Tapiola Church

(Illustration by Jon Lehtinen)








In the 1880's the first pioneers rowed their way up the Sturgeon River and settled on the shores of Otter Lake. They were not only confronted with the problem of physical survival in a forbidding wilderness, but also keenly felt the hunger for the nourishment of the soul. They realized that God, in His infinite wisdom, had provided them with their daily manna in the form of game and fish, which were plentiful. Man, however, cannot live by bread alone, but from every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God; therefore, the need of a spiritual leader became apparent.


All the resources and the potential of land and forests were there for them to develop, but this demanded toil and faith. Because God is always attentive to the supplications of those who call upon Him for help, He sent another settler into their midst who had been a lay preacher in Finland, the homeland of all these settlers. The name of this first preacher was Stephen Savela. He homesteaded a 160-acre tract of land on the West side of Otter Lake. Later his whole family moved into the area and spent their lives there.

In these days of hardship and struggles to gain a foothold for a living, the matter of paying the preacher for his services was entirely unthought of. The concern of all was the salvation of the soul. Being a lay preacher, the duties of Stephen Savela were confined to preaching the Word, baptisms, and burials. In this work he continued to serve up to his death during January 1907.


For many years the question of building a church was entirely unthinkable due to the limited population and means of the community. This, however, was solved by mutual agreement. The house and home of each member would become the House of God by turn on each Sunday. Long wooden benches were made for pews, and the small homes were filled to capacity with worshippers. Not all were Godly people, but for diversion and fellowship with neighbors, all attended these meetings. Many of the people, who have passed on to their rewards, that left from these humble gatherings rejoicing in having found their Lord and their Savior there.


These early pioneers considered the day when one of them must part from this life, and his earthly remains be returned to the earth from whence they came. It was agreed that the first settler to pass on would have his remains deposited onto his own ground. This would thenceforth be the cemetery for the whole community of Tapiola and Askel. The grim reaper made his first visit in Askel calling Juaso Kargi to his rest. In a beautiful setting on the hillside, midway between Otter Lake and Askel Road, the cemetery is situated in a restful spot in the woods. Only a few of the descendents of the original settlers are buried there today.


Upon the death of Stephen Savela, the community was left without a Shepard, and the congregation could not afford to hire a fulltime preacher from the closest parish in Calumet. This would have been impractical because of lack of roads and the means of travel. Two men were therefore chosen, John Naasko and Olaf Savela, the son of Stephen. Lots were drawn to decide which of them would start serving as the minister of the Word for the congregation. Neither man had received any theological training, nor had any background, but the need was desperate. Both bowed to God's will, but the lot fell on Olaf. The first Sunday when he went to deliver his first sermon before God and his tiny flock, the task appeared so enormous in his unprepared state that he wept. He called upon his fellow Christians to pray to God to send them the bidden manna. They began their service with the result that power was endued upon him from on high. To the amazement of all, he began to preach with great strength. From then on, he continued to preach every Sunday, as his father had, and the flock grew.


About this time, a vast forest fire went through the area East of the Otter River. It burnt thousands of acres of pine slashing, exposing in its place a fertile farming area which was immediately sieged upon by new settlers. Christianity spread and the duties of the minister multiplied. It was decided before the twenties that the parson should be compensated for his services. His monthly wage was placed at six dollars. Also, the community had grown to the extent that homes no longer were big enough to accommodate the church members. A need for a church was keenly felt. The subject was first presented at an informal gathering in the general store of Carl Olson (now Karvakko's Market). There, a new settler and also a disciple, Paul Hendrickson, voiced the daring plan. Sitting on nail kegs in the rear of the store, the people decided to call a meeting of the elders of the community to talk of building a centrally located place of worship. This meeting was called for the 26th of February in 1922 and was attended by all the fathers of the entire congregation. With a single mind and purpose, all agreed to take part in the construction of the church, giving of their labor, material, and money. The location was to be upon the land of John Kurtti, who donated and deeded the lot for the building. John Kuovinen owned a stand of virgin hemlock, from which he allowed the logs to be cut for the lumber of construction. The cutting and gathering of the logs was done by willing hands, and Carl Olson and his sons provided their sawmill for the preparation of the lumber. Wherever help was needed, manpower was available.

Funds were made sufficient to hire an architect and lead carpenter. By June 12, 1922, work was begun on the site. The size of the building was decided to be 28 feet wide and 67 feet long, on 12 foot studs. May it be said here that at the time of the first meeting, the funds in the bank account of the congregation amounted to $41.82


The wholehearted effort and energy of everyone can best be summed up by the fact that in September of the same year, the opening services were held in the completed church. There was no debt and more funds were left than there had been in the beginning. Without any mandatory pressure on donations at any time, the church has always been blessed with sufficient funds to operate and function without hardship. Even in the year of 1951, when the building was badly damaged by fire, it was restored into better condition than it was formerly from sources entirely unforeseen.


Before the construction of the church, the congregation operated rather informally without the benefit of formal organizations. Very little was left on record of the operations except the maintenance of the cemetery. With the advent of the church, a board was necessary to be elected. It transacted the business of dealing with the needs of the congregation. A constitution with bylaws was also drawn. It set a clear understanding to every member of their rights and restrictions in the use of the church. This indeed is still today a perfect and thoroughly applicable masterpiece of forethought. It has needed no amendments nor have any rules needed to be repealed, as it is based on the Word of God.


Olaf Savela continued serving the congregation as its pastor until the late 1920's when, due to the infirmity of old age, he was relieved by the Reverend John Oberg. Along with his serving the parish in Laurium, he also ministered to the Tapiola Church. He was replaced due to old age by Reverend Evert Maatala from South Range. He served Tapiola in conjunction with other congregations of the area. Upon his death in 1936, the present speaker, Andrew Mickelson began. He has been the spiritual leader from that time to this day. On the first Sunday of each month he holds services with the Lord's Supper. On the last Sunday of the month, Reverend Waino Karvonen of Laurium has been delivering the spiritual message for over 20 years. The congregation is free to invite any guest minister from other congregations to speak between these two Sundays. Aside from these regular functions, Sunday school is held in the Church each Sunday throughout the regular school year. The leader of these classes has been Helmer Peterson for over twenty years. Also, annual youth gatherings have been held since 1966. In this way, the youth of the church have been able to take an active part in religious affiliations.


May the determination, cooperation, and the faith in God that our forefathers represented in this church be an example for future generations to build upon. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but the Word of God shall remain forever.

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