Estonian Church in Exile, 1954-1991
Estonians in North America
The Church in Exile

Traditionally in Estonian culture one of the most important things has been the church. In Estonia the church, generally has meant the Lutheran Church. This tradition has remained very much the norm in the North American expatriate community. One of the first thing that immigrants entering the country would do was either join or, in the areas where none yet existed, found a church. Besides earlier congregations in California, Oregon, New York, Wisconsin and Ontario, the postwar era saw many new churches started; most significantly in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Seabrook, Buffalo, and Vancouver.

The Estonian Lutheran Church in North America is under the jurisdiction of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church which was represented in Soviet times by an Archbishopric in exile located in Stockholm, Sweden. Although the church technically continued to function inside Estonia, the Archbishopric served as a sort of shadow leadership, uninfluenced by communist influences or control. After the nation regained its independence the Estonian church and the church in exile were officially reunited, with the North American church represented by bishops in both the United States and Canada. Pastors and other church personnel are now mutually recognized by both branches of the church, and are thus able to serve freely both inside and outside Estonia.

In addition to the Lutheran churches, the postwar era saw the beginning of other denominations beginning operation. The first was in New York with the creation of the Estonian Greek Orthodox Church under the leadership of Rev. Aleksander Jürisson. Today there are three Orthodox congregations in the United States and two in Canada. There are smaller groups as well, with the Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal denominations each having a presence. Each of these smaller denominations have fewer than 1,000 adherents.

Traditionally the Estonian churches, both Lutheran and the smaller branches, have functioned and worshipped in the Estonian language. However recently there has been a slow shift to also including the English language as well. This is primarily to accommodate the increase in mixed Estonian-non Estonian marriages and because fewer people of the later generations have a working knowledge of language.

The most significant fact of the Estonian community in North America is that, in many ways, it has stayed much more spiritual and actively religious than their cousins in Estonia itself. Whereas North Americans enjoyed the freedom to worship as they wished, the Estonian church community had to suffer the persecution of the Soviet regime. Religious education was outlawed, and believers had to sacrifice opportunities at good jobs, education for their children and access to certain consumer goods.

Although Estonia is now free, the legacy of this persecution is still felt. As a result, much work has been done by the expatriate community in assisting the church to rebuild. Pastors have traveled from North America to teach in the University of Tartu, the Lutheran Seminary in Tallinn and are even serving some churches in the country. The foreign church has also done much to provide or sponsor education for Estonian church personnel.

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© May 2, 1997
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