Resources

Religion

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Latvians/

Of Latvian Canadians who declare a religious affiliation, close to 90 percent are Lutheran, 10 percent Roman Catholic, and 1 percent Baptist. By comparison, in Latvia in 1935 the distribution was 68 percent Lutheran and 26 percent Catholic, although in 1995 it was almost 50–50.

Lutheran congregations in Canada are organized as regional dioceses, which form part of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Exile. From 1966 to 1994 the archbishop was Arnolds Lūsis, then pastor of St John’s Latvian Evangelical Lutheran congregation in Toronto; his successor resides in Germany. In 1975 a secondary administrative authority was organized in North America, the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which the diocese of Canada was led until 1996 by Dean Juris Cālītis, pastor of Toronto’s St Andrew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, founded by the Reverend Ādolfs Čops in 1949.

Larger centres often had two Latvian congregations from different synods. This duplication created a rift within these communities. Dean Skrodelis was appointed after World War II by the archbishop to oversee the organization of congregations in Canada. He toured Latvian settlements, held services, and encouraged immigrants to form congregations and sponsor Latvian ministers (half of Latvia’s 285 ordained ministers had left in 1944). By 1952 there were twenty-four congregations with sixty-three hundred members from Halifax to Vancouver; membership peaked at around seven thousand in 1981, and by 1993 there were eighteen congregations with fifty-two hundred members, led by twelve ordained pastors and some deacons.

The Latvian Lutheran Church represents a middle-ground Lutheranism, similar to Germany’s, with some particular Latvian aspects. Each congregation is self-supporting, as opposed to being government-financed, as in Germany and Scandinavia. Canada has a more democratic style of pastoral leadership and greater support for ordination of women. The lay chair of the congregation plays a more significant role than in Latvia, and women’s auxiliaries are the backbone of much congregational activity. Increasingly women are proportionally represented on church councils as well as in the ministry. An annual series of lay theological courses at the Theological Institute organized by Dean Cālitīs outside Toronto has for fifteen years trained almost all deacons as well as younger pastors from all over the world.

Leaders in congregations are also frequently community leaders outside the church, and pastors have often advanced the community’s political goals, such as, for example, Latvia’s independence. Pastors and religious services were the first contacts for many new immigrants. The congregations created schools and acquired land for cottages and children’s summer camps – Saulaine and Sidrabene, outside Toronto, and Tērvete, near Montreal. Membership signals continued identification with the community. As many as 20 percent of non-church members seek out a Latvian minister for funeral services. Average church attendance ranges between 98 percent for Thunder Bay, a tiny community of twenty-five retirees, to 12 percent for Torontonians. Retired members predominate, with relatively few twenty-to forty-five-year-olds, partly because of lack of language proficiency. There have been debates in the community about use of English to attract younger and mixed-marriage Latvians, but many members fear that this would erode Latvian traditions and speed assimilation. Some ministers regularly hold English services.

During the period of Soviet rule, from 1944 to 1989, contact with the church in Latvia was almost impossible. From 1960 to 1985 the main contact was via personal correspondence and gifts sent secretly. As the regime’s grip lessened, visits and meetings increased. The church abroad, particularly St Andrew’s in Toronto, supported Latvia’s vocal and active dissident group of pastors, the Rebirth and Renewal Movement. The church provided personal, financial, and political support, which was later expanded into an effort to reunite the separated parts of the church. A formal union was not achieved, and some recent events point to setbacks. However, the churches maintain several areas of cooperation – a joint yearbook, a joint hymnal (1993), and an ongoing liturgical commission, as well as considerable Canadian financial assistance to congregations in Latvia. Pairing of sister congregations leads to visits, exchanges, and direct aid. Faculty members from outside Latvia have trained seminarians at the University of Latvia. Canada’s Dean Juris Cālītis was awarded an honorary doctorate for his role in organizing the programs of the faculty of theology there, and the last two deans have been from the United States.

In 1970 there were 1,400 Latvian-Canadian Roman Catholics, organized on a parish basis and connected to the larger Roman Catholic Church in Canada. The Association of Canadian Latvian Catholics, founded in 1949, was registered with the Toronto archdiocese, with Dean B. Kokins as its pastor. There are only about two hundred Latvian Baptists in Canada, but they have a very active congregation in Toronto. A relatively small group of Latvians belongs to an ethnically based movement, Dievturi, which uses folklore as a basis for its belief system and is independent of any other religious movement.