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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'