Roman Catholicism in the Faroe Islands
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The history of Roman Catholic Church in the Faroe Islands goes back to the year 999, when king Olav Tryggvason of Norway sent Sigmundur Brestisson on a mission to the islands with several priests. The islands became an independent diocese in 1111, but were officially reformed in 1537 and the last Catholic bishop was executed in 1538. After 1538, the Catholic Church was only revived in 1931 as a part of the bishopric of Copenhagen. The state church is now the Protestant Faroese People's Church.
Today there are 130 Catholic believers from 23 nations living on the Faroe Islands. Their center of worship is the Mariukirkjan (St Mary's Church) in Tórshavn. Although the Catholic presence is small, the Church has had a large impact through the St Frans school, run by the Franciscan Sisters since its establishment in 1933.
Today, there is strong reason to believe that the first settlers on the Faroe Islands were Irish monks. They introduced sheep and oats to the Faroes. Latest archaeological excavations indicate that this could have been as early as in the 6th century. More information is available at The Irish Connection.
In 999, the Norwegian king Olav Tryggvason sent the Viking chieftain Sigmundur Brestisson along with several priests to the Faroese in order to baptize the people and instruct them in the best of the Christian faith. The teachings were Catholic, as Norway was at that time.
In 1100, the Faroes were elevated to become the independent Faroese Diocese, and in the year 1111 the first Bishop took office in Kirkjubøur. During the next 400 years, 34 Catholic bishops resided in Kirkjubøur. The last bishop was Ámundur Ólavsson, who held his office until his death in 1538.
Christian III of Denmark suspended the Norwegian parliament in 1535, and Denmark annexed Norway along with the Faroe Islands. In 1537 the king decreed that the official state churches in Norway, Denmark and the Faroes be reformed in accordance with the Lutheran doctrine adopted at the Augsburg Confession in 1530.
During the Reformation the old bishop's office was disestablished and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hamar was executed in 1542. The seminary was closed. The Crown confiscated all lands held by the Catholic Church, which had occupied about 40 percent of the Faroes.
After the introduction of freedom of religion with the first Danish Constitution in 1849, there was an attempt to revive the Catholic Church on the Faroes. In 1857, Bavarian priest Georg Bauer arrived on the islands. He built a church in Rættará, Tórshavn, but did not find many followers. When he left the Faroes in 1880 he had no successor, and the building decayed.
The Franciscan Sisters
In 1931 two young priests, E. G. Boekenogen and Thomas King, undertook the task of re-establishing a Catholic presence on the Faroes. In a house leased to the Franciscan sisters who came to the Faroes in 1931, a small church was consecrated on May 23 that same year. Among the first to visit this church were some old people who had in their youth attended Father Bauer's church.
The congregation soon outgrew the small church in Bringsnagøta, and together with the new school of St Francis, which the sisters had built, a new Church of Mary was consecrated on June 1, 1933.
The first sisters arrived on the Faroe Islands in April 1931, in response to an appeal made by Cardinal Van Rossum to help the Faroese people and to re-establish the presence of the Catholic Church on the islands. Over the years, they built up a school, a crèche, and a kindergarten, and served the needs of the small Catholic community which gradually formed. Today, there are approximately 130 Catholics of 23 nationalities in the Faroes.
The Franciscan sisters of the Faroe Islands were known for their good works and tolerance. They organized an annual bazaar, using the proceeds to fund their school. They also worked to alleviate the needs of the hungry of the world. Some students of the school were taken in as foster children. Faroese teachers taught in Faroese, even though the sisters themselves were foreigners from across Europe. They learned the Faroese language and spoke with an accent, which was called the "Nun Accent." It never disappeared. They also taught their students about the Bible, prayer and the basics of Christianity, although they were unable to teach the Catholic faith. Their lifestyle of tolerance served as a model for many Faroese people.
St Francis school was always a step ahead of the rest of the school system. In benchmark tests their students were always among the best.
In 1985 St Francis School came under the care of Tórshavn Town Council because the Franciscan sisters were too old to run it any more. Today they have 350 students and 30 teachers. The typical red school building of 1934, designed by the Faroese architect H. C. W. Tórgarð, is remembered by generations of Tórshavners who were instructed there. In 1987 a new school building was dedicated.
The present Franciscan community is the only community of religious sisters on the islands. At the moment, it is made up of six sisters of four nationalities: Flemish, Maltese, Irish and Korean. The primary mission of the sisters is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ; to support the small Catholic community on the islands; and to represent the Catholic Church on the way towards Christian unity. Two of the sisters continue to work in the kindergarten established by the sisters. The sisters are also engaged in a variety of other apostolates: education; faith formation; prayer groups; inter-church activities; visiting the sick and the elderly; welcoming various groups; service of the poor.
St Mary's Church Today
The current St Mary's church was consecrated on 30 August 1987. The Catholic community gathers every Sunday at 11 o'clock for Mass. The atmosphere of the church invites one to prayer and stillness. "Kerit", the convent of the Franciscan sisters is to be found beside the church.
There are approximately 130 Catholics throughout the islands, at least a third of whom are Faroese. A few young parishioners trace their roots back five generations; others trace their roots back to their grandparents. Faroese people are received into the Catholic Church at regular intervals, the most recent being in June, 2010. Two Faroese parishioner represented the Catholic Church and the Faroe Islands during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Denmark in 1989. Both were attired in national dress and had the privilege of receiving Holy Communion from Pope John Paul. The other parishioners come from 23 different nations: Denmark, and various countries of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America and Oceania.
On Sunday, 25 June 2006, the parish community celebrated the 75th. anniversary of the re-establishment of the Catholic Church on the Faroe Islands in 1931 and the founding of the present Catholic community. Bishop Kozon and parish priest, Fr. Lars Messerschmidt, made a special weekend visit to the Faroes. Bishop Kozon was the main celebrant. The Mass was televised and transmitted on Faroese Television in the afternoon. The Lutheran bishop was a special guest. One of the tourists present at the celebration Mass was a former President of Ecuador (1992–97).
In the garden surrounding the church a variety of plants are grown. Many of them originate from remote areas of the Southern Hemisphere with growing conditions similar to those of the Faroe Islands. These plants symbolize the place of the St Mary's Church in the global Catholic community.
- This article incorporates information from the German Wikipedia.
- Ingi Rasmussen: "The teachers wore veils". In: Atlantic Review Autumn 2004, (Atlantic Airways, Sørvágur 2004), p. 5-8 (and on stamps.fo)
- Katolsk.fo - Homepage (English, Danish and Faroese)
-  Franciscan Sisters
- Stamps.fo - Faroese Post (Public Domain)