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Churches of Estonia

Gallery: Churches of Tallinn

by Peter Kessler, 26 July 2009. Updated 9 August 2019

Part 9: St Olaf's Church

St Olaf's Church, Tallinn, Estonia

St Olaf's Church (Oleviste kirik in Estonian) is situated to the north of the Old Town (Vanalinn), looking out on Lai street where this meets Oleviste street. It was named after Norwegian King Olaf II Haraldsson, who adopted Christianity and tried his best to established it in Norway. Pagan tradition was too strong for him, however, and he was overthrown and killed in battle. After his death he was canonised as St Olaf the Holy, and the cult of his name infused Scandinavia.

Oleviste kirik, Tallinn

There is also a popular tale concerning the church's naming in which the townspeople accepted an offer by an anonymous builder to erect the church building for free if they could guess his name. When they did guess (by having a boy follow him home and listen into his conversations with his wife), and they called it out to him just as he was fixing the cross on the steeple, the shock caused him to fall to his death and the church was named in his honour.

St Olaf's Church, Tallinn, Estonia

The church is first mentioned in records in 1267, when Queen Margarethe of Denmark granted privileges in connection with the church to the female Cistercian convent of St Michael. A new or heavily-rebuilt church was constructed between 1330-1364, at which point the separate tower was connected to the main building. This was badly damaged by a fire in 1433 and was largely replaced by a new, larger, construction in 1436-1450.

St Olaf's Church, Tallinn, Estonia

The rebuild necessitated the demolition of the old nave and chapels and resulted in a three-nave basilica. The new spire made it the tallest building in the world at that time, but it was again damaged, this time by the Lutheran Reformation in 1524, which started at St Olaf's. The church's artistically valuable interior was destroyed by a fervent mob, fresh from conversion to the new ideals of reform. From here they went on to attack the Old Town's other churches.

St Olaf's Church, Tallinn, Estonia

On 29 May 1625, the tower was struck and destroyed again by lightening, but quick rebuilding saw the church re-open three years later, and a new tower was completed in 1651. The church's interior was ruined by a further lightening strike on 16 June 1820. The authorities decided to rescue the church from the resulting fire, rather than the neighbouring buildings, resulting in heavy local damage and a preserved church.

St Olaf's Church, Tallinn, Estonia

The church itself was restored within twenty years, with the work and the costs being supported by no less than two Russian czars, Alexander I and Nicholas I. In 1950 it was turned over to a combined Evangelical/Baptist congregation which still worships there. The tower is open to visitors and although the climb up the sixty metre-high tower can be hard work, the views over the whole of Vanalinn make it well worth the effort.

One photo on this page kindly contributed by Johnnie Caminante via the 'History Files: Churches of Estonia' Flickr group.



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