My father was born in 1914 to Otto Rajala and Alma Johansen. Otto worked the mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan until his body broke down. Alma, a mail-order bride, ran away to Minneapolis, leaving behind my 8- year-old father, John, his 6- year-old sister, Toini, and the baby, Ruth. That was a shocking development in the tight- knit Finnish community of Ironwood, Michigan. My grandmother Alma died four years later, still in her 20s, in a Minneapolis sanatorium for tuberculosis. She was buried in a pauper's grave my father was never able to find. This brief autobiographical sketch with its generational trauma was a part of me as I began what would become my Finnish Sabbath.
It was Saturday, Dec. 15. My dear friend Diane Jarvi was participating in a Finnish torii, the Finnish word for marketplace, which was to take place inside a church in South Minneapolis before the holidays. I headed for Christ Church Lutheran expecting only to see my friend, eat a little pulla bread with cardamom, and listen to Finnish music while doing my Christmas shopping. I was in for so much more.
Because I knew only the name of the church, I googled it to get directions. That was when I learned it had been designed by the father and son architecture team of Eliel and Eero Saarinen. I literally had to take a breath. Those two men were part of a hallowed group of legendary Finns my father spoke of throughout my childhood. His pride in their work, and his compassion for Eliel, who had emigrated to America and made Detroit his home about the same time my father left Ironwood and joined the art department for Pontiac Motors in nearby Pontiac, colored every comparison my father ever made in regard to art and design.
Sunday drives through Minneapolis during my childhood, where he had moved our family in 1954 in order to take a job with Nordquist signs, would always involve a discussion about the new buildings under construction. "This compares to Eliel," my father would say ... "This compares to Eero," ... My father knew everything about them.
How then, had I, his daughter, not known about Eliel's last work? Why now, in my advanced years, in the city I call home, was I walking into a structure of such function and design at a time when I was revisiting my own function, my own design. I will blame it on winter, for this was our first storm, and to the Finns, winter is our season.
As I walked through the entrance on the south side, the tears that filled my eyes caught prisms of colors cast by the spectacle of the late afternoon sun beginning to descend. I could remember my father's words, "It's the light. It is all about catching the light." The beautiful sanctuary's design cast sheaths of remaining daylight into fragile bands of afternoon. In one area, the light was golden. By turning, I could see the changes in hue and intensity. It was subtle. It was peaceful. It was art infusing function and design, and then ... in an inexplicable way ... art transformed to faith.
I had found something beautiful. My lifelong fascination with the history of my Finnish relatives ... those who chose socialism, those who chose activism, those who chose communism, and those who worshipped steadfastly in their Finnish Apostolic churches .... was like these very bands of light I was seeing. All of them were illuminating. All of them fulfilled a grand design. No more would I inwardly suffer the sadness that my father, a communist, had denied himself membership in a church. I had found his church.
The rest of the day was heaven. Familiar faces, like my family's faces .... aged, worn and craggy, ... or the children's faces ... scrubbed and shining ... were all around me. I felt like I had walked into an old Finn Hall on the range, only we were in a church A church that a masterful father and son had designed to encourage us to see more light.
Eliel and Eero Saarinen had succeeded. Their work was complete.