15 January 2023

Helsinki Cathedral has become
Finland’s best-known building

Helsinki Cathedral faces onto Senate Square in central Helsinki and is the best-known building in Finland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Helsinki Cathedral faces onto Senate Square in central Helsinki and is probably the best-known building in Finland, featuring prominently on postcards, posters and tourism promotions.

The cathedral, with its impressive domes with its high flights of steps, stands on a prominent hill above the harbour of Helsinki and stands out dramatically in the winter snow.

The cathedral towers above its next-door neighbour, Holy Trinity Church, the oldest Orthodox church in Finland, which I was visiting this week with the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and the Diocese in Europe, to see church responses to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

Both Helsinki Cathedral and Holy Trinity Church were designed by the same architect, and they were built at the same time with similar funding from the czarist state.

This is the cathedral of the Diocese of Helsinki in the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is one of Finland’s two national churches, along with the Orthodox Church of Finland. The Church is in full communion with the Church of England, the Church of Ireland and other member churches of the Anglican Communion through the Porvoo Communion.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland was part of the Church of Sweden until 1809, when the Grand Duchy of Finland was established as a part of the Russian Empire. With about 3.7 million members, it is one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world, and is Finland’s largest religious body: 66.5% of Finns are members of the church. The present head of the Church is Archbishop Tapio Luoma of Turku, who succeeded in 2018.

A statue of Alexander II in front of Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Helsinki Cathedral is a distinctive landmark in the cityscape of the capital, with its tall, green dome surrounded by four smaller domes. Helsinki Cathedral was originally built in 1830-1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. It was also known as Saint Nicholas’s Church until the independence of Finland in 1917.

It was built in the neoclassical style and was designed by the architect Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840), who also designed Holy Trinity Church, the Orthodox church next door. Engel saw the cathedral as the climax of his layout of Senate Square, and it is surrounded by other, smaller buildings also designed by him.

The church plan is a Greek cross, or a square centre and four equilateral arms. It is symmetrical in each of the four cardinal directions, with each arm’s façade featuring a colonnade and pediment. Engel originally intended to place a further row of columns on the west end to mark the main entrance opposite the east-end altar, but this was never built.

After Helsinki became the capital of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812, Alexander I decreed in 1814 that 15 per cent of the salt import tax was to be collected into a fund to build two churches, one Lutheran and one Orthodox.

The cathedral was built on the site of the smaller church, Ulrika Eleonora Church, built in 1724-1727 and dedicated to its patroness, Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden.

Helsinki Old Church was built in nearby Kamppi in 1824-1826 to serve the parish while the Ulrika Eleonora Church was being demolished and until the new cathedral was completed. The bells of the old church were reused in the cathedral.

The construction of the cathedral began in 1830, although it was only officially inaugurated in 1852.

Engel died in 1840, and the building was later altered by his successor, Ernst Lohrmann, whose four small domes emphasise the architectural connection to the cathedral’s models, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg.

A chapel next to Helsinki Cathedral was once used by Saint Nicholas’s Church, the Anglican church in Helsinki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Lohrmann also designed two extra buildings to the sides of the steps: looking from the square the left building is a bell tower and the right building a chapel, which was once used by Saint Nicholas’s Church, the Anglican church in Helsinki.

Lohrmann also erected larger-than-life sized zinc statues of the Twelve Apostles at the apexes and corners of the roofline in 1849. They were sculpted by August Wredov and Hermann Schievelbein and cast by SP Devaranne in Berlin in 1845-1847.

The altarpiece was painted by Carl Timoleon von Neff and donated to the church by Emperor Nicholas I.

The cathedral crypt was renovated in the 1980s by the architects Vilhelm Helander and Juha Leiviskä for use in exhibitions and church functions. Helander was also responsible for conservation repairs on the cathedral in the late 1990s.

Today, the cathedral is one of Helsinki's most popular tourist attractions, and in pre-Covid times it attracted half a million visitors a year. The church is in regular use for services and special events.

Carl Ludvig Engel saw the cathedral as the climax of his layout of Senate Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Praying through poems and
with USPG: 15 January 2023

A stained-glass window depicting the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the Church of Saint John the Baptist, Peterborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Today is the Second Sunday of Epiphany (15 January 2023), and later this morning I hope to be at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford.

The Baptism of Christ is one of the principal themes of the Epiphany, and the theme of the Gospel reading today (John 1: 29-42).

John 1: 29-42 (NRSVA):

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32 And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39 He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

Christ’s Baptism is epiphany – or ‘showing forth’ – par excellence, for here we glimpse the whole Trinity: the Father blesses the Son, and the Spirit descends as a dove. This is not only a revelation about God, but also about us, for our own baptism draws us into the Son, so that the Spirit falls on us, and the Father says of us too ‘this is my beloved child’.

My choice of a seasonal poem this morning is ‘St John Baptist,’ by Thomas Merton (1915-1968).

Thomas Merton was a Trappist or Cistercian monk who was a writer, theologian, mystic, poet, pacifist, and a pioneer in interfaith dialogue. His life story is an ecumenical bridge between Anglicans, Quakers and Roman Catholics, between contemporary Christianity and the Desert Fathers, and between Christians and other religious traditions, particularly Zen Buddhism.

As my faith was developing and maturing, I was strongly influenced by his best-known book, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), and his New Seeds of Contemplation (1962). His spiritual writings continued to influence me when I was on a student fellowship in Japan and when I was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Thomas Merton wrote more than 50 books over a period of 27 years, mostly on spirituality, social justice and pacifism, and many essays and reviews. His most enduring work, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), was listed by National Review in the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century.

The Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist … a fifth century mosaic in the Neonian Baptistry in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

St John Baptist by Thomas Merton


When, for the fifteenth year, Tiberius Caesar
Cursed, with his reign, the Roman world,
Sharing the Near-East with a tribe of tetrarchs,
The Word of God was made in far-off province:
Deliverance from the herd of armored cattle,
When, from the desert, John came down to Jordan.

But his prophetic messages
Were worded in a code the scribes were not prepared to understand.
Where, in their lexicons, was written: “Brood of vipers,”
Applied, that is, to them?

“Who is this Lamb, Whose love
Shall fall upon His people like an army:
Who is this Savior, Whose sandal-latchet
This furious Precursor is afraid to loose?”

His words of mercy and of patience shall be flails
Appointed for the separation of the wheat and chaff.
But who shall fear the violence
And crisis of His threshing-floor
Except the envious and selfish heart?
Choose to be chaff, and fear the Winnower,
For then you never will abide His Baptism of Fire and Spirit.
You proud and strong,
You confident in judgment and in understanding,
You who have weighed and measured every sin
And have so clearly analyzed the prophecies
As to be blinded on the day of their fulfillment:
Your might shall crumble and fall down before Him like a wall,
And all the needy and the poor shall enter in,
Pass through your ruins, and possess your kingdom.

This is the day that you shall hear and hate
The voice of His beloved servant.
This is the day your scrutiny shall fear
A terrible and peaceful angel, dressed in skins,
Knowing it is your greedy eyes, not his, that die of hunger.
For God has known and loved him, from his mother’s womb,
Remembering his name, filling his life with grace,
Teaching him prophecy and wisdom,
To burn before the Face of Christ,
Name Him and vanish, like a proclamation.


Tell us, Prophet, Whom you met upon the far frontier
At the defended bridge, the guarded outpost.

“I passed the guards and sentries,
Their lances did not stay me, or the gates of spikes

Or the abysses of the empty night.
I walked on darkness

To the place of the appointed meeting:
I took my sealed instructions,
But did not wait
For compliment or for congratulation from my hidden Captain.
Even at my return
I passed unseen beside the stern defenders
In their nests of guns,
And while the spies were trying to decode some secret
In my plain, true name.
I left them like the night wind.”

What did you learn on the wild mountain
When hell came dancing on the noon-day rocks?

“I learned my hands could hold
Rivers of water
And spend them like an everlasting treasure.
I learned to see the waking desert
Smiling to behold me with the springs her ransom,
Open her clear eyes in a miracle of transformation,
And the dry wilderness
Suddenly dressed in meadows,
All garlanded with an embroidery of flowering orchards
Sang with a virgin’s voice,
Descending to her wedding in these waters
With the Prince of Life.
All barrenness and death lie drowned
Here in the fountains He has sanctified,
And the deep harps of Jordan
Play to the contrite world as sweet as heaven.”

But did your eyes buy wrath and imprecation
In the red cinemas of the mirage?

“My eyes did not consult the heat of the horizon:
I did not imitate the spurious intrepidity
Of that mad light full of revenge.
God did not hide me in the desert to instruct my soul
In the fascism of as asp or scorpion.
The sun that burned me to an Arab taught me nothing:
My mind is not in my skin.
I went into the desert to receive
The keys of my deliverance
From image and from concept and from desire.
I learned not wrath but love,
Waiting in darkness for the secret stranger
Who, like an inward fire,
Would try me in the crucibles of His unconquerable Law:
His heat, more searching than the breath of the Simoon,
Separates love from hunger
And peace from satiation,
Burning, destroying all the matrices of anger and revenge.
It is because my love, as strong as steel, is armed against all hate
That those who hate their own lives fear me like a sabre.”


St. John, strong Baptist,
Angel before the face of the Messiah
Desert-dweller, knowing the solitudes that lie
Beyond anxiety and doubt,
Eagle whose flight is higher than our atmosphere
Of hesitation and surmise,
You are the first Cistercian and the greatest Trappist:
Never abandon us, your few but faithful children,
For we remember your amazing life,
Where you laid down for us the form and pattern of
Our love for Christ,
Being so close to Him you were His twin.
Oh buy us, by your intercession, in your mighty heaven,
Not your great name, St. John, or ministry,
But oh, your solitude and death:
And most of all, gain us your great command of graces,
Making our poor hands also fountains full of life and wonder
Spending, in endless rivers, to the universe,
Christ, in secret, and His Father, and His sanctifying Spirit.

The Baptism of Christ … a stained glass window in the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar, Co Westmeath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins on Wednesday (18 January), and the theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the ‘Week of Prayer For Christian Unity.’ This theme is introduced this morning with a reflection from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches:

‘Do good; seek justice (Isaiah 1: 17)

‘In the verse from Isaiah chosen for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the prophet teaches that God requires righteousness and justice from all of us, all the time and in all spheres of life. The challenges wrought by division in our world today in many ways mirror the challenges Isaiah confronted in his preaching, when he called his listeners to do good and seek justice.

Justice, righteousness and unity originate from God’s profound love for each of us and are at the heart of who God is and how God expects us to be with one another. God’s commitment to create a new humanity ‘from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ (Revelation 7: 9) calls us to the peace and unity God has always wanted for creation.

Learning to do right requires the decision to engage in self-reflection. The Week of Prayer is the perfect time for Christians to recognize that the divisions between our churches and confessions cannot be separated from the divisions within the wider human family. Praying together for Christian unity allows us to reflect on what unites us and to commit ourselves to confront oppression and the divisions amongst humanity.’

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

God of light and love,
you made us one in Christ Jesus.
Give us vision, courage and joy
as we work to heal divisions
and proclaim the good news.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Thomas Merton, monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, pacifist and pioneer in interfaith dialogue