Grensehistorie Vannkraft Grenseliv
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Old and new faiths

Sør-Varanger is a religious borderland where the old Sami nature religion, the Russian-Orthodox faith and the Lutheran faith meet.

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Nature religion

The old religion of the Sami is based on an animistic interpretation of life in which humans and nature were closely connected, inasmuch as all life, animate and inanimate, was held to possess a soul. It was important to stay on good terms with the powers of nature, and sacrifices to obtain good luck were made at sacred seid stones. Like the religions of other northern peoples, the Sami religion had a shamanistic form in which the noaide was the religious leader. The noaide mediated contact with the world of the spirits.

In present-day Sør-Varanger there are two groups of Sami: East Sami and North Sami. The East Sami have inhabited the area for the greatest length of time. The North Sami are the descendants of the Sami who came to the area from the mid-1700s. Some of them were Sea Sami, or Nomadic or reindeer-herding Sami, and came from the most northerly and easterly parts of the North Sami area, around Tana and Varanger. The two groups had different languages, but could nevertheless understand one another. The biggest difference was in religion: the Sea Sami were Lutheran and the East Sami were Russian-Orthodox.

Russian-Orthodox

The East Sami came into contact with Christianity through the Roman Catholic church during the period prior to the Reformation, and via the Orthodox church in Russia. In the 1500s, the East Sami came under the Russian ecclesiastical system and judicial system. According to legend, the Russian monk Trifon christianised the East Sami and built St. George’s Chapel in Neiden and the chapel in Boris Gleb.

The Pasvik Sami were a religious people, and maintained the rituals of the Russian-Orthodox church to the extent possible. Mass is still held in St. George’s Chapel in Neiden.

  • St. George’s Chapel. Norway’s smallest church building stands in the “Skolte Sami town”, the old communal lands of the East Sami in Neiden. The holy monk Trifon built the little house of God, which was consecrated to St. George, in 1565.
  • Boris Gleb. Right over the border, on the Russian side, lies Boris Gleb. There are clear indications that this area was inhabited from at least the 1400s. The holy monk Trifon erected a chapel here in 1565, which stood until 1944 when it was burned down. In 1874 a new church was built, which still stands there.
  • Trifon’s cave. Trifon is the apostle of the East Sami, the monk who christianised and baptised the Sami of the Kola Peninsula. Legend has it that Trifon rid the entire area at Holmengrå of trolls and sea snakes which prevented boats from sailing through the treacherous waters that surrounded the island. On the return trip, Trifon held a service of devotion in the cave, which has since become a sacred place.

Lutheran

Only sporadic attempts had been made to christianise the Sami prior to the beginning of the 18th century, when the priest Thomas von Westen carried out several major missions to the Sami areas. The Sami mission led to a decisive break in continuity in the centuries-long Sami religious tradition, which was forced underground, if not forgotten. As opposed to the Russian-Orthodox East Sami, the North Sami became Lutherans. In 1862 the Lutherans in the municipality got their very first church when Sør-Varanger Church was consecrated.

Churches as border markers

Politicians frequently pointed to the importance of marking Norwegian sovereignty in the area. Churches and schools were important partners in this task. In Sør-Varanger three church buildings were erected which were intended not only to serve ecclesiastical needs, but also to provide spiritual and physical protection for the border to the north-east.

  • King Oscar II’s Chapel was consecrated in 1869 and was the result of the direct need to protect the border. After the border was drawn in 1826, the new border lines were not well respected, by Russian fishermen among others. The decision to strengthen Norway’s position in the area with a highly visible Lutheran church came with the realisation of the fact that the Russian population were highly religious. In 1873 King Oscar was on a visit to Finnmark and the chapel was named after him.
  • Neiden Chapel, which was finished in 1902, with its building style similar to a Norwegian stave church, marked Norwegian authority in this area which had previously been Sami and which was first incorporated in Norway in 1826. The background for the building of the chapel was both the local people’s demands for better conditions in which to worship and the authorities’ ongoing policy of Norwegianisation.
  • Svanvik Chapel was consecrated in 1934. With its unusual design, built with round timber from the local area, the Chapel was erected as a result of a local initiative, but also for border policy reasons. The east side of the Pasvik river became Finnish in 1920, and the fear that Finland would gain control over all the Finnish-speaking areas and make them part of a «Greater Finland» was a contributory cause of the efforts to make Sør-Varanger as Norwegian as possible.

Strand boarding school

The establishment of boarding schools was an initiative which was part of the process of making Finnmark into a homogenous Norwegian area. In Sør-Varanger people lived spread over wide areas and it was therefore difficult to have a permanent school in each district. Strand boarding school in the Langfjord valley was built in 1905 and was a combined school and church. As there was no church in the local area, one of the classrooms was fitted out to enable it to be used for church services. A churchyard was also established close to the school.

Læstadianism

Lars Levi Læstadius (1800-1861), who was the priest in Karesuando in Sweden, initiated a revivalist movement which gradually spread through large parts of Norway and Sweden and most of Finland. For Læstadius, an extremely important cause was the fight against alcohol. He also opposed all forms of unnecessary finery and splendour, which he believed distracted people’s attention from God. In Sør-Varanger, the revivalist movement was initially concentrated around Bugøyfjord and Bugøynes, but quickly spread further afield. By around 1885 most of the Finnish and Sami population had joined the movement, while the Norwegian population to a great extent remained faithful to the Church of Norway.

Kirken i Boris Gleb. Innviet 23. august 1874. (Foto: Wilse. Sør-Varanger museums samlinger)

The church in Boris Gleb, consecrated on 23 August 1874. (Photo: Wilse. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

Ortodoks kors på Svanvik kirkegård. (Foto: Ingar G Henriksen, Sør-Varanger museum)

Orthodox cross in Svanvik churchyard. (Photo: Ingar G Henriksen, Sør-Varanger museum)

Innvielse av Svanvik kapell 25. september 1934. (Foto: Ukjent. Sør-Varanger museums samlinger)

Consecration of Svanvik Chapel, 25 September 1934. (Photo: Unknown. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)

Kapellet på Strand internat. Gudstjenester, barnedåp, bryllup og begravelser fant sted i det lille kapellet i internatbygningen. Kapellet var viktig fram til byggingen av Svanvik kapell. (Foto: Ingar G Henriksen, Sør-Varanger museum)

The chapel at Strand boarding school. (Photo: Ingar G Henriksen, Sør-Varanger Museum)


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