Students in field

By Faith: Paying Tribute to Suomi Seminary

January 2, 2020

Rev. Leslie Niemi returns Rev. Karl Aho’s nine iron after nearly 50 years.

“Karl, I always felt bad for taking such a nice piece of collateral for my notes,” said Reverend Leslie Niemi as he handed Reverend Karl Aho back his nine iron.

Aho had given Niemi his nine iron over 50 years ago in exchange for class notes that he didn’t return on time. On September 21 at Finlandia University’s By Faith event honoring the Suomi Seminary, Aho was reunited with the beloved golf club.

Aho and Niemi were just two of the seven living Suomi Seminarians gathered together for a weekend of events designed to celebrate and honor the rich history of the Suomi Seminary, along with the lives and ministries of its graduates. They were joined by 100 family and friends, the Bishop of the Northern Great Lakes Synod (NGLS) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), other special guests and Finlandia students, faculty and staff. The name By Faith is a scripture reading, “We walk by faith, and not by sight,” in 2 Corinthians 5:7.

“We celebrate those who helped lay the foundation that is Finlandia University,” said Vice President for Advancement Karin Van Dyke. “We were so delighted by the turnout and so thankful to all the friends and family who joined us for this celebration.”

Rev. Peter Vorhes leads a large group in the Festival of Hymns.

The events kicked off with a Festival of Hymns, which offered the participants the opportunity to sing culturally and historically important hymns. Later that afternoon, Pastor David Van Kley delivered the inaugural annual lecture for the Rudolph and Darley Kemppainen Lecture Series.

Following the lecture, participants gathered for an event reception and banquet at the Finnish American Heritage Center. The program began with greetings from Reverend Mark Wilhelm, representing the ELCA Churchwide office in Chicago, and the Reverend Tapio Luoma, the Archbishop of the Church (Lutheran) of Finland.

After the greetings and dinner, FinnU president Philip Johnson presented the President’s Distinguished Service Award in the form of a custom made birds-eye maple serving tray to Niemi for his help in stewarding Finlandia through several decades.

Rev. Les Niemi holding up his birds eye maple cross and serving platter.

“This matches my birds-eye maple cross,” said Niemi, holding up the two pieces side-by-side.

The emotional highlight of the program was the recognition of the Suomi Seminarians present at the event which included Niemi and Aho in addition to Revs. Henry Aukee and Wallace Leno. The family of the other three Seminarians who were unable to attend, Revs. Martin Saarinen, Giles Ekola and Rodger Foltz, were also recognized. The attending seminarians offered their comments and shared a few stories, followed by an open time of sharing by audience and family members.  Several humorous and heartfelt memories were shared, including Niemi’s and Aho’s story of sharing class notes that led to the eventual repossession of Aho’s nine iron.

Artist Bruce Niemi describes the design of the By Faith sculpture commissioned for the event.

The symbolic centerpiece of the By Faith weekend occurred on Sunday morning with the dedication of a sculpture titled “By Faith” created by Finnish American artist, Bruce A. Niemi from Kenosha, Wisconsin. The sculpture was installed outside the front entrance of the University’s Chapel of St. Matthew. From its hillside perch, the sculpture can be easily seen from many areas on campus, and now offers a unique, new focal point. Three stainless steel spirals representing the Holy Trinity surround a fourth brass spiral that emerges from the center to represent the Copper Country. Following the sculpture dedication, participants processed inside, passing a walnut and brass plaque on the interior wall of the Chapel entrance, bearing the names of the 140 Suomi Seminarians.

Once inside the Chapel, a commemorative worship service began with standing-room-only attendance. Reverend Katherine Finegan, Bishop of the NGLS of the ELCA was the preacher. Included in the service was the installation of Finlandia’s new Campus Pastor, Reverend Sarah Semmler Smith. The service was followed by the usual coffee hour in the lower level of the Chapel, featuring the Finnish sweet bread nisu (or pulla).

To conclude the By Faith weekend event, Finlandia recognized Reverend Rudolph (dec.) and Darley Kemppainen for their gift naming not only the Kemppainen Lecture Series held on Saturday, but the lower level of the Chapel as “A Place of Grace”. The Kemppainen’s generosity has been valued over the years, not only with Suomi College and Finlandia, but with many churches and congregations throughout the Upper Peninsula and beyond.

The Kemppainen’s were recognized for their contributions to the student pantry, The Table, as well as a donation that named the lower level of the Chapel of St. Matthew the Place of Grace and installed the annual Rudolph and Darley Kemppainen Lecture Series.

Darley and her family reflected on service to others, and in particular, the importance of sharing food with neighbors and friends. Their financial support of “The Table” will continue to serve Finlandia’s students and others through the needs pantry located in the lower level of the Chapel.

Since the event, the University has continued to receive additional financial support for By Faith, as well as notes of thanks and appreciation. One of those attending and representing her husband, a ’54 seminarian who passed away in 2010, summed up the Sunday service by sending this note:

“The service was very moving, with its well-chosen texts, loud-singing Lutherans, and excellent sermon by Bishop Finegan. The installation of Pastor Sarah was a lovely present reminder of the past good soil of Suomi Seminary: a shiny new leaf on an old, well-rooted tree.”

This article on By Faith originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Donor Edition of the Bridge magazine. If you would like to receive your own copy of the Bridge please visit our publications page. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be releasing digital copies of all stories from that publication. Read more stories from this edition of the Bridge. 

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