catholic church in estonia
ringo ringvee

Whether the first Christians reached Estonia from the east, west or south is still hidden behind the veil of history. Stories about the first missionaries are based on legends. However, it is quite clear that systematic Christianisation of the territory of present-day Estonia and its inhabitants was initiated by the Catholic Church in the first years of the 13th century, in the course of the 'Baltic Crusade' (1171-1525). In 1202, the founder of the city of Riga, Bishop Albert, created a religious order, the Sword Brothers (Fratres militiae Christi), modelling it on the Templars; the aim of the new order was to 'integrate' new territories and their inhabitants into the Christian world. By 1227, the territory of present-day Estonia had been Christianised; since 1215, it had borne the name 'Land of Mary', given by Pope Innocent III. During the following centuries this name became a synonym for Estonia, at least for Estonians themselves, who very often did not recall the religious background of the name.

Since the Christianisation was carried out by military force, it left its traces on Estonian historiography, and the notion of 'conversion through fire and sword' has become a stereotype, magnified by historical adventure stories written in the 1930s and during the Soviet era. The Sword Brothers were not the only military force in action. The kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden added their contribution to the Christianisation process, to the division of territories and to their integration into the European cultural and economic space. The strength of different interest groups is reflected by the fact that the Dioceses of South Estonia and the Estonian Islands were subordinated to the Riga Archbishop, but the Diocese of North Estonia belonged to the Archdiocese of Lund. The Baltic Crusade, led by Bishop Albert of Riga, is recounted in a unique historical document, the 13th-century Chronicle of Henrik of Livonia.

Monastic orders played an important role in the Christianisation of Estonia, the foremost being the Cistercians and Dominicans. Today, it is difficult to estimate how quickly the ancestors of the Estonians adopted Christianity, but it is known that by the end of the 15th century, people's names were mostly of Christian origin. When the Reformation reached Estonia and Livonia at the beginning of the 16th century, there were already more than a hundred churches and 12 monasteries and convents in Estonia. The importance of the Catholic Church receded with the progress of the Reformation. When Estonia came under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Sweden, where the Lutheran Church was the state church, the activities of the Catholic Church were prohibited. An exception was southern Estonia, which belonged to the Catholic Kingdom of Poland in 1559-1645, and where, in contrast to northern Estonia, pressure was put on Lutheran clergy and the activities of the Catholic Church were advanced. During the process of re-Catholisation, a Jesuit Collegium was founded in Tartu.

When the territory of Estonia became a part of the Russian Empire, all restrictions on the Catholic Church were lifted, but by that time, the Catholic Church had become a church of ethnic minorities, being a part of the structure of the all-Russian Orthodox Church.

After gaining independence in 1918, the four Catholic congregations in Estonia were shaped into an independent administrative unit, which up to 1924 belonged to the Riga Diocese. An important event for the Estonian Catholic Church was the establishment of Apostolic Administration in Estonia in 1924. The first Apostolic Administrator was Archbishop Antonio Zecchini, who was also the Papal Nuncio, based in Riga. The second Apostolic Administrator, the Jesuit Eduard Profittlich, who started to organise the work of the local congregation, acquired a somewhat legendary renown. During his administration, the number of congregations rose to ten, and the number of priests in these congregations grew to fourteen. The Church established its own kindergarten in Narva and a boys' boarding school in Tallinn, published an Estonian-language Catechism (1931), and initiated the magazine Church Life (1933) and the quarterly publication A Common Church (1935). However, the Catholic Church still remained a church of ethnic minorities, mainly of Poles. Just like the Orthodox Church, which has always been called a "Russian Church", and the Lutheran Church a "German Church", the Catholic Church was called a "Polish Church". The Republic of Estonia and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1933.

The effect of the Soviet occupation on the Catholic Church was as devastating as on other religious groups in Estonia. In June 1941, Eduard Profittlich was charged with espionage, arrested and deported to Russia, where he died the following year, just before his scheduled execution. The short German occupation in 1941-1944 ended the repressions of the Catholic Church, but the Church had to continue its activities under conditions of war. When the Soviet Army again regained control of Estonia in 1944, the sufferings of the Catholic Church continued: restrictions were set on church activities, there was a lack of priests, and the churches outside Tallinn and Tartu were destroyed.

An important figure for the Catholic Church was the Latvian priest Mikelis Krumpans, who came to Estonia to serve as a priest in 1952. Despite his poor knowledge of Estonian, he was the only Catholic priest in Estonia between 1977 and 1987. Only two congregations were active in the Soviet period, one in Tallinn and the other in Tartu. Just as in earlier years, the Catholic Church was mainly the church of ethnic minorities, Lithuanians and Poles.

The Catholic Church started to attract the attention of Estonians in the 1970s, a time when an interest arose in Mediaeval Western religious music. The Mediaeval church, its mystical aspects, the long tradition of the Catholic Church (including its cultural tradition) and, no doubt, the mystical atmosphere connected with the Catholic Church, which differed from the earthy impression of the Lutheran Church, created a unity that attracted a certain number of people. The well-known cultural semiotician Mihhail Lotman has admitted that he joined the Catholic Church in 1980 merely for intellectual reasons and that, for him, this Church has always represented the purest Christian church.

During this period, ethnic Estonians also joined the local Catholic congregation. This group included a disproportionately large share of intellectuals and artists, who were active in the local cultural life. According to Estonian cultural historian and Catholic priest Vello Salo, about 200 adult Estonians joined the church during 1975-1990. It is interesting that, at the same time, a number of younger members of the Lutheran clergy became interested in the Catholic tradition. This period is also characterised by close contacts with Lithuanian Catholic priests, from whom people sought spiritual guidance. In the 1970s and 1980s, Lithuania was a similar location for pilgrimages for Estonian Catholics as Buryatian monasteries were for local Buddhists.

The situation of the Catholic Church changed in the context of a revitalisation of spiritual life at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. For the first time in history, local congregations had two priests of Estonian origin in the second half of the 1980s. The church continued the publication of its monthly Church Life; new congregations were founded, a Catholic kindergarten and school were opened in Tartu, and the church got its own Apostolic Administrator, who resided in Vilnius. Diplomatic relations between the Republic of Estonia and the Holy See were restored in 1991. The diplomatic representative of the Holy See in Estonia is Archbishop Philippe Jourdain. The visit of Pope John Paul II in 1993 was of great importance for the local Catholic community, as well as for Estonia as a whole.

Today, seven Catholic congregations are active in Estonia, as well as a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic (Uniate) congregation belonging to the Apostolic Administration, the St. Brigitta Convent in Pirita, and six additional orders and congregations. The best-known institution of the Catholic Church in present-day Estonia is, without doubt, the Pirita Convent. The St. Brigitta Convent, founded in 1407, was burnt down during the Livonian War in 1577, but its massive ruins have become the symbol of the Pirita district of the city of Tallinn. Among other creative works, they have inspired a novel by Eduard Bornhöhe, Prince Gabriel or the Last Days of the Pirita Nunnery (1895), which formed the basis for the most famous Estonian cult film, The Last Relic, made in 1969. In 2001, a new Pirita Convent was built next to the ruins of the old convent, and the St. Brigitta Order returned to its old location, after a hiatus of more than 400 years. The charitable society Caritas Estonia has been in existence since 1997. The first Opus Dei Centre was opened in Tallinn in 1996. Opus Dei has worked quite actively in Estonia, partly due to the fact that the present Archbishop is a member of this organisation.

The present-day Estonian Roman Catholic Church, which, according to church data, had 5745 persons, or 0.45% of the Estonian population in 2002, is served by 14 priests, only one of whom is an Estonian. The priests, who have come from traditionally Catholic countries, have brought along new elements, which are now shaping the face of the both growing and changing Catholic Church in Estonia.


Ringo Ringvee (1968), MA in theology, leading specialist of religious affairs at the Ministry of Interior, writer and musician.

ESTONIAN CULTURE 2/2004 (4) · ISSN 1406-8478