News Report by Elaine Lillback
In introducing our guest speaker, Pastor Hannu Vepsalainen of Fairport's Zion Lutheran Church at the Finnish Heritage Museum meeting, Linda McAdam's thumbnail review of his colorful life in Canada's cities, rural areas, mining centers and churches among the Canadian Finns set the stage for an awe inspiring program of our northern neighbors.
Political pressures had forced Hannu's father to leave Finland in 1958 after the war years. Being a self-employed small business manufacturer of radiators and coolers for the government, it was impossible to pay the post-war tax burdens placed on small businesses, forcing small businesses to leave the country.
As a nine year old, Hannu's life began to expand, beginning with their entrance into Montreal. The family lived in NDG on the West side of Mt. Royal, a middle class neighborhood, wearing their best Finnish clothing, only to be frowned upon by other Finns, who had entered Canada because of poverty in Finland. The local's philosophy was that if you dressed poorly, you would get gifts from the rich. Not caring for this philosophy, his Hannu's father took on work, whatever was available, as the Finnish saying, "A Finn does whatever they have to do; others do what they know how to do." As a child Hannu sang a solo in the Massey Hall in Toronto during a Grand Festival.
So began the westward journey out of Quebec into Toronto, Ontario from where the family moved back to Finland in 1964. They had visited Sudbury,a nickel mining city where the pollution from the smelter had all but killed the vegetation around the city back then. Now on his second trip to Canada in 1973, Hannu lived in Toronto and joined the "Busy Beavers" of Agricola Lutheran Church building homes and cottages to support the church ministry. Later moving to Timmins for his first pastoral charge, he experienced the land of the Timmin's Gold Mines, The children were able to scoop up a few gold nuggets when a road was being excavated.
Moving on through to ThunderBay, the family met many Finns in various churches, and Hannu began to realize that life without a spiritual experience was meaningless and boring. Carpentering was very important as the Finnish men joined often in this profession making a living in a new land and for a while so did he. Hannu's molding for the pastorate had begun with his childhood experiencies.
As they moved ever westward they came to the Thunder Bay area, where there were many Finns in what was called Port Arthur and Fort William for many years. There were Finnish banks, restaurants, hotels, stores, churches; Finns didn't even need to learn to speak English. Thunder Bay was the biggest inland grain shipping port in in the world; there were the granaries that held the wheat and oats of Canada's praries.
An interesting story of the community of Sointula on Vancouver Island was presented. It was a Communist community, founded to be a utopia for the Finns. One man was sent to shop for groceries and necessities. He took the monies and went to the city to shop. He returned, with no food, but with a piano. Thus it wasn't all merriment in utopia's name. It soured. However, the name Sointula means harmony, still remains, but the utopianists are long gone.
As the years rolled on with the wheels of their vehicles, Hannu found himself later in life, sitting in the seats of learning in a Lutheran seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. There in New Finland he visited the community of St. John's Lutheran Church which had been founded in 1893, celebrating with them their centennial milestone.
Pastor Hannu has served Zion in Fairport for fourteen years, and the church continues to grow. It was founded during those early Finn Hollow days of 1886-1892.
Refreshments were served by hosts and hostesses Eric Jylanki, Bob and Janet Noponen, and Lasse and Jovette Hiltunen.© Text by Elaine Lillback, © Photo by Lasse Hiltunen