Bethel Congregation


History

"It was the will of the Lord...

...that the congregation has established the field of its work in Pelgulinn." These words are written in the chronicles of the congregation in year 1936. The land plot where the church building is located today has been received as a gift from the Tallinn City Government at the time. But all this has a prelude to it.

The founding meeting of Bethel's Congregation of EELC in Tallinn was held on April 23, 1927 in the rooms of the Tallinn Mission. In the next head meeting on May 29, the Congregation Council was elected and Hermann Hansson was elected the first reverend. Services were first held in the Rootsi-Mihkli Church, and also in the Dome Church for a short while. In year 1930, when Gotlib Luss, a member of the congregation donated a land plot to the congregation (Väike-Kalamaja 5), the Congregation Council decided to build an own church and to raise money for doing so. Unfortunately it turned out to be impossible to build a church at that address. For five years, Bethel's Congregation had held services in the Pelgulinna prayer house at Tarabella 26, in the building of the former pasta factory.

Hermann Hansson (1927-1929)

Hermann Hansson

On May 23, 1937 Bishop's Vicar Hans Kubu consecrated the construction plot at Preesi 5/7 and on June 13 a ceremonial cornerstone was laid for the new church in the presence of Dean Kubu and Reverend Roderich Bidder of the congregation. The work progressed with varied success, as the lack of money caused stoppages from time to time. It is important to note here that Tallinn Bethel's Church has been constructed on donations and perhaps to a large extent thanks to the strong spirit of Reverend Bidder at the time, as he called people to show their generosity. The largest donation was made by K. Päts, the President of the Republic, who donated 20,000 kroons so the church could get a steeple. The chronicles of the congregation have preserved the story of a widow who saved 5 kroons from her sauna money and gave it to help build the church. The author of the construction design for the church was architect Sacharias.

Roderich Bidder (1929-1939)

Roderich Bidde

On the 4th Advent Sunday of year 1938, Bishop H. B. Rahamägi consecrated the newly completed Tallinn Bethel's Church. This was the first and unfortunately the only church that was built in Tallinn during the First Independence of the Republic of Estonia. The church had a cosy atmosphere and had a rather modern building plan for the time – the altar painting was substituted by three stained glass windows in the end wall of the church. At the north side of the church building there was a spacious and comfortable congregation house, with the apartment of the reverend on its second storey. The basement of the church was used by the youth of Pelgulinn.

Karl Tiit (1939-1941)

Karl Tiit

There is not much to be said about the years following the Soviet occupation. Although the chronicles mention several hardships in the life of the congregation, its members continued to preach the Word of God, hoping for His aid and supported by His promise.

The stained glass windows that broke in the course of the air raid during the night of March 9, 1944 were replaced by the altar painting from Niguliste Church. It is understandable that as a result of the ideology prominent at the time, the membership of the congregation was reduced and the economic state of the congregation worsened significantly.

In year 1962, with a decision of the Executive Committee of the Soviet Labour Council of Tallinn and the Council of Ministers of the ESSR, Bethel's Congregation was merged with Tallinn Dome Congregation and Bethel's Church was given into use for Eesti Telefilm. This was one of the few churches that were closed during the Soviet regime in Estonia. Chairman of the Congregation Council and Reverend Mihkel Liikane refused to sign the handover-receiving act.

Eesti Telefilm established a film studio in Bethel's Church. For this, the interior and exterior look of the church needed to be changed to an unrecognisable state; a more proper term would be "laying waste to a house of God". The property of the church was partly confiscated and partly looted. The church bell, the organ, the altar, the chancel, the benches – practically the entire furnishing was lost. The windows of the church were closed with masonry; the choir gallery was separated from the church hall with a partition wall; in 1970s the spire of the steeple was also demolished. There were plans for reconstructing the church into a cinema – thankfully, these plans were not realised.

With the independence of Estonia restored and the socio-economic situation changed, Eesti Telefilm had no more need for the building that had been rendered unusable, so the remains of Bethel's Church were given into free use to the Consistory of EELC. The heating and drainage system of the building was totally worn out; the roof had collapsed, etc. For two years, Bethel's Church housed the Diaconial Centre of the EELC.

On May 27, 1993 the re-establishing meeting of Bethel's Congregation of EELC in Tallinn was held. With a decision of the Synod of EELC, the membership of Tallinn Bethel's Congregation in the family of congregations of EELC was restored. During year 1994, Eesti Televisioon returned Bethel's Church via the Consistory to its lawful owner, Bethel's Congregation.

Since the summer of year 1993, services are again held. Reverends of the congregation have been G. Piir and J. Aus. Since February 1, 1996 to this day, Avo Üprus has been the Reverend of the congregation.

Rev. Avo Üprus has brought a vision of the social church, according to which a socially sensitive, open and active church must become an integrator and healer of its community. Healing and empowering the society is possible only when answering the needs of the people. The moral theology says that it is right to start with those who need our help the most.

Bethel's Congregation has initiated many actions to help the street children, the unemployed and the homeless. The Reverend has participated and even now participates in the work of the social and law enforcement committees of the district and also in preparing the development plan of the city. The church of Bethel's Congregation has become the model of social church for the general church.

In spring 1997, the congregation started working with the street children of Northern Tallinn. At first, members went regularly – every week – to the Kopli Lines and brought along food packages, warm clothes, blankets and pillows. It wasn't easy to gain the trust of children who had been left without parental care. They took us to their real living places only after a couple of weeks. What we saw there made us act immediately and already in the summer of the same year the project "They Exist" was initiated in Bethel's Church, run by the diaconal worker Nelli Vahter. In September, volunteers, young homeless men and ex-prisoners started repair works in the church. They did it without money and without support, helped only by private donators and organisations. At the same time, work with children continued on streets.

As a result of three months of construction work, a day care centre for street children opened its doors on December 23, 1997; the day care centre was established in the apartment located on the 2nd storey of the building and initially intended for a reverend.

The Assessor of the EELC at the time and the Arch Bishop today, Andres Põder gave a blessing to this initiative and its results. Children had a place to stay during the day – they got their meals and medication here, but they weren't yet attending school as a result of a year of efforts.

In October 1998, a shower room was finished in the day centre with the help of generous donators and the hygiene conditions of the children improved considerably.

As there were still children who didn't attend school as a result of two years of efforts, we offered them the opportunity live in the church. The prerequisite for that was that they promised to go to school every day.

In January 1999, the first two girls came; after a couple of weeks, 4 more children arrived and in the end of year 1999 there were already a total of 12 children living on the 2nd storey. As there was too little space, the as yet unrepaired choir gallery was taken into use and bedrooms and washing rooms for children were established there. Friends from Germany gave money to buy the necessary materials and friends from Finland and Sweden paid for the repair works.

At the same time, the day care centre for children who were not yet ready to go to school or whose situation allowed living at home, continued its activities in the church hall. In year 1999, a new washing room and a toilet room was built in the main hallway of the church, to be used by both children and members of the congregation. Older boys who were already too old to start school were given an opportunity to live in the basement of the church. It was a courageous step for the congregation, showing much trust, to leave youth alone in the church building. But thanks to their work of one and a half years, for just a bowl of soup and a roof over their heads, the walls of the church hall and the hallway were cleaned of old paint centimetre after centimetre and the windows of the church were broken open again. The money for opening the windows was gathered by three men from Norway who rode around on motorbikes and collected funds for this project.

There was still a need for the day centre and a decent kitchen. Thus the repair and restoration works were carried on in the basement. In years 1999-2000 the older boys of the day care centre lived and worked in the basement of the church, demolishing the old concrete floor and partition walls there with large mallets and pickaxes and removing old paint from the basement walls. A construction company started its works in June 2000, and in April 2001 the Bethel's Church Day Care Centre and Shelter for Street Children opened its doors. This time, a blessing was given to the work results by Bishop Einar Soone in the name of the EELC.

In January 2000, the Christian Social Centre was established at Bethel's Church. This is a non-profit association, the substructures of which are the aforementioned Christian Children's Home and the Day Care Centre and Shelter for Street Children.

In year 2002, the project "Integrating Street Children into the Estonian Society" was initiated. The primary goal of this project was to keep risk group children away from life on streets and away from drug addiction and crime accompanying such life, integrating them into the Estonian social welfare, education and health care system. The long-term target was to make a contribution to developing the entire society to be safer and healthier, including the opportunities to get a good education and coping skills.

The rooms of the church, more exactly the former apartment for a janitor houses the association "Victim Support". This is a non-profit association helping crime victims. It was established on September 1, 1994. The goal of the association is to support the victim through a support person until the victim is able to live normally again, having become stronger via his or her painful experience. All services provided by the association are free. Timely help avoids worsening of the victim's ability to cope independently and also possible loss of employment. The work of congregation member Aet Urbas in this field was recognised on December 5 in 2006, on the International Volunteer Day, as T. H. Ilves, the President of the Republic of Estonia, presented her with a badge and a certificate of honour. Aet cares very much about children, especially children with disabilities. Kersti Lootus is the co-ordinator of the activities of "Victim Support".

Since year 2005, large-scale restoration works have been started again, in order to give back to the church building its former interior and exterior look. In summer 2005, the heavy stone roof covering was removed, as it endangered the load-bearing structures of the roof; it was replaced with a sheet steel roof covering. The summer and autumn of year 2006 were especially work-intensive for the workers of the construction company "Tarrest Ehitus". The intermediate ceiling that had been constructed in the church hall at the time of Eesti Telefilm was now demolished and the beautiful vault ceiling was restored. Acoustics and lighting conditions of the church hall improved as a result of this.

Today, when standing in front of the church or further away and raising our eyes towards heaven, we can see a new steeple spire reaching up, looking much the same as the original. The new steeple spire is nearly ten meters high and is easily visible even at Toompea, announcing to the citizens and visitors of Tallinn that the house of God in Pelgulinn is well and growing. The steeple spire was lifted into place on November 21, 2006, at a cloudy midday. Among others looking on with trepidation as the spire was lifted up were Dean Gustav-Peeter Piir of Tallinn, Mayor Jüri Ratas, and Boris Dubovik and Olav Liivik from the Cultural Goods Department. 95 years old Agnes Obrandt, the oldest member of the congregation considered this event important enough to take part in it in person. She set out towards the church with time to spare, like every Sunday, and arrived early. She sat down comfortably in the cool November weather, wrapped herself in blankets and waited for the historical moment. The rise of the spire was accompanied by the beautiful polyphonic singing of the congregation's chamber choir and Agnes's tears of joy and emotions.

On the 4th Advent Sunday in year 2006, which coincided with the Christmas Eve, Arch Bishop Emeritus Kuno Pajula from the EELC consecrated the church hall during the morning service.

Renovation works of the church continued in years 2007-2009 with the façade of the building.

Since year 2008 there have been services in Russian language in the congregation every Saturday, where Oleg Sevastyanov from the Narva Aleksandr Congregation and Diacon Eha Kraft are serving.

In addition to the services, the life of the congregation is enriched by the evening prayers on two Thursdays of every month, and morning services for nans in the congregation. The congregation also has a chamber choir, a children's ensemble and a Sunday school. There is a good tradition of having a communion after the service on the first Sunday of every month, with a coffee table and also congratulations to those who have their birthdays in that month.