St Luke’s Methodist Church in the city of Tartu is one of many congregations of the Estonian Methodist Church.
The roots of the Methodist Church trace back to the 18th century Church of England where a priest called John Wesley felt a calling to revive his then stagnate Church. Methodism became a vibrant revival movement within the Church of England. John Wesley never intended to establish any “new church” - yet in America the gaining of independence of the colonies severed the North American Methodists from their former homeland and their mother-church. In 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church was established in Baltimore, Maryland.
The fruit of the missionary activity of this American branch of Methodism (the Methodist Episcopal Church South, to be precise) is among others the Estonian Methodist (Episcopal) Church. The year 1907 is considered to be the beginning of the Methodist mission in Estonia.
The following is a brief overview of the history of the Tartu St Luke’s Methodist Church.
During this summer the Annual Conference of the Baltic and Slavic mission is held in Kaunas, Lithuania. A young pastor Johannes Karlson requests to be appointed to Tartu where there is no Methodist church at that time.
Johannes Karlson begins evangelistic work at the Police Square (today the green area in front of the Estonian Ministry of Education on Munga Street).
In the morning of the 28th of October it is resolved that a local church will be planted. At first it consisted of only three members: the pastor, his wife Alide-Marie and his mother-in-law, Julie-Helene Aruväli.
On the same day Karlson succeeds in renting the former print shop for the national daily, Postimees, in 7 Gildi Street and at 10 o’clock the temporary prayer hall is dedicated.
There are 31 full and 31 preparatory church members, 195 Sunday School children and 37 young people in the youth league. By this time the church already takes pride in its own mixed choir and string orchestra.
The prayer hall becomes too tight and the church rents new facilities in 21 Karlova Street, a former school building. Renovation and rent threaten to put great strain on the church’s resources. First thoughts about their own church building start to emerge. As the church is still young and small very few believe it possible for these thoughts to come true.
At the Annual Conference in Riga, Latvia, in summer 1926 Johannes Karlson requests a one-year leave of absence in order to begin studies in a university in the USA. The work-load has been heavy, and the additional economic problems have added to the burden.
Johannes Karlson is granted a leave of absence. Now there is the question of a new appointee. Karlson asks the Superintendent to replace him in Tartu with the young and talented pastor Aleksander Kuum who until then has served his year of probation in Tapa church in east Estonia.
Immediately after the Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Riga there is a worldwide temperance conference in Tartu, also attended by then Bishop of the Baltic and Slavic Episcopal Area, Dr John L Nuelsen and Superintendent Dr George A Simons.
Suddenly Karlson announces that there is a suitable building for the church in Tartu. This building is a residential villa in the centre of Tartu, in Vallikraavi Street, belonging to Dr Zoege von Manteuffel (surname curiously meaning ‘male devil’ in German), a professor of medicine at the University of Tartu. (By the way, Prof Manteuffel is known in world medical science as being the first to implement rubber gloves in surgery.) The Bishop, Superintendent, pastor Kuum, and after that a delegation from the church visit the building and are very much satisfied with it. Yet the purchase of the building seems extremely utopian, since the church has not a penny whereas the price of the building is 55,000 kroons (which was very much money in the 1930s).
Nevertheless the deal is made the same night. Superintendent Simons initiates the first offering toward the purchase of the building which is then given as a down payment.
The remaining months are spent feverishly raising funds. Dr Simons has sure hope that he is able to borrow the necessary money from the Board of Missions of the MEC in the USA. Refusal after refusal return as answers to his pleas; finally even the flow of refusals ceases.
All deadlines pass. The church may use the building just because there is as yet no new buyer. Every month the church has to pay 450 kroons as interest on the debt. The situation is extremely delicate - in the meantime the building has been dedicated as a church.
Nerve-racking, strenuous, and faith-trying year - there is real danger to lose their church building. Nevertheless many people join the church. The youth league and children’s Sunday School, choirs and string orchestra are active.
Before Christmas a representative of the Board of Missions, Dr Otto Liebner, arrives in Tartu and his heart is moved by the situation here. He finds that the building is necessary for the church and decides to assign a substantial amount of money for this purpose. A large donation from an American Methodist, William Halls, Jr, is added, finally brings a positive conclusion to the problem of the building.
Later on Johannes Karlson calls the property “the Methodist paradise” and this name sticks to it for all the following years.
In the new and spacious facilities the church quickly grows into one of the largest among the churches in Tartu. In 1931 there are about 200 members plus hundreds of so-called “friends of the church”.
The large rooms allow hosting of two significant events in the Methodist Church: the 1928 Annual Conference under the presidency of Bishop Raymond J Wade and in spring 1931 the District Conference presided by Superintendent Martin Prikask.
The first Sunday in May every year an open-air temperance meeting is held in co-operation with the Christian Temperance Society, attended by about 3,000 people. Together with the local church leaders other well-known people associated with the temperance movement participate in these meetings - Prof Peeter Põld, Ass. Prof Villem Ernits, the Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church Prof Hugo B Rahamägi among others.
Thoughts about building a new church start appearing. Architect Engelhardt Corjus draws the sketch. Unfortunately, the congregation is not able to build - in 1940 the Soviet Union occupies Estonia, and when as the dust from the Second World War settles, Soviet forces succeed in re-imposing communist rule on Estonia.
Common Help and care for the poor
One of the hallmarks of the Methodists throughout their history has been strong social awareness and care for the less fortunate.
On the 6th of January 1930 Common Help is established - this is a nationally well-known effort of the local Methodist church to first and foremost alleviate the situation of the poor and to fight begging in public places of Tartu. This organization receives very positive feedback in the city. The most generous supporters of the Common Help are the business people of Tartu who get rid of beggars in their shops by donating to the Common Help.
During the first year of operation about 53,000 free meals are distributed. The amount raised for that end exceeds 8,000 kroons (note the price of the church building mentioned above!).
Daughter-churches and missions are established in Elva, Rõngu and Aidu (Tartu circuit). Mission trips are taken to Lake Peipsi and Lake Võrtsjärv, to Otepää, Põltsamaa, and other places.
The church grows so that in spring 1931 the Tartu Second Methodist Episcopal Church is established across the river, in another part of the city. This church works together with an organization called The Blue Cross (an evangelical temperance society) in 45 Puiestee Street. Jaan Jaagupsoo is given charge over the new church.
The Epworth League (after the Epworth parish in England where John Wesley spent his childhood) is active. The youth are greatly interested in sports, and as the church yard is large a sports ground is created there.
In addition to the Epworth league there is also the Junior League for teenagers between the age twelve to sixteen.
Children’s Sunday School
There are about 150 children under the guidance of twelve Sunday School teachers.
In 1930-1940 a congregational monthly Kaastööline (The Fellow-Worker) is issued. This also became the information bulletin of the Common Help. During this decade several religious books were published and the editorial office and printing of the Estonian Christian Advocate (a monthly journal of the Estonian MEC) were located in Tartu.
Aleksander Kuum is appointed to Tallinn church. Ferdinand Tombo, an active and resourceful, artistically talented young man is appointed to Tartu.
The Soviet authorities nationalize “the Methodist paradise”, that is - the church building and the land.
Eduard Hark is appointed as substitute pastor. This summer is tragic both for the people of Estonia as well as for the Tartu Methodist church, with deportations and war in Tartu. In July, the destroyer battalions of the retreating Red Army demolish over 1,000 buildings. On the night of the 12th of July, an incendiary shell hits our church and the sanctuary burns down. Nearby the St Mary’s church is ablaze.
The surviving items include just a folder with letters of transfer, roll of members, Holy Communion set, purple pulpit antependium and a photo album of the youth league. Incredible pain and sadness.
German occupation, then - again Soviet. The activity of the church is paralysed but not discontinued. The ruins of the former church are bulldozed. The church finds shelter in 21 Kalevi Street.
In 1945, the annual plenary meeting of the congregation is attended by 25 members. Youth work is restarted. Left with nothing after the war, the church still minds the poverty of others - it is resolved to donate the offering of every first Sunday in a month to the poor in the city.
Because of the war-time and later on for the unwillingness of the Soviet authorities there is no regular pastor in charge for a long time - the church is taken care of by Aleksei Poobus, Kusta Sotnik, and Harry Haamer, a Lutheran pastor. Finally, Eduard Suurhans with his family, who has just returned from forced deportation to Germany, is appointed pastor to Tartu at the end of 1945.
In January 1949, by the decree of the Soviet commissioner of religious affairs, the church is forced to move in with the Adventists. Our congregation gets a small hall on the ground floor in the Adventist building. The building in 21 Kalevi Street is turned into a workshop.
Against all expectations the church grows fast even in these tight conditions and due to being cramped for space the impossible idea of constructing a new church building comes up once again in 1958.
In February 1963, by the decree of the local Soviet authorities, both Adventists and Methodists are stuffed into the basement of the closed down St Alexander’s Orthodox parish church in 19A Sõbra Street. The congregation is served by pastors Eduard Suurhans, August Saulus; Andres Kirjamägi begins his ministry in Tartu. The membership has grown to 150.
In spite of the atheistic repressions and difficult situation for activity the church grows and rejuvenates. By 1965 there are over 200 members.
In 1966 pastor Ants Soode - a modest and musically talented man - is appointed to serve the flock. Church choirs work in full swing, many people find their spiritual home in the modest “basement-church in Sõbra Street”.
In December 1972 Päivo Kasekamp, a former freedom fighter with the experience of Siberian prison camps, is appointed to the charge. He remains in this position until 1987. Many Russian-speaking people join the church and an active Russian work is established.
The Soviet empire reveals signs of disintegration. A young pastor, Andrus Norak, is appointed to Tartu. The changes in society - glasnost and bits of civil liberties - bring many people, especially young ones, to the church. The Monday fellowship and discussion nights become popular with youth.
The borders open up and Andrus Norak with his family travel to Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, USA for studies. During this time (1992-1994) the church is taken care of by deacons Villu Eenkivi and Leonhard Kangro.
We make friends abroad - Korskyrkan in Uppsala, Sweden and the Methodist Church in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Andrus Norak is transferred to Tallinn to head the newly created educational institution - the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary. A young man, Priit Tamm, is appointed to serve the church.
Restitution of Estonia’s national independence brings up issues of property and ownership. The restored St Alexander’s Orthodox parish applies in turn for its church building in 19A Sõbra Street. In autumn 1997 the Methodists are forced out of their facilities that had become so dear during more than three decades. The 34-year period of “real estate stability” is over and the church out in the street.
The Methodist church had for several years been applying for return of its “Methodist paradise”. After years of painstaking efforts and complicated legal procedures the church can, in 1998, once again count itself the owner of its “promised land” - of just bare land this time the church building being demolished by the Soviet army.
The Methodist Congregation begins painful wanderings from one church in Tartu to another begging for shelter. A couple of Sundays in Salem Baptist church; brief, fruitless negotiations with Lutherans; then a year in the familiar Adventist church in 18 Lille Street, then again in the century-old wooden prayer house of the Salem Baptist church in 18 Võru Street where we have stayed until today - first sharing the building with the Baptists, then, after the completion of the new Salem Baptist church in 2000, by ourselves.
The last five years have not been easy for the homeless church. Sunday School and youth work have suffered. Very often the Sunday services and great feasts of the Church have been celebrated whenever possible. Many people have left because of the hardships but there have always been the faithful whom the Lord has been able to use in his work. Today the church has started to recover, both older and younger people find their way into our church family.
The year 2000 has been a year of new hopes. When the Salem Baptist church left for their new church we cherished the idea of buying their old prayer house. But then - there comes a man from America (again!) and he has a vision. This man is Dr H Eddie Fox and he believes that the church should return to its historical location - to the “Methodist paradise” in Vallikraavi Street and to build a new sanctuary there. Another crazy and fruitless thought?
September 7, 2000 is the day when a group of the local church members together with the Estonian District Superintendent Olav Pärnamets, Dr H Eddie Fox, his friends Mary Watson, Alan Lindsey and others from the US, decides to erect a new contemporary sanctuary on the historical land in 16A Vallikraavi Street for the Methodist church and all people of Tartu.
2002 – building the new church
On May 8 the ground breaking event takes place. The main contractor is Linnaehitus, PLC. The laying of the cornerstone is held on June 6 with guests and clergy from other churches in Tartu. The cornerstone is laid by Superintendent Olav Pärnamets, Dr H Eddie Fox and pastor Priit Tamm. God blesses the construction period by providing extremely dry summer and the building is copleted in those ideal conditions within six months. The first phase of the new church complex is dedicated on November 17 by Superintendent Olav Pärnamets.
The first construcion phase includes a 140-seat worship hall with balcony, an 80-seat cafeteria and seven activity rooms. The second phase (the larger space on the left side) is yet to be built and will include a 300-seat main worship hall with balcony. The new building has been constructed aiming at flexible use of the interior space.
2003 – today
The church has settled well in her new home. It is extremely important to be able to use new and well-equipped rooms at at a convenient time. It is easy to get used to it but it should never be taken for granted.
Therefore we would like to thank those who have made a contribution to our new church building:
- Mary Nell and Dr H Eddie Fox, Nashville, Tennessee - he has been the initiator and a tireless motor of the whole cause
- Phillip Starling, Virginia, USA
- Mary Watson, Georgia, USA
- Alan Lindsey Georgia, USA
- World Methodist Council World Evangelism, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
- Christ the Lord UMC, Otradny, Russia
- UMVIM, Lake Junaluska, USA
- Williamsburg UMC, Virginia, USA
- Dr Bill Mallard, USA
- Dunwoody UMC, Georgia, USA – our Connecting Congregation
- Hall of Fame Men’s Club at Dunwoody UMC, Georgia, USA
- Office of the Bishop of the UMC in the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area
- Kay and Ted Reissing, Dunwoody, Georgia, USA
- Sandi and Dick Averitt (Averitt Charitable Trust), Atlanta, Georgia, USA
- Mr and Mrs Don Danysh, Dunwoody, GA, USA
- Dr and Mrs Harry Turner, Tennessee, USA.
- North Georgia Conference of the UMC and Bishop Lindsey Davis
- Elsie and Philip Myers, Dundein, Florida, USA.
- Peggy and Philip Brownrigg, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
- Lucerne UMC – our partner church in Switzerland
- Elisabeth and Fritz Ilg, Lucerne, Switzerland