The Catholic Church in Estonia, 1918-2001

By Salo, Vello | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2002 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Church in Estonia, 1918-2001

Salo, Vello, The Catholic Historical Review

In the Middle Ages, Estonia was Catholic for roughly four centuries (1227-1626). Under Swedish rule (1561-1710) the Catholic faith was forbidden and, after the expulsion of the last faithful in 1626, the Catholic tradition in Estonia was totally wiped out.1 Under the Russian Emperors (1710-1918), as the Catholic religion was permitted again, a diaspora Catholic community was born, belonging to the Archdiocese of Mohilev, which covered all Russia. Four missions (later parishes) were created: Tallinn (German: Reval, Russian: Revel, 1786), Narva (1835), Tartu (German: Dorpat, Russian: Jurjew, 1849), and Valga (German: Valk, 1915). They took care of Catholics, belonging to different nationalities of the Russian Empire.2 For the Estonians, it remained a church of foreigners.

The First Apostolic Administrator: Antonino Zecchini, SJ., 1924-1931

After the Russian revolution of 1917, Estonia and its neighbors (Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania) grasped the opportunity to gain their national independence. In the year 1918 Estonians proclaimed the Republic of Estonia, a democratic state, which granted all citizens the freedom of religion.3

For the Catholics in the new independent States of the Baltic region, the political independence meant also ecclesiastical reorganization. The first step was the passage (1918) of Estonia from the jurisdiction of Mohilev to the newly re-erected Diocese of Riga (which had been the center of the Crusades against Estonia in the thirteenth century, and then the metropolitan see for Estonia's three Catholic dioceses until 1560). A second step was prepared and brought to conclusion by Archbishop Antonino Zecchini, who was first nominated Apostolic Visitor for the three Baltic States (1921), then Apostolic Delegate for the same (1922), and finally (1924) the first Apostolic Administrator of Estonia. This new Apostolic Administration was immediately subject to the Holy See, and thus no longer to the Archbishop of Riga. Until the present day Estonia has remained an Apostolic Administration.

In the year 1918 there were only four Catholic parishes (Tallinn,Tartu, Narva, and Valga) in Estonia, all of them urban communities. Before the beginning of World War I, there had been some 6,000 Catholics in Estonia, but as many of them were military and civil servants of the Russian Empire and after its collapse emigrated from Estonia, the first Estonian census (1922) found only 2,536 Catholics (or 0.2% of a total population of 1,107,000, vs. 79% Lutherans and 19% Orthodox) in the country.4

It was a little flock, but dispersed in many small groups, a typical Diaspora church. About the half of all the faithful resided in the capital city, Tallinn, forming the only sizable congregation. The main problem of the new Administrator was regular pastoral care for all those small groups outside Tallinn. Moreover, there was the language question to complicate the situation: a traveling priest or catechizes would have needed the knowledge of at least five languages (Polish, Lithuanian, German, Russian, and Estonian). Many of the Catholics were of Polish and Lithuanian origin, who did not speak Estonian at all (until 1918 they did not need to, as everybody was able to communicate in Russian, the language of the Empire); this is why the Estonians used the name "the Polish church." Indeed, this was the prevailing language in the most visible parish, that of Tallinn.

At the beginning of his pastoral service (1924) Archbishop Zecchini had only three priests to take care of his four parishes, one diocesan and two Jesuit fathers (born respectively in Latvia, Luxembourg, and Germany). Fortunately, these parishes possessed relatively new churches: built in 1845 (in Tallinn), 1899 (in Tartu), and 1907 (in Narva and Valga). Unfortunately, the Archbishop had to reside outside Estonia, as he became also papal nuncio for Latvia. His diplomatic tasks did not give him much time for pastoral work, as even the legal conditions for the activity of the Catholic Church in Estonia had to be worked out on a governmental level, all of his three priests being of non-Estonian origin. …

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