The Puhm family in Sweden approx 1946-7: from the left Meta, Alar, Toivo, Oskar, Heili. Photo: family archive
Reede, 26 Juuli 2013 11:24
Tiiu Roiser - Estonian Life No. 30 2013
My last conversation was with Meta on a chilly afternoon in November of 2006. We met in her apartment at Eesti Kodu and although her eyesight had dimmed, her personality and warmth were as vibrant as ever.
We talked about St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Toronto and she shared with me her fondest of memories. Meta's husband, Reverand Oskar Puhm had been ordained at Tallinn's Kaarli Kirik at the young age of 22 after completing University at an accelerated rate. He and Meta were married in 1936 at Pühavaimu Kirik by Pastor Tallmeister just after Meta completed her schooling. They began their married life in Rannamõisa where Rev. Puhm organized the Keila Kabel into the new Ranna congregation.
Son Toivo was born in 1938, daughter Heili, in 1943. Fearing for the safety of his family, Rev. Puhm took Meta and the children to Finland in February of 1944, but he returned in August with 2000 fellow countrymen named the "Soomepoisid" to defend Estonia.
During this time, Meta did not hear any news of her husband as she anxiously awaited with her two small children at a Finnish farm. The political situation worsened and it was soon apparent that with or without her husband, Meta had to leave their haven. With the help of Oskar's brother, Meta and the children, along with 900 other people, boarded the ship "Veenus" and headed to Sweden. The memory of the stormy fall sea is still very vivid. With tears in her eyes, Meta recalls: "Neptune oli meile armuline." -- Neptune showed us mercy.
Meanwhile, Oskar was in Estonia, walking alone along a deserted beach unsure if or how he could reunite with his family. A boat suddenly appeared on the sea maneuvered by what appeared to be "tipsy" men. They had been circling the Naissaar and thought that they had arrived in Sweden. Because Oskar had a compass, they agreed to take him on board with them. Despite the boat and its occupants being shot at by the Russians, Rev. Puhm found his way to Sweden and met up with his family in December of 1944.
Many people perished in that stormy autumn sea and Meta recalled how her husband found and buried many of the storm's victims as they began washing out onto the shore.
At first, Oskar Puhm worked in Sweden as a civil engineer and Meta found herself busy with two small children. A second son Alar was born in Stockholm in 1945.
An opportunity to work with the same engineering firm in New York arose a few years later and in 1948 the family moved to the United States. Rev. Puhm was working temporarily as a church janitor when he was contacted by Rev. Ernest Hahn of Toronto and Rev. Rudolf Kiviranna of New York -- would he consider moving to Toronto and serving the newly formed congregation of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church?
After Oskar had held the congregation's second sermon on October 3rd, 1948, he returned for his family in New York and moved everyone to Toronto on the 28th of December 1948.
Meta recalled the early years in Toronto. This was a time of heavy immigration with newcomers arriving daily. There were times when their home was strewn with people sleeping on the floor. Oskar literally gave the clothes off his back, lending his suit to others so that men could look presentable going to job interviews.
There came a time when Rev. Puhm learned that the Canadian government was not allowing Estonian soldiers entry into Canada. He was so upset that he went to Ottawa and demanded to be heard by the government authorities. He vocalized his frustration at Canada's immigration policies. Soon thereafter Canada did change their policies and Toronto and St. Peter's congregation saw an even greater influx of Estonian immigrants.
St. John's church, where the new congregation had been gathering, quickly filled to capacity. The young Estonian congregation was quickly outgrowing the rooms St. John's had to offer -- it was obvious that they needed a home of their own. It was Meta whom God led to the corner of Roehampton and Eglinton, for it was there that she saw a lot for sale that seemed an appropriate place for building the church. Within twenty-four hours the Missouri Synod had lent them sufficient funds to pay for the lot.
Meta recalled how every penny went towards the building of the new church. There were community fund drives, and everyone pitching in to erect the new building. She remembered growing flowers in her garden to decorate the altar for weekly services to save the cost of purchasing flowers. Meta stressed the feeling of community at that time. Everyone was an immigrant with no language skills and no money -- all had been through the same trauma of war -- all wanted to build a new home for their congregation. It was truly an Estonian community group project. Thus, from humble beginnings, grew the congregation and church building now known as Saint Peter's Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto. St. Peters became a home and gathering place for worship, scouts and guides, the Estonian School and social gatherings. The church was the heart of the community for the growing Estonian population.
Meta fondly recalled a blur of thousands of weddings, church events and sermons. She was once asked to compose a book of Rev. Puhm's sermons but when she began the endeavour, she soon learned that it was an impossible task. It seems that Oskar never wrote out his sermons, but instead made point-form notes, glanced down at the points he wanted to cover and spoke where his heart and God led him.
As we concluded our meeting, Meta's final thoughts turned to the importance of teaching young people. Rev. Puhm loved working with youth and included outdoor services and field trips in his teachings. All hope and promise for the stable future of our church is in the hands of our youth were his feeling. "Teaching our young people," Meta stressed, "is THE most important social responsibility the church needs to fulfill."
As she looked backed at her years of service, she stated: "The Lord blessed our work -- not just OUR efforts, but ALL OF OUR efforts working together as a community, doing God's work. Strong leadership moving toward the good of the community will ensure the future of St. Peters."
Having grown up attending St. Peter's Sunday School and being confirmed by Rev. Puhm after attending his intensive confirmation classes, seeing all that she did for St. Peter's, I wish to thank Meta for all she has done for the congregation and church. Behind the hard-working pastor stands the supporting wife who sacrifices family time and carries the load while the minister serves the congregation. For all your tireless efforts and good deeds gone unnoticed - we thank you sincerely. Dear Meta, may you have eternal rest with our Heavenly Father.
Tiiu Roiser – Based on original article written for St. Peter's Elu/Herald