Orthodox Christianity reached eastern Finland from Novgorod, Russia in the 12th century. Initially, small monasteries served as centers of the faith, although at the beginning of the second millennium the Valaam Monastery was founded on Lake Ladoga. Other important centers, including the Konevets and Pechenga monasteries on the shore of the Barents Sea, were established in the 14th and 16th centuries respectively.
At the beginning of the 16th century, western Karelia came under Swedish rule. While part of the population fled to central Russia, others remained in Karelia, embracing Lutheranism. After the conquest of the Lake Ladoga region by Peter the Great in the early 18th century, a new era began in the history of Orthodoxy in Karelia, and the Valaam, Konevets and Pechenga monasteries were revived. At the beginning of the 19th century, as a result of the Russian-Swedish war, the two nations signed the Finnish Treaty of Hamina, in which the former Swedish lands in Finland were ceded to the Russian Empire. As a result of these changes, Finland’s Orthodox Christian population increased tenfold. Eventually, in 1892, the Diocese of Vyborg and Finland, which ministered to Orthodox Karelians, Russians, Finns and Lapps, was established.
As a result of the 1917 Russian revolution, Finland became an independent nation, and the Orthodox Church was designated a state Church, along with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. In 1921, His Holiness, Saint Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow granted autonomy to the Church in Finland. In view of the prevailing chaos in the Russian Orthodox Church after the Revolution and extreme difficulty in maintaining ties with Moscow, the Finnish Orthodox Church asked to be received into the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. In accordance with the Tomos dated July 6, 1923, the Finnish Church was accepted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as an autonomous archdiocese.
Before World War II, the Church was most active in Karelia, where the majority of the parishes of the Finnish Church were found. But after the war, Karelian evacuees who resettled across Finland planted new parishes. Two dioceses covering the entire Finnish nation were established. In 1979, a Vicariate was opened in Joensuu. In the same year, it was designated as the headquarters of the Archdiocese, becoming fully operational in 1980.
The training of Orthodox Christian clergy, choir directors and catechists is conducted at the Orthodox Theological Faculty of the University of Joensuu. The well known Valaam Lay Academy offers over 100 courses each year on a wide variety of subjects, including liturgical arts. Numerous educational programs, outreach ministries, catechetical courses and related activities also are organized by individual parishes, and Orthodox religious education classes are available in primary and high schools.
Among the Finnish Church’s numerous organizations are the Fellowship of Saints Sergius and Herman of Valaam, the Union of Orthodox Youth, the Union of Orthodox students, the Union of Orthodox Teachers, the Diakonia Centre, an organization for iconographers, and others.
The current Primate of the Finnish Church, His Eminence, Archbishop Leo, was consecrated to the episcopacy in 1979. He was elected Archbishop of Karelia and All Finland on October 25, 2001. He maintains his residence in Kuopio.
Regarding historical relations between the OCA and the Church of Finland, Alexis Liberovsky, OCA Archivist, relates that from the 1950s through the mid-1980s many Finns, including women, studied at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, Yonkers, NY. Some of these graduates went on to become prominent clergy of the Church of Finland. The first major official interaction of the Finnish Church with the OCA—then known as the “Metropolia”—occurred in 1967, when in response to Metropolitan Ireney’s December 1966 letter concerning Orthodoxy in America, addressed to all Orthodox Primates worldwide, Archbishop Paul of Finland offered a very supportive response in which he advocated the establishment of an administratively united, autocephalous, multiethnic and even multiracial Church in the New World. According to Archbishop Paul, this should be achieved on the basis of dialogue and collaboration with the Churches of the Old World and would be mutually beneficial for all Orthodox Churches. In 1970, Archbishop Paul was one of the first Orthodox Primates to recognize the OCA’s autocephaly. Due to the historical connection to Alaska of the Valaam Monastery and the existence of the New Valaam Monastery in Finland, Archbishop Paul was invited to participate in the canonization of Saint Herman of Alaska in August 1970. He visited the US again in 1980 for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of OCA’s autocephaly. During Archbishop Paul’s tenure, OCA-Finland relations were warm, with constant interaction and visits at various levels. Contacts between the OCA and the Finnish Church were less regular during the tenure of Archbishop Paul’s successor, Archbishop John, although throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, OCA delegations and groups traveling to and from Russia often stopped in Helsinki and maintained contact with then-Metropolitan Leo of Helsinki, the long-time dean of Helsinki’s Dormition Cathedral—a graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary—and others. Archbishop Leo has visited the US at the invitation of the OCA numerous times, before and after becoming Primate. Several years ago, he also accompanied His All-Holiness, Patriarch Bartholomew on his official visit to the US. In the 1990s, the Finnish Church and the OCA—both of which were especially involved in Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth—found common cause in working and developing together youth leadership training programs, camps and other youth ministries in Finland, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Belarus, and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe.