maunu (sv. Magnus) III Särkilahti (1489-1500), Arvid Kurki (1510-1522), Ericus Erici Sorolainen (1583-1625) and his successor Isak Rothovius (1627-1652). Mikael Agricola served a few years as the Bishop of Åbo, although he is better known for his work on the Finnish language and the first Finnish New Testament. The present Lutheran Archbishop Jukka Paarma is the 53rd in succession.

The cathedral was built on its present site, the Unikankare Mound, in June 1300. But the first church and bishop's seat was built in Nousiainen (sv. Nousis), and the first documented bishop of Åbo was Tuomas (Thomas), who served in office from 1225 until 1245. Bishop Tuomas wrote to the pope and asked for a transfer to a better location. On January 23, 1229, Pope Gregory IX sent a bull to the Swedish Bishop of Linköping, the abbot of a Cistercian Monastery in Gotland and the dean of Visby, ordering him to find a better location for the Finnish cathedral. The church was transferred from Nousiainen to Koroinen, the upper reaches of the River Aura where it served until the year 1300.

Work on the new cathedral started at the end of the 13th century and it was consecrated in 1300 at the same location as the present cathedral, although in a more modest form. Each bishop extended the church and it became Finland's only cathedral. It originally was a hall church, becoming a basilica in the mid 15th century.

Åbo consisted mainly of wooden buildings and because the church was partly wooden, numerous fires destroyed the town and the church. The cathedral burned about 20 times. The last fire started on September 4, 1827 and it destroyed more than half of the 1,126 buildings in Åbo as well as the cathedral.

The restoration of the church started immediately. The Senate financed the work and the plans were drawn up by Carl Ludwig Engel. A year after the fire the church had a new copper roof. The tower with its domes was built five years later, and in 1842 the entire church was completed. At the end of the 19th century the restoration work continued and the church received its present form.

At the end of the 15th century, Bishop Konrad Bitz had a circular wall built around the church as a defense against possible attacks by the Russians. But the wall did not prevent the Danish Admiral and robber baron Otte Rud and his troops from making a surprise raid on Åbo. The burned the town and the cathedral, killing the town's most noted men. Among items stolen from the cathedral was a richly decorated silver chalice. It was one of the most valuable objects of the Church in Finland. It was later placed in Ejby church in Denmark. In 1925, the Danes returned it to Åbo Cathedral. Since then it has been known as the Ejby Chalice.

After the Danish bloodshed in Stockholm in 1523, Gustavus Vasa was crowned king. He chased the Danes from the country. Gustavus I readily adopted Lutheranism, as it transferred the power from clergy to the king. Earlier the Åbo bishops had to undertake a difficult consecration journey to the Vatican, while now Gustavus Vasa could consecrate his country's bishops himself. The first bishop of Åbo to be consecrated by a king was Martti Skytte. Gustaf Vasa confiscated the church possessions and took over all the valuables to pay the state debt to Denmark. The Ejby chalice would have ended up in Denmark at that point if it had not been stolen earlier.

As the status of the church sank, Åbo Cathedral deteriorated as well. A couple centuries later, its decay was furthered by the Great Wrath and the Lesser Wrath. In those raids most of the relics of Bishop Henry, the mortal remains of Catholic Finland's only saint, disappeared with Russian raiders. Their whereabouts remain a mystery even today. In the 19th century the church was finally restored. It is a handsome cathedral even when compared to cathedrals abroad.

From The Leading Star, November 2000.

June Pelo

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