Move over St. Patrick: Why Thunder Bay celebrates a made-up saint every March

Purple outfits, Finnish pride, and clowning the Irish — a brief history of St. Urho’s Day
By Saku Pinta and Jon Thompson - Published on March 15, 2019
a man in a purple outfit known as St. Urho leads a parade in Thunder Bay
Thunder Bay’s Finnish community celebrates St. Urho’s Day every year on March 16. (Courtesy TBNewswatch)

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THUNDER BAY — As legend has it, St. Urho drove the grasshoppers from Finland by chanting "Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen" ("Grasshopper, grasshopper, go to Hell!"), thus saving the grape harvest.

Never mind that Finland has no vineyards or that St. Henrik of Uppsala is the Nordic nation’s patron saint. St. Urho’s disciples won’t let facts get in the way of celebrating him on March 16 — the day before St. Patrick’s Day — for the 63rd year in a row. Even though none of the story is true, Thunder Bay’s Finnish community is committed to ensuring it never gets old.

Not that it’s as old as most good folk tales: St. Urho’s roots can be traced back to northern Minnesota in 1956.

Richard Mattson, a department-store employee in the tiny town of Virginia, is most often credited with having created the myth (an Irish co-worker apparently teased him about the lack of Finnish heroic saints). In his version, St. Urho chased away poisonous frogs, and the commemoration of this feat was to be held in May — but the original celebration date didn’t catch on, and the Finns moved the festivities to March 16, in part to one-up the Irish.

In the version associated with Sulo Havumäki, a psychology professor at Bemidji State University, the frogs are grasshoppers. Havumäki is also widely believed to have invented St. Urho’s famous chant. A plaque on a St. Urho statue in nearby Menahga, Minnesota, credits him with having created the legend. 

It’s probably no coincidence that St. Urho was conceived the same year that Urho Kekkonen was elected president of Finland. The saint, though, remains virtually unknown in the country of his fictitious birth. According to Esa Mustonen, manager of St. Urho's Pub — which opened in 1973 in downtown Helsinki and is named after the country’s leader — “In Finland, we don't celebrate St Urho's day, at all."

The spoof saint came late to Thunder Bay, but the city, home to the largest Finnish population outside of Finland, may well host the most prodigious St. Urho’s Day celebration of all. 

The all-Finnish Otava Male Choir starting marking the day in 1983, using it as a fundraiser. But the choir members immediately raised the stakes by pranking the public and stoking a mock-rivalry with the Irish community. 

“In the newspaper ad for our first one, we said we’re celebrating on the 12th, which was a Saturday, because there was going to be a big snowstorm on the 16th,” recalls Pekka Roininen, who is credited with having brought St. Urho’s Day to Thunder Bay. “We didn’t know about any snowstorm. We wanted to make the celebration on a Saturday because most of us were working men, and the only time we’d be able to celebrate would be on a Saturday.” 

Roininen was a member of the choir and, along with his fellow singers, had spent years crashing St. Patrick’s Day celebrations at the Irish pub named after owner, Cory O’Kelly. They would interrupt by singing the grasshopper chant and other Finnish songs. When O’Kelly’s Pub moved across town, the Finnish men’s choir followed.

“It was done as a joke, but it sort of stuck because people went along with it,” Roininen recalls. “We went to O’Kelly’s Pub, and the CBC was calling it a cultural-exchange program. I said, ‘We bring the culture. They give us beer in exchange.’”

One year in the mid-’80s, the Irish retaliated by applying green paint and shamrocks to Bay Street and the nearby stairs of the Finnish Labour Temple. Another year around the same time, the Finns arrived at their hall and found a banner reading “Irish are #1,” in green, hanging over the street. (There was just enough room left for the Finns to write “except Finns,” in purple.) The banner hung there the whole weekend, including throughout the annual parade.

Decades later, the parade still features accordion music, Finnish songs, mock protest signs, and a giant papier mâché grasshopper. Thunder Bay’s Finnish specialty stew, kala mojakka, is still served. And the Finnish traditional Pelimanni orchestra plays on. But since the men’s choir folded in 2012, new elements have been added: Finnish rapping grannies, standup comedians, Japanese drummers, and even Irish dancers.

That may make it seem as if peace has finally been achieved between Thunder Bay’s Irish and Finns — but a production written by a local theatre troupe suggests the rivalry is alive a well. The weekend’s feature presentation, a murder mystery, features St. Urho as a peacemaking hero who brings all the saints together. The prospect of unity, though, angers St. Patrick’s leprechaun bodyguard. Audience members then have to solve the ensuing crime.

“The next generation doesn’t want to go to a traditional dance,” explains Pirjo Einola, the president of the Finlandia Association board, which organizes the festivities. “We’re trying to up the game every year now — keep it going so it’s always something different.”

St. Urho, for example, now has a wife — Sinikka Urho — created by first-generation Canadian Seija Nousiainen, in 2017. Nousiainen’s real-life husband, Adam, had begun performing as the official St. Urho a year earlier. (Their 11-year-old son, Jukka has since become known as “Pikku Urho” — Little Urho.) 

“I grew up taking part in the festivities my whole life,” Nousiainen says. “It was a chance to get the family dressed up in greens and purples to have a silly day of fun on Bay Street. It’s just keeping traditions alive. Even though it’s silly and made up, it shows pride in our background and, to me, that’s important.”

Saku Pinta has a doctoral degree in political science from Loughborough University and is now an independent scholar based in Thunder Bay. Pinta worked at the Hoito intermittently between 1994 and 2006. Jon Thompson is TVO's northwestern Ontario Hub reporter.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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