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For many Finns who came to the Lakehead, emigration in the late 19th and early 20th century was a way of breaking away from the Finnish state church, regardless of the sentiments individuals had towards religion.

Finnish church officials at the time deplored emigration, and, although they were seeking to escape from poor economic conditions and poverty, departing men were often said to have left behind “American widows” and children (even if they were not married or had children). North America was seen as a land of drunkenness and immorality, a reason early immigrants tended to shy away from the official Lutheran Church.

In an effort to meet the secular challenge of working men’s societies, such as the Imatra #9, the church in Finnish regions such as the Lakehead began to explore the social gospel. The Finnish Temperance Movement provided a forum where Christian lay activists were able to make religious thought more socially relevant and find some common ground with others who may have leaned toward socialism and utopianism.

In spite of the early immigrants initial reluctance to participate in organized religion, the first Finnish Lutheran congregation at the Lakehead was formed in 1895, and a building constructed on Wilson Street in 1897. Before 1900, many Finns had turned to St. John’s Anglican Church on Pearl Street when they needed religious services such as baptism, marriages and funerals.

The Fort William Finnish Lutheran Church was formed in 1897 and held services in a variety of locations in the Coal Docks area of that city. A church was built on McLaughlin Street in 1902. In 1910, the first church was sold to make way for the construction of a larger building across the tracks on Ogden-Rowand Streets in order to meet the needs of a growing congregation.

A Laestadian, or Apostolic faction, broke away from the Lutherans in 1899 and formed their own church in Fort William. In 1910, it moved to a new building located at 250 Van Horne Street in Port Arthur reflecting the growing movement of Finns to the other twin city. Until 1947, Fort William, Port Arthur, and the churches found in the many small communities in the immediate district shared a minister.

The text for “Religion” is revised and adapted versions of originals by the Finnish-Canadian Historical Society and used with permission.