Catholic challenges at top of the world

By  Lorraine Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • January 30, 2008

TROMSO, Norway - Norway’s Catholic parish of Var Frue Kirke (The Church of Our Lady) in Tromso may well be the most northerly Catholic church and most northerly Catholic cathedral in the world. It’s located 400 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, at a latitude of almost 70 degrees, similar to Siberia. (There’s a Catholic mission house in the Canadian hamlet of Arctic Bay, Nunavut, at a latitude of over 73 degrees, but technically it’s not a church).

Tromso’s church is situated in a vibrant settlement, boasting the world’s most northerly university, specializing in Arctic and climate research, a fascinating Arctic interpretation centre (Polaria) and a student, teacher and resident population of 63,000 mixed races and backgrounds. The city has even applied to be the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Tromso,  “Gateway to the Arctic,” is a starting point for polar expeditions. Its climate has been described as “wet, very wet.” Actually, the climate is quite mild for the Arctic, because of its coastal location and influence of the Gulf Stream. The sun never sets for two months in summer nor rises for two months in winter. On a clear winter night, the Northern Lights dance. This vibrant city is often referred to as “the Paris of the North” because of its many cafes, cultural and cosmopolitan atmosphere.

 The very existence of a Catholic church in Norway’s far north is in itself remarkable. Catholic Church history in Norway has been fractured and unsettled. Originally, as in all of Europe, the Christian religion was solely Catholic. St. Olav, one of the Christian monarchs evangelized by Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the continent, died in 1030 after a battle and is honoured today as a saint. English Cardinal Breakspear established Norway’s church province in 1153 The High Middle Ages were prosperous years for the church, but during the Reformation Danish King Christian II abetted the cause of Lutheranism in 1519 by suppressing monasteries and seizing extensive land and religious holdings of wealthy bishops (who in some cases also acted as secular rulers). The Catholic faith, though stubbornly clung to by many till about 1700 — often secretly — finally was practically outlawed.

Lutheranism was the official state religion. Lutheran clergy were salaried employees of the state. It wasn’t until 1843 that the first Catholic parish was re-established in the then capital of Trondheim. A few years later Tromso, Bergen and Alta were permitted to open churches. Since then, works of Catholic authors such as Nobel Prize winner and convert Sigrid Undset and Hallvard Rieber-Mohn O.P. have softened the anti-Catholic atmosphere.

Protestant and Catholics together opposed Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling during Norway’s occupation by the Germans (1940-45). The church has grown slowly, now with about 200,000 Catholics. Of these, 90 per cent were born abroad, many in Poland and Lithuania. There are now three church districts (the diocese of Oslo and prelatures of Trondheim and Tromso) and 32 parishes.

The Church of Our Lady is the cathedral of the Prelature of Tromso, which claims to be the northernmost bishopric in the world. A concrete sign of its importance was the 1989 visit by Pope John Paul II. The pastor, Fr. Marek Michalski, is a member of the Missionaries of the Holy Family (MSF), an order that has served Tromso for the last 75 years. The first Tromso Catholic church was a royal chapel during the reign of King Hakon Hakonsson in 1250. The present church was completed in 1861, two years after the founding of Tromso’s first Catholic parish since the Reformation.

How does this Catholic community — 500 members from 45 nationalities — meet its challenging conditions? First of all, it offers a variety of ministries. There are two Masses on Sunday and every day at 7 p.m. and Reconciliation. The parish is assisted by the Congregation of St. Elisabeth, an order originating in Prussia, that first arrived in northern Norway in 1880. The Sisters founded a hospital in Tromso in 1907 (closed in the 1970s).  They also ran Tromso’s Catholic school which closed in 1968. They’ve operated an old-age home since 1976 and provide home care throughout the town. A Sister is parish sacristan.

Elsebeth Thomsen, secretary of the parish council, reports, “The Sisters enjoy great esteem in the town because many people still remember their dedicated service when the hospital existed.”

There are also Carmelite Sisters here, invited from Iceland in 1990. They operate a guesthouse. Their convent, Totus Tuus (“Totally yours,” Pope John Paul II’s motto devoting his pontificate to the Blessed Virgin), is their first and only one in Norway, and their most northerly one. Of the 14 Sisters, two are Norwegian and the rest Polish. They welcome visitors any time for Mass or prayer. 

When we photographed the church on a visit in August 2007, I was struck by its simplicity, its durable appearance and its prominent location in the heart of town. Its exterior hasn’t changed since 1861. The interior is a different story. There’s a new altar of local Fauske marble and a new tabernacle. The statue of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus is a copy of a 14th-century one. The figures of St. Peter (with the keys) and St. Paul (with the sword) are old but newly given as gifts to the church. The figure of St. Joseph and Stations of the Cross date from the parish’s oldest original inventory.

The parishioners of the Church of Our Lady will never forget that time in 1989 when the pope actually stayed in Tromso as guest of their bishop. They rejoiced then, and also later as they viewed TV images of the Holy Father in Oslo standing with Norway’s royal family on the palace balcony. As one Sister put it, “This was a terrific sign.” As is Tromso’s Church of Our Lady, way up north.

(Williams is a Contributing Editor to The Catholic Register.)

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