The Church on Fink Hill

The Church on Fink Hill

It’s Christmas, season of light. The candles are lit—our tree is up. Its branches glow with pinpoints of light and hold ornaments that were once on my parents’ and even my grandparents’ Christmas trees. If you’re not Christian, or not a person of any faith at all, you might wonder why a story of Christmas would speak to you. Well, think of it this way. Have you stood breathless beneath the Northern Lights? Or noticed the peace and calm to be found in a certain quality of light? Sitting here in our candlelit house on this December evening, I feel a glow that is light and family history entwined. I glance over at the ornaments on our tree and remember a church I never saw, a church that isn’t there anymore—the church on Fink Hill.

Consider the quiet photo at the top of this post. I took it at our family farm in the days after my dad passed away, which had happened a week before Christmas. When our mother eventually decided to sell the farm, she wanted us kids to have the Christmas decorations. As we took the tree down that year, we divided the ornaments among us. Those ornaments are now the only ones that my husband and I hang on our tree.

The story of the church on Fink Hill is my maternal grandmother Hilda’s story, her memory of going to the Fink Church for a Christmas service. I don’t remember her ever telling the story to me. The happy reason I know of it is because she wrote it down, and it was at some point published in a small local newspaper.

I’m from a little town in the U.P. of Michigan. People back home have long relationships. Friends, family, even distant relations—whether we stayed in the area or live far away, we’re bonded with a sort of small-town glue. The newspaper is still published under a new name—actually, as a merger of two early papers—and I’m not sure which one Hilda’s story of the church on Fink Hill appeared in. The current publisher—probably everyone around town knows him personally—apparently found Grandma Hilda’s Christmas memory in the archives and sent a scan of it via the internet to my mother’s cousin.

That branch of my family has a family Facebook page, and Mom’s cousin posted the scan on it. What Grandma Hilda had written moved me so, I printed it out. Every time I go back and read it again, I hear her voice and her joyful laugh. She had a natural affinity for telling a story.

Perhaps it will surprise you that my grandmother didn’t attend high school. When she was in eighth grade, her mother became ill, and Hilda quit school to take over the care of the house and livestock. I tend to forget that piece of my grandmother’s life story, until I’m reminded of it again by reading family history. Hilda had such wisdom, and an eye for detail. She even wrote for a Finnish-American newspaper, Amerikan Uutiset.

As Christmas has been approaching this year, I’ve been visited by a persistent thought that Hilda’s Christmas story shouldn’t be hidden away, but should be shared with whomever might be lucky enough to happen upon it. The thought finally won out.

Grandma Hilda’s story of Christmas could be mine. It brings to life the light-filled night of gathering and song and waiting that has brightened the dark time of the year throughout my life. But Hilda was born in 1904. There are things in her story that are different from my experience of Christmas, and I envy them.

She opens her story by saying that her parents, my great-grandparents, belonged to the Kansalliskirkko, which she defines as the National Church. She writes that the church was known as the Fink Church, and that it was high on a hill. Though I was never at that church, I see the hill as clearly as can be.

Grandma Hilda’s story of Christmas is from her childhood. From the way she describes everything, I picture the service taking place at night: “I always remember when Christmas came, how brilliantly the candles in the church windows shone, even as far as Autio’s hill. Indoors was a beautiful, large Christmas tree under which, wrapped in brown store paper, were gifts and toys. The children presented a program. There for the first time I heard the song ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.’”

She describes the church yard. “In the church yard there were several horses hitched to sleds, with blankets on their backs, crunching hay that had been placed before them.” Then, her remembered night fills with sound: “I can never forget how Nestor Filppula’s, Iisakki Raisanen’s and Matti Ylkanen’s harness bells rang out when they drove past my home to the Fink Church.” Today it amazes me that, after all those years, she still remembered the sled drivers’ names. It amazes me that the church was so small, she knew every name.

How I envy the beauty and simplicity of those bells driving past on their way to the little Fink Church. In these busy and fretful years, how I wish I could stand alongside a circle of patient horses enjoying Christmas hay on a December night.

But oddly—it wasn’t December. It wasn’t Christmas Eve.

The little Fink Church didn’t celebrate Christmas until after the New Year. Its members had to wait for the pastor to travel from Minnesota, stopping in three other towns along the way. Hilda writes, “Mother tried to explain this circumstance to us, that Christmas would not be complete without a Christmas sermon.” It’s hard, living in 2023, to fathom having to wait for something of such importance to the life and hearts of the people involved—especially for a child to have to wait.

I don’t know exactly when Hilda wrote down her story about the church on Fink Hill—probably in the 1960s. She ends it by saying there were only a few left who had gone to services there. “I still remember,” she wrote, “with loving thoughts that little undemanding sanctuary from whose ceiling hung oil lamps, and on its altar was a beautiful picture of Jesus stepping into heaven, on beautiful Fink Hill.”

Did you notice—the oil lamps at the end of her story? I imagine they were smoky and smelly, but what Hilda seems to have remembered was their light. I would like to have sat beneath them with her. I expect that, under that lovely light, she was looking forward, as young people do, to the years ahead and seeing promise in them.

These days, things change incredibly fast. I enjoy the ease of modern life, but I find myself wishing, at least part of every day, for the simple peace of Fink Church. I can’t ignore that the climate is shifting in a worrisome way. As much as I marvel over the little phone I carry in my pocket, marvel over the powerhouse computer on my desk, I see how technology can easily take over and become a substitute for human relationship. I wonder uneasily what changes artificial intelligence will bring. More and more, I yearn for undemanding space, for the power and peace of light.

Finding space and peace in light has been a lifelong thing for me. Around the time I was in eighth grade, I sat alone, late one night, beside my family’s Christmas tree. I was at the transition point between girlhood and young womanhood. I don’t know where the rest of my family was. Asleep, maybe.

The room was lit only by the lights on the tree. I was sitting on the floor beside it. I still feel the arm of the couch behind my back, can smell the fragrance of those spruce branches. I was leaning in close to the tree, contemplating my distorted reflection in the shiny, curved surface of a gold bulb hanging on the nearest branch—staring at myself, and wondering hard.

What would the years bring? Who would I find to love? What would I spend my life at? They were normal questions, of course, for a girl on the brink of womanhood. I hadn’t heard or read yet Grandma Hilda’s story of the church on Fink Hill. When I contemplate the direction the world is moving in now, becoming more divided, pettier and more mean-spirited, I find my breath catching—and not just in concern for myself. On that long-ago night beside my family’s Christmas tree, I didn’t know to wonder the things I wonder now:

Will future generations have the luxury of finding the life that my generation has lived to be backward and strange, the equivalent of having to wait into January for a pastor to travel from another state to speak a Christmas message?

Or will our great-grandchildren look from the perspective of a darkly changed world and envy us, with regret and disappointment—wishing for themselves what we lacked the foresight and the heart to achieve ourselves and then send forward to them? A society that protects the earth, will always choose freedom, and will stand up for anyone’s right to be who they are.

What I pray for, as I sit here surrounded by candles and Christmas tree light, is that 2024 will deliver to 2044 the haven and promise that were Hilda’s as—gratified at last that the message of the season had arrived—she sat beneath the smoky oil lamps at the little Fink Church.


Donna Salli - Seated - Color

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