Finding history, art, and peace
at Saint Lawrence church.

Hello, who are you?
I am Heidi Vuorenmaa, and I’m the guide here at Saint Lawrence Church.

Where are you from?
I was born in Helsinki, but I grew up in Pornainen, a city fifty kilometers from Helsinki, near Porvoo. It’s a small, country-side place, with a population of about 5000. I don’t know why, but I usually end up in small places… (laughs) But I like them; you get to know people better.

What’s your background? What did you study?
I studied archeology at the Helsinki University. Then I wanted to concentrate on osteology (the study of bones both animal and human) but no university here in Finland offered it. So I moved into a small town (again) in Sweden, about fifty kilometers from a university in Stockholm where I could study that.

Why archeology and bones?
Archeology because I’m interested in the past and I want to know about the cultures and peoples who were here before us. And bones… I was always interested in them, since I was very little. I used to draw them, or ask my father to draw skeletons for me in various funny positions, wearing hats and so on. I found the subject fascinating, and not repellent at all. We all die someday, it’s part of life. Also bones tell a great deal of stories: how people lived, what they ate, what diseases afflicted them, so many things!

How did you get this job?
That was really cool. I was still in Sweden finishing my studies when my mom told me she had found out about an interesting summer job. I decided to call, and they interviewed me over the phone. They asked me questions in Finnish, Swedish and English, to make sure I spoke all those languages. And they accepted me without meeting me in person; a tattooed, pierced girl is not what is usually thought of as a church guide, but they didn’t turn me down when they saw me (laughs). And they seem to be happy with me so far; it’s my third season.

Why is Saint Lawrence church worth visiting?
Well, many people like to visit churches for their architectural and historical value, and this one is very special on both accounts. It’s not only aesthetically beautiful, it is in itself the oldest building in the capital region Helsinki (Helsinki, Vantaa and Espoo). And it has a unique atmosphere, which I personally have never felt in any other Church.

How do we know it’s the oldest building in town?
Because the original church is from the 1450s, and there is nothing as old in Helsinki (which was moved to where it is now in the 1600s). So, in essence, this place here is the “original” Helsinki.

What was here at the time the church was built?
There was the parish, which was a lot larger than it is now. The congregation was here from 1300s onwards, so it is a really old place. The church is a bit younger; there was actually a Saint Lawrence Church at least as early as 1401, but it was made of wood. The remains are probably under this church, because the new stone church was erected in the same place.

Were there houses nearby, like a town?
There was a village, yes. Depending on the year from 100 to 200 people lived near the church. And the parish actually included peoples from what is today Vantaa, Helsinki, most of Espoo, and also Tuusula and Nurmijärvi, so it was a really big parish.

So all those people were gathering here.
Yes, because of the church. It was like a spiritual magnet.

What architectural style can be seen here?
From the outside it’s medieval, but from the inside it’s very neo-gothic. That’s another good reason to visit, because the interior of the church was designed by the famous Finnish architect Carl Theodor Höijer, who was also the architect of Ateneum, the state art museum in central Helsinki. So this is one of his works also.

What was his contribution?
Internally, he modernized the spaces (for instance the eastern end, where the altar is). Externally the upper part (in the eastern altar end of the church) is redesigned by him, but it still retains the medieval outlook. His work is from 1893.

Who painted the Last Supper that can be seen at the altar?
It’s a Da Vinci replica, but we are not quite certain who the author is. We can guess by the style it could probably be Robert Wilhelm Ekman, a quite famous church-painting artist at the time. His work can be seen at the old church of Helsinki (the altar painting), and his frescoes in the Turku Dome church (the main church in Turku).

It must be really valuable. Is that why there are so many security cameras?
The cameras are mostly to discourage vandalism to the gravestones in the cemetery.

I hear the church is very popular for weddings.
Yes, it is. I think it’s one of the most beautiful churches in Finland.

Why do you think so?
Probably because of the unusual combination of history and architecture. It’s really unique in the way that it still is a medieval church, even though it’s modern at the same time. And it is a Lutheran church but with a catholic past, which can be noticed in architectural terms; it’s really dark inside, as opposed to Lutheran churches which are usually very light.

It was a catholic church in the past?
Yes, because Finland was a catholic country before the Reformation (there is a legend that the first crusade was made into Finland in 1155). So up to the 1500s Finland was a catholic country until the Swedish king became Lutheran, and Finland had to become Lutheran too.

Let’s talk about your job. What do you do here?
I guide the people who visit, but of course it depends on what they are looking for. Some people come from the cemetery and don’t need a guide, they just want to sit for a while. There are also tourists who find the place because they have been looking for it, and they want to hear about the church, and I can tell them much more than what the leaflets mention. So I usually ask, when people come in, if I can help them in any way, and take it from there.

The cemetery is huge.
Yes, it’s the main cemetery in the Vantaa area. About 23 hectares.

So your duties just stop at the church, or can you also guide in the cemetery?
I can guide in the old part of the cemetery and also in the chapel, the new one (today in the morning I had a tour there). So it’s mainly the church, but not only.

What’s your approach to guiding?
I try to “read” people to understand what are they interested in so I can offer it to them. For instance there is the history of Saint Lawrence, the patron saint, and how he was grilled to death by the Romans in the 200s. Some people don’t want to hear about that, but others are very interested, so it depends…

So Saint Lawrence continues to be the patron saint, even though the church is Lutheran?
Yes, because of the catholic past. The church is called both Helsingin Pitäjän kirkko and also Saint Lawrence (Pyhän Laurin kirkko).

Can you give people any spiritual, or religious advice?
No. I’m not a priest and I haven’t got any formal schooling for that. Of course people tell me things, because it’s a church and it usually triggers emotions, but I can only listen to them, I can’t give them any advice if I don’t personally know how to deal with certain things. So it’s not the advice of the church I give in that case. It’s my personal view, from a human being to another.

What were your expectations before you took the job? What did you think it was going to be like? And did reality match?
I probably expected something a bit more like the Stone Church (Temppeliaukio) in central Helsinki, which sees one million visitors per year. Even though I asked during the interview how many people visit per year on average (so I had a pretty realistic idea) it still was a surprise when I found out how quiet it really is.

Does it get lonely or boring?
For me it’s actually more like downtime, because even though I’m a social person I still like to be alone. When it rains it might get a bit boring, but in general it doesn’t. I feel very comfortable in the church. I usually read, play the piano, or sing. The acoustics are excellent.

What do you see more in the church, positive or negative emotions?
The people who talk to me and want somebody to guide them are usually happy. But the people who come from the cemetery, they might be in pain if their loss is recent. Sometimes they come here and they are neither happy nor sad. They just are, and they want to sit for a while and just somehow soak in the atmosphere or something. And they usually feel very calm when they go out. It’s half and half, I would say.

People have congregated ritually here for more than 500 years, concentrating and discharging the emotional energy of births, marriages, life, death. How do you experience the leftovers of such energy? Are there any ghosts?
There was one time, it was my first summer, when I thought I heard steps on the balcony. I heard like four or five steps. I thought there was actually someone up there and went to take a look, but it was empty. That was a bit creepy, but I personally haven’t seen anything, nor felt any negative energy at all. The only thing I feel is this calm atmosphere, good energy. Maybe because it’s a sacred place. If there are any… leftovers, I think they are good ones.

Are you a religious person? Do you attend mass?
I attend Christmas mass every year, but that’s more like a tradition. So in that sense I don’t attend mass. But I perceive myself as a religious person.

That was my next question: are you a spiritual person?
I perceive myself as spiritual person, yes. And I do believe in a higher power. I guess as a church guide I shouldn’t probably say this, but I don’t completely agree with the Bible, even though I believe in a Christian God.

What do you mean?
I do believe Jesus was a historical person, who indeed existed; in that sense I believe in the Bible. But there are things that don’t… match. The Bible as a whole, as we read it today, is from about the 300s, when the Bishop of Alexandria compiled many documents to make the Bible, but many stories and books about Jesus and God were left out, so…

Do you pray?
I do. Not often, but I do. I don’t do it every night or every day, but if I feel really bad or really good, I do pray, yeah.

When you come here, do you get into a spiritual mood or is it so much your job that you forget you are in a church?
It does happen, I forget sometimes. I mean it feels like home. It feels like returning home, because I know the place so well and I’ve been here for so long. But I still feel the atmosphere that never leaves the church. I still feel it when I go inside. It’s half and half. I mean I do feel at home in the church, but it’s still a spiritual place. So I’m probably a bit more in tune with my spirituality in the church. I have a more conservative attitude while in the church, as opposed to my “normal” self in the outside world. But in a way I think priests probably feel a bit like that, because it is their workplace, but they are still in the church, and they are the church’s (and God’s) men and women.

This is your third season. Are you happy with the job? Do you want to continue?
Yes, I’m really happy with it. I like the people I work with, they are awesome. And the place is so unique. It’s in the countryside, even though it’s in the middle of the city. And about the forth season… I don’t know yet. It depends on how it goes with my own field. If I get a job as an archaeologist I will take it, no doubt about it.

Do you find you get better at guiding? Or do you feel you know everything already?
I perceive life as a learning process. And the people from the parish who come here, mostly old people, if they are living in this village, they usually have stories to share. I like to collect those, so I can share them with others in turn. I also combine this job with my job as a guide in the National Museum… So I don’t think I have hit a plateau, I don’t think I know everything about this place. I definitely think I’m better now than I was in my first summer, but I’m always learning.

This unique location can be enjoyed at Kirkkotie 45, 01510 Vantaa.
Heidi is present to guide until the end of the summer, from 14 to 20 hs.