Noe Valley Voice December-January 1997-98

Florence's Family Album: An Unforgettable Story

By Florence Holub

On the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland, a church in the small town of Vora has been the heart of the farming community for centuries. My father, born in Vora in 1888, often told his children what an important role this church played for the townspeople. It was the center of religious and social life, as well as the place where births, marriages, confirmations, and deaths were carefully recorded. My father's parents and siblings -- three brothers and a sister -- were all laid to rest beneath a black marble tombstone in the town graveyard, which lies in the shadow of the church.

His three brothers died young, followed, much later, by his mother and father. His sister, Marie, then found herself alone and having great difficulty coping with a recession that had swept over Finland. When my father, by then a widower, invited her to live with him in San Francisco, she was delighted.

Although already in her 50s, Marie was bright and determined to learn English, her adopted language. She took a class geared especially for immigrants and did so well that she became the teacher's pet. Outside of class, however, she found it harder to communicate.

She was often tongue-tied at social occasions, so she asked me to help her out. Whenever we attended a family gathering and there would be a lull in the conversation, I was instructed to turn to her and say, "Would you like a cigarette?" Marie would respond with the phrase she had memorized in class: "No tank you, I don't smoke." Pleased with herself, she would then contentedly sit back and listen, trying to absorb the words and ways of her new country.

Marie learned so fast that before long she began studying for the test to become a naturalized citizen. We were impressed with her retentive mind, for she could soon correctly recite the names of every American president, rattling off "Yeorge Vashington, Yohn Adams, Toemas Yefferson, Yames Madison," and so on down the list until she came to "Yeneral Eisenhower," who had just taken office.

When she got to the point where she could express herself easily, she told me a remarkable story that had been passed down orally, from generation to generation, by the inhabitants of Vora. It went something like this:

In 1517, the German theologian Martin Luther published his theses attacking the papal sales of indulgences (forgiveness for sins). This sparked a religious revolution that split Europe in two, with Catholics eventually dominating the south and Reformers the north.

In the northern town of Vora, the church priest was still Catholic and had been dispensing indulgences for a price. In fact, he was becoming so prosperous that an indignant member of the congregation devised a scheme to divest him of his wealth.

This wily individual approached the priest and begged him to allow an indulgence for a crime he had not yet committed! It was an unusual request, but the priest granted it, never suspecting that the crime would be perpetrated upon himself!

As soon as he had paid the priest, the absolved sinner drew out a concealed knife and murdered his pardoner. He had intended then to rob the priest of his money, but an observer who had been concealed in a dark corner of the chapel cried out, causing him to flee from the church and into the woodlands beyond. There he hid for many days, hungry and fearful, until his mother, who had been searching at night, found him. She returned with bread and cheese, and a sharp knife to slice it. Then she left him alone again.

To occupy the long hours of solitude, the man used his knife to whittle the trunk of a fallen tree. As the enormity of his crime began to gnaw at his conscience, the trunk began to take on a human form. During the following weeks, he was a man obsessed -- cutting, gouging, and paring. When his mother came back with more food, she was astonished to see what her son had carved: the body of the crucified Christ!

At his mother's urging, the man returned to the church, full of contrition, and offered up the work of art as an act of atonement. The townspeople proclaimed it a masterpiece, but whether the church would accept or display the work of such a wicked person was a matter of great debate. They finally decided to suspend the statue within the sanctuary, but at a discreet distance from the altar, about 30 feet. This is where it has hung ever since.

In 1971, when my father and I were summoned to Finland to settle the family estate, I noted how the church dominated the landscape.

Standing before it, I felt awed by its soaring spire and the massive dignity of the wooden building. Above the transom, etched in Swedish, were the words: "Founded in 1624 under the reign of King Gustaf II Adolfs. Enlarged to a cross church in 1777 under Gustaf the III."

As we approached the entry gate in the stone wall that surrounded the church property, I was puzzled by the sight of a short metal ladder fastened to the wall, just off to one side of the gate.

The ladder's purpose was later divulged: Only people without sin were allowed to enter the formal gateway to the church. Those who had fallen from grace were not. But even a criminal had the right to be buried in the town's only graveyard. The ladder was thus installed to allow the caskets of sinners to be hoisted over the wall.

Every Sunday, we attended services, held in Swedish. I understood only a few words, but feasted my eyes upon the array of ancient and medieval artifacts that would be the envy of any art museum.

We went to church with Marie's best friend, devout Sister Linnea, who was also a nurse, administering comfort to the sick in body as well as in spirit. The first time she accompanied us, she pointed out the hanging crucifix, whose carved figure of Christ appeared to have been covered in gesso and painted in oils. Then she told us the same story about its origin that Marie had.

When she finished, I thoughtlessly commented that I did not believe such a polished work of art could have been created by the hands of a completely untrained person. I soon regretted my words, however, for they clearly upset Sister Linnea. She fiercely defended the story, arguing that the men of Finland had always been extremely skillful in working with wood, and in this case, their hands, with the help of God, had performed a miracle!

I said no more, but continued to ponder the tale. It seemed obvious that the wood had been refinished at a later date by some professional artist. It also seemed likely the fable had been invented by zealous Protestants who wished to discredit the entrenched Catholics. But then, since it happened so long ago, perhaps the story had been embellished over time.

I have now come to believe that since the good people of Vora accept the tale as irrefutable truth, it should not be questioned. Besides, it does make for an incredibly good story.

I only vish our dear Marie were here to tell it!