The legend of St. Urho

FinlandIf there is a holy grail for the imaginary Saint Urho, it would be the original hand-written poem, “A Ode to Saint Urho.” The poem was phonetically written, so when read aloud it would sound as if speaking with a heavy Finnish accent. The poem was scribed in the mid-1950s by Gene McCavic, an employee of Ketola’s Department Store in Virginia, Minn. The inspiration for the prose (and co-author) was fellow employee, Richard Mattson, who spun a tale of a Finnish Saint who had killed all the frogs in Finland. For over 60 years, the poem, which is written on parcel wrapping paper, has been carefully preserved and archived at the Minnesota Discovery Centre in Chisolm. However, while the poem lied dormant in a box, the legend of St. Urho morphed and grew to become the “holiday” that we celebrate today. 

The amphibian in the room 

There are three significant differences from the original tale to the tale today. First, the poem states that St. Urho killed all the frogs in Finland, compared to chasing away grasshoppers. Second, the original poem makes no note of grapes. However, an interview with Richard Mattson in 1998 (also archived at the Minnesota Discovery Center) recounts the day back in 1953 or 1956 (time forgets) where he elaborates on the idea of poisonous frogs contaminating the grape crops during the ice age. And last is the discrepancy of the date, from May 24 to March 16. All three changes seem to have happened at the same time and relatively quickly. A 1956 article written by Clarence Ivonen in the Mesabi Daily News writes, “While the sons and daughters of Erin are paying their respects to St. Patrick, Mattson was loudly praising the feats of Saint Urho.” 

Another theory for the changes could be politically charged. Given the political climate during post WWII Europe, one cannot help but make a parallel to our North American Saint Urho and Finland’s revered President Urho Kekkonen, son of a lumberjack, who was elected in March of 1956 and was best known for keeping neutral relations with the Soviet Union (a potential swarm of locusts that could have easily invaded the smaller Finnish country). 

The celebrations 

Graphic of St. Urho. | HANNELE KORMANO

St. Urho’s Day has become a world-wide phenomenon and is even celebrated by some in Finland. But there is another Finland that has celebrated St. Urho’s Day for over 40 years: Finland, Minn. In 1976, the U.S. government encouraged communities to celebrate community pride for the bicentennial, and the name of the community itself should explain their heritage celebration. Every year since then, State Hwy 1 is shut down to accommodate a parade that begins at the top of a hill and makes its way through the town. Finland’s population of 400 people swells to about 1,000 people over the festive weekend.

“People who live far away come here every year if they can. It’s like a big family reunion,” said Honor Schauland, St. Urho event coordinator for Friends of the Finland Community. 

Then, stories of St. Urho crossed north of the border. The legend of the Saint was first introduced to those in Thunder Bay in the early 1980s when the ORAS Chamber Choir held a celebration at the Finnish Labour Temple (Finn Hall) on Bay Street. St. Urho’s Day is (un)officially March 16, but festivities occur on whatever Saturday falls closest to that date. So when the party for St. Urho was scheduled for March 17, 1984, local Irish citizens protested. In the cover of darkness, they painted a green stripe and shamrocks along Bay Street. And during the celebration, a group of patrons from a local Irish pub paraded through the Finn Hall with banners that read, “Irishmen are #1.” But instead of conflict, the Finns welcomed the Irish, and over a beer the two groups celebrated their Saints. 

This year, both communities are kicking off their St. Urho Day celebrations on Friday, March 17. Finland will offer a three-day event themed “Urhopalooza.” For more details, visit: friendsoffinland.org

The Finlandia Association of Thunder Bay party will kick-off with a dance and music by the Finnish Reggae band Conga Se Menne. Visit: thefinlandia.com for more info.

With so much going on, the faithful can easily do some cross-border celebrating.



By Kathy Toivonen