Exactly 100 years ago as of Saturday – on Aug 28, 1921 – Svalbard Church was consecrated after a mere 50 days of construction. A mere few months later the first ministerial act by its first priest was presiding over the burial when 27 men were killed in an explosion in the coal mine within several hundred meters of the new building.
“In a short time he succeeded in bringing together a group of men who were willing to rehearse a hymn for the occasion,” a book detailing the church’s history notes. “And it was strangely moving both for them and for the whole population to be reminded of how human plans can be laid in ruins in an instant.”
In the century since, the world’s northernmost church has indeed been the center of extremes of the high and low moments of human and spiritual presence in Longyearbyen. From the “politically sensitive game” of its establishment to its complete destruction during World War II to being a vital community cornerstone during today’s drastic climate/mining transition of town, the church’s narrative is drastically beautiful and stark as the natural surroundings much of its mission takes place in.
“Being a priest here is like standing in a long line and at the same time standing on someone’s shoulders,” Siv Limstrand, the current priest and 24th in the church’s history, told Svalbardposten in an article published this week commemorating the centennial anniversary. “Two perspectives that extend in two directions. Standing in the long line is like taking over the baton. Standing on someone’s shoulders means that we are constantly building on something others have done. Over the hundred years there have been incredibly good servants of the church, servants of the people and servants of the local community.”
A three-day commemoration of the anniversary began Friday evening with a singing of Svalbard hymns, plus stories about the church’s history by sharing of stories about the church by Anne Lise Klungseth Sandvik (deputy chair of the church’s council and a local resident for nearly 50 years) and Torunn Sørensen (the church’s deacon for the past 13 years).
Events on Saturday include a family Mass at noon at the location of the original church site a few hundred meters away and a walking historical tour beginning at 3 p.m. at the Skjæringringa memorial. On Sunday at the church there will be an Orthodox Liturgy at 9 a.m. (with confession beginning at 8:50 a.m.) by Russian Orthodox Priest Aleksander Volohan from Trondheim, followed by a Catholic Mass at 11:30 a.m. by Bishop Berislav Grgić.
A virtual commemoration of the anniversary is also taking place online, including a Facebook page for people sharing memories of landmark events and a featuring of the historic photo archive at Svalbard Museum’s website.
The church’s history actually dates back to 1907, a year after Longyearbyen was officially founded, when Bishop Peter W. Bøckman sent Norway’s Ministry of Church Affairs a request from the The Spitsbergen Coal and Trading Company Ltd. (which eventually became Store Norke), according to the book “Svalbard Kirke,” edited by Leif Magne Helgesen, the church’s priest from 2006 to 2018. It came during a turbulent time for the mining company, due to several strikes by workers unhappy with their treatment by management, and the bishop questioned if the request was sincere or an attempt to quell the unrest.
That question, plus others about Svalbard’s “no man’s land” remoteness and disruptions caused by World War I, contributed to debate and delays that stalled serious work establishing the church until 1919. That summer Edvard Sverdrup (a professor at the Congregational Faculty in Oslo and chairman of the main board of the Norwegian Lutheran Home Mission Society) and Karl Bay (director of the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani) finally established a plot for the church “high and visible, a little above the town,” in Sverdrup’s description.
Construction began on May 25, 1921 and the final decor completed on Aug. 25, followed by its consecration three days later. Thorleif Fredrik Østenstad arrived in June as the church’s first permanent priest.
The church was burned down during WWII, as were most other buildings in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg as the two settlements were evacuated before Nazi forces occupied Spitsbergen. The foundation for a new church – the one currently standing – was set in 1956 and the new building consecrated in 1958. The silver altar candlesticks and baptismal bowl from the old church, among the few items saved during the evacuation, were placed in the new church.
But the church is more than just what happens in the building. Holiday Masses and other annual events take place at numerous outdoor and alternate locations such as a cabin the church owns in a valley east of town. During the Christmas season the priest, governor and a few others visit all of Svalbard’s settlements by helicopter to share holiday meals and fellowship with the diverse international populations that have their own traditions at each location.
Helgesen, in an essay at his website commemorating the church’s 1oo-year anniversary, asserts the local people and natural elements shaped the spiritual color of the church as much as the church did to those it reached out to.
“The wind could grab the church and try to send it out into the fjord as driftwood,” he wrote. “At times the wind howled and creaked in the old timber. Even in calm weather, the angels had plenty to do where they shuttled with prayers from Earth and up to the boss himself.”
“The best thing about being a priest on Svalbard was precisely to shine God’s blessing on both those who were present, those who were out for a walk, worked in the mine, were at sea or in the air, sat at home or wherever they stayed. God is not limited by a small wooden church with doors, walls and ceilings. The church is always bigger than what we see. The blessing applies to everyone who is in Svalbard.”
Svalbard Church 100-year-anniversary celebration schedule
7 p.m.: Svalbard hymns and stories, led by Anne Lise Klungseth Sandvik and Decon Torunn Sørensen. This is an open event, but space will be limited due to COVID-19 infection control.
Noon: Festive Mass at the original church site.
3 p.m.: Historic walking tour by archaeologist Per Kyrre Reymert and Svalbard Museum Director Tora Hulgreen. Starts at Skjæringringa memorial.
9 a.m.: Orthodox Liturgy by Russian Orthodox Priest Aleksander Volohan.
11:30 a.m.: Catholic Mass by Bishop Berislav.