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Finnish community celebrates its heritage at Waukegan church

Folk dancers perform Finnish CelebratiWaukegan Sunday. | JUDY MASTERSON/SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Folk dancers perform at the Finnish Celebration in Waukegan on Sunday. | JUDY MASTERSON/SUN-TIMES MEDIA

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Updated: February 14, 2014 6:25AM

Members of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Waukegan celebrated their Finnish heritage on Sunday with the annual “Suomalainen Juhla,” or Finnish Celebration.

“It brings us together and keeps our cultural heritage alive,” said the celebration’s lead organizer, Judy Shales-Reinier. “Doing this keeps our roots alive in this community.”

Plentiful manufacturing jobs drew Finns, along with numerous other European ethnic groups. to Waukegan’s South Side in the early 1900s. That’s where Gayhart Silvola of Gurnee grew up.

“I learned the Finnish language from my grandparents,” said Silvola, who had just finished a lunch that included traditional Finnish dishes such as herring, rutabaga casserole and coffee bread or “pulla.”

St. Mark’s, now located at the corner of Yorkhouse and Delany roads on Waukegan’s northwest side, is a transplant from the city’s south side.

Helena and Paavo Pelkonen of Wadsworth are immigrants from Finland, arriving in the U.S. in 1970. The couple have relatives in Michigan “copper country” and Helena’s four sisters still live in Finland, where holiday celebrations are many, including Independence Day on Dec. 6.

“We miss our relatives,” Helena Pelkonen said. “But we like it here. We’ve made our life here.”

Asked to describe the Finnish character, Silvola said, “They can be clannish. They’re a proud people. They’re proud of their heritage.

The celebration included performances by the Milwaukee-based Kikapat-Linde Folk Dancers and the Sibelius Male Chorus − the latter named after famed Finnish violinist and composer Jean Sibelius.

Finns also gave the world the sauna.

“The sauna is almost a religious experience in Finland,” Shales-Reinier said. “Babies are born in saunas. People arrange to die in saunas. Regardless of where Finns go, to war or to a new country, the first thing they build − even before a house − is a sauna.”

Finns, who are known to plunge into an ice-cold lake or river after time in a sauna, show their hardiness in another way.

Shales-Reinier cites a common national trait − “sisu” or determination.

“We never give up,” Shales-Reinier said. “If you tell someone you are going to do something, you do it and don’t complain about it.”

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