Travel blog: Reflections on the religions of Scandinavia and Russia

Guest blogger and dear friend, Susan Fisher, the retired John Carroll English Department Chairperson, enjoyed a wonderful Baltic cruise with her husband Dean four weeks ago. Today she shares her reflections on religion in Scandinavia and Russia.


I had a lot to learn on our spring cruise to the Baltic.  While we went to see a bit of Russia, we looked forward to seeing Scandinavian museums, palaces, and churches—especially Catholic cathedrals. While the latter exist, we were never shown one on any of our guided tours.  We were reminded that after the Protestant Reformation, the practice of Catholicism in Northern Europe dropped dramatically.  In every country we visited we were told that Lutherans were the dominant Christians.  In fact, when the Church of Denmark split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1536, it became illegal to be Catholic for over three centuries.  

The statistics are somewhat unreliable as they are reported by the Eurobarometer poll, rather than a governmental census, for the most part.  What it shows in recent years, for example, is that only 2% of the Swedes are Catholics, while 41% self-identify as Protestant.  43% say they are atheist or agnostic.

In Estonia, on the other hand, scarcely a third of the population are even believers.  The majority are Lutheran, while less than 1% are Catholics.  Still we parted from our tour group and followed our guide’s directions to a Catholic church in Tallinn, Estonia.   Mass was being celebrated, but we only had time to stand in the back for a couple of minutes.  We were drawn to the cool peacefulness of the predominantly white décor.  Compared to the other churches included on our tour, like those in Russia especially, St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral was tastefully simple.  A couple of children were running up and down the center aisle, but no one seemed to mind.    

This Catholic cathedral was built between 1841 and 1844 on the foundation of what had been a medieval Dominican monastery. The neo-classical façade was added in 1924.  Until the 1990’s, it was the only Catholic church in Tallinn.  Presently, English-language Masses take place during the week at 8:00 a.m. and 6 p.m.  Sunday Masses are in Polish and Russian. 


 (St. Petersburg Bureau of Tourism)

In Russia, a recent (2012) survey showed 46% Christians — including Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and non-denominational. Yet only 140,000 Russian citizens claim Catholicism, about 0.1% of the total.  We were taken to the Orthodox Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, a landmark in St. Petersburg.  It is breathtaking and the antithesis of the church in Tallinn.   It was built where Alexander II was murdered in 1881.  Alexander is, of course, famous for having freed the serfs as well as initiating reforms in the military and judicial branches of the Russian government.  The imperial family and thousands of private donors built the church with its amazing mosaics, both inside and out.  Closed numerous times throughout its history, it was closed again in the 1930’s by the Bolsheviks.  Somehow it was only slightly damaged during World War II when the church served as a morgue and later a warehouse.  In 1961 an unexploded Nazi bomb was discovered in the central cupola of the church and successfully extricated. The church re-opened in 1997, now restored to its previous glory.


The walls inside this huge Russian church are covered in what appear to be paintings at a distance, but all are actually incredible mosaics.After visiting St. Petersburg, we journeyed to Helsinki where we had inclement weather.   We learned that once again Catholic parishes are scarce.  78% of the Finns are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, and 1% is Orthodox. These two religions only are given special tax breaks by the government.  A much smaller portion of the population includes communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Evangelical Free Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

We visited a lovely country church, again not Catholic, but very moving in its age and simplicity.  The Church of St. Sigfrid in Sipoo was built in 1450 and is one of the oldest medieval churches in the world.  The beautiful pulpit was donated in the middle of the 17th century.  The idyllic setting makes it popular for summer weddings. 

While we walked into the very small church (it holds 170 according to a plaque on the door, but that would have to be standing shoulder to shoulder), and then out among the gravestones in its cemetery, one of our fellow tourists began playing hymns on the small old organ.   A retired organist, he played three recognizable hymns beautifully.  People stood or sat in silence as he played.   Really, it gave me chills to listen, especially as he played my father’s favorite “How Great Thou Art.” His playing and the cessation of rain changed the day for the better. 

We were gone for two weeks and were exposed to history and cultures that changed how we looked at the world.  St. Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”  I believe we definitely covered a few more chapters. 

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.