Brief history

Brief history

The 150th anniversary of the Lahti Diaconia Institute

The year 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the Lahti Diaconia Institute, Dila. The institute was originally founded in Vyborg, after the Finnish Famine of 1866–1868. The suffering caused by the famine prompted people’s compassion, and with funds donated by the Hackman family a diaconia institute was established in Vyborg. At its founding meeting, on the 2nd of March 1869, the following operations were determined as the institute’s objectives: caring for the sick, raising vulnerable children and training nurses.

Deaconess Amalie Frölich from Dresden’s institute was invited over from Germany to oversee the operations. She is said to have personally visited the hovels in the suburbs, looking for those in need and providing them with help. On certain weekdays, she would hand out aid packages that she had diligently been collecting from the town’s wealthier homes during the week.

” Over the decades, people’s need for help has not decreased, although the modes in which aid has been provided have changed.”

Over the decades, people’s need for help has not decreased, although the modes in which aid has been provided have changed. The Diaconia Institute has constantly had to develop new ways of operating in order to match the changing needs and implementing these new methods has often required trailblazing under challenging conditions. The work started by Sister Amalie, walking along the streets of Vyborg 150 years ago, still forms the core of our operations, i.e., encountering and helping people.

Read more about the fascinating history of the Lahti Diaconia Institute and join our good work!

 – Tiina Mäkelä, chief executive officer –

The Vyborg Deaconess Institute, the predecessor of Lahti Diaconia Foundation

The Vyborg Deaconess Institute, the predecessor of Lahti Diaconia Foundation, was founded in Vyborg 150 years ago, after the Finnish Famine of 1866–1868.

People’s hunger and suffering were the main reasons behind the institute’s foundation. The death rate was so high that within a single day the priest of Vyborg conveyed God’s blessing on 142 deceased. People in Vyborg felt compassion towards those who were suffering and wanted to help combat it. As society’s resources were not enough to ensure people’s wellbeing and shouldering the social responsibilities was no longer a priority among the clergy, the role of Vyborg trading companies in providing aid grew significantly.

Before the institute in Vyborg, 42 other Evangelical deaconess institutes had already been founded in Europe, and during the golden era of diaconia in the 1860s, another 22 were established. Among these institutes two were founded in Finland, the first one in Helsinki and the second one being the one in Vyborg a few years later.

The Vyborg Deaconess Institute was modelled after the experiences gained at the institute of Dresden, Germany and the operations of the Evangelical Hospital and Deaconess Home in St Petersburg. The Evangelical Hospital of St Petersburg had been founded ten years earlier by Doctor Carl von Mayer to help the poor. Mayer had visited similar institutes in the German towns of Kaiserswerth and Dresden and wanted to establish a deaconess institute that would include hospitals and safe houses. However, because he could not secure the government’s support for his project, he instead founded a smaller hospital in order to provide help. The Kaiserswerth Institute, founded by Theodor Fliedner in 1836, together with its training system, provided inspiration to the operations and nurse training conducted at the Vyborg Deaconess Institute as well. When the institute first began operating, it also received financial aid and nurses from Germany to help with the launch of the new operations.

No records exist on when the idea of founding the Vyborg Deaconess Institute was first proposed. Preparations for it had been made in secret, and once these were completed, a founding meeting was held on 2 March 1869 at Johan Friedrich Hackman’s house at 7 Karjaportinkatu. The desire to help those who were suffering first sparked in the German parish of Vyborg and later led to action with funds donated by the Hackman family and the German parish’s priest Julius Steger.

” It was decided that caring for the sick, raising vulnerable children and training nurses should form the core of the institute’s operations.”

At its founding meeting, it was decided that caring for the sick, raising vulnerable children and training nurses should form the core of the institute’s operations. This meeting also led to decisions regarding the institute’s administration and approval of its first set of rules, which were submitted to the senate for confirmation. The senate confirmed the rules approved by the Czar on 25 May 1869.

Olga Hackman’s dedication to charity work and becoming a postulant had a significant impact on the Hackmans’ interest towards social work. Olga’s grandfather, journeyman trader Johan Friedrich Hackman, had moved to Vyborg in 1777 and married collegiate councillor Laube’s daughter Marie. One of their two sons, Johan Friedrich, became the manager of a trading company and a key figure in the foundation of the Vyborg Deaconess Institute, while his brother was Olga Hackman’s father, Karl Aleksander Hackman. Olga Hackman played a part in the Institute’s foundation, making its funding possible through bequething her inheritance to the institute. Sister Olga passed away at the young age of 27 due to a lung disease which had spread among the sisters before Christmas 1865. In her will, Olga assigned funds to the institute in Dresden, but according to the legislation of that era, these funds could not be sent to Germany. Ultimately, the capital bequeathed by Sister Olga and the 72,000 marks donated by Olga’s mother Marie Hackman, her sister Marie and her offspring formed the base for the Vyborg Deaconess Institute’s funds. Later, a further 40,000 marks, which had been collected during the famine years by priest Julius Steger for the caring of orphans, were added to the trust. The money was used to purchase three properties, in the neighbourhood of Saunalahti, to be used by the institute. The Hackmans participated in the institute’s operations for over a hundred years, until 1972, and continued to provide the institute with substantial financial aid after its foundation.

The work conducted at the Vyborg Deaconess Institute during the early years of its operation was intensive. The care for vulnerable children, which had originally begun by helping orphans, continued in many different forms. Additionally, the institute launched hospital services and founded a safe house for female prisoners. The first quarter-century of the institute’s operation was celebrated in September 1893. The modest beginnings of the hospital, the new hospital building, the launch of aged-care- and day-care centres, were among the topics commemorated during the celebrations.

In the last decades of the 19th century, in the wake of economic liberalism and industrialization, the social structure began to deteriorate. The collapse of the estates system, the general strike of 1905 and the events of 1918 resulted in radical social changes, which also impacted the Vyborg Deaconess Institute. As an international city Vyborg was impacted by the emerging ideas and liberalist trends, which led to indifference and even loathing towards Christian beliefs. The Deaconess Institute was not able to avoid their effects, even though few records of this have survived in the archives.

During the final days of Russian rule, life in Vyborg was characterised by civil unrest. Under such circumstances, the institute did its best to maintain its role as a non-discriminating service provider. An article published in 1919 in Betania, the Vyborg Deaconess Institute’s magazine, described the institute’s 50 years of activities as valuable Christian social work.

”Thousands of poor, suffering and sick people, both young and old, have been provided with care and help over the years, through the institute’s operations.”

As evacuations begun on the first day of the war the Winter War in November 1939, the Deaconess Institute’s work in Vyborg ceased. The evacuees begun their journey towards Karkku after partaking in communion at the institute’s church. They reached Karkku on the Sunday of the first advent. Here, a hospital was founded at the local Home-Economics School and an old people’s home at the Folk High School. For ten months the town of Old Sastamala functioned as a new base for the institute, as the work that had been interrupted by the war continued here.

A small number of sisters and other staff members remained in Vyborg for civil defence and security purposes. However, on the 14th and the 18th of February 1940, the Vyborg Institute was damaged during air raids and the institute’s sister home and church hall were burned to the ground. Although none of the sisters were killed during the bombings, the last seven sisters who had remained behind were forced to flee at such a short notice that the coffee they had been brewing was left untouched in the pot. The work conducted by the Deaconess Institute for 70 years, begun during the Famine of the 1860s, ended in Vyborg in the 1940s due to the war.

The peace treaty, which came into force on the 13th of March 1940 ending the Winter War, also sealed the fate of the institute in Vyborg. The City of Pori had offered the Deaconess Institute facilities that had previously been utilised by the regional hospital for free for a year. Furthermore, the city had pledged to provide financial aid for the institute’s foundation and upkeep if it decided to settle permanently in Pori. Based on a letter sent to the institute’s sisters by Elias Pentti, the manager of the institute at the time, it seemed certain that the institute would indeed stay in Pori. However, the institute’s board decided against settling in Pori, due to the city board’s clause that once founded the institute would be required to remain in there permanently. The institute’s physicians had also visited another possible new location in the city of Lahti. In July 1940, the manager received confirmation that a two-storey stone building, located in a quiet and beautiful area on Tapionkatu 6 (nowadays Sibeliuksenkatu 6), previously owned by Rudolf Veltheim, had been purchased by the institute to be used as a hospital. In August a new sister home was acquired next to the previously purchased building.

”The City of Lahti was prepared to welcome the Deaconess Institute.”

In addition to welcoming evacuees, the City of Lahti was also prepared to welcome the Deaconess Institute. With the help of financial aid from both domestic and international donors, the institute was quickly able to begin operating in Lahti. In the early days, the fact that the institute was located both in Vyborg and Lahti made things complicated, as the staff remained hopeful that they would return to Vyborg. The institute’s ophthalmologist Signe Löfgren is said to have had two suitcases constantly packed and ready in case returning to Vyborg would suddenly become possible.

When the war broke out again in June 1941, the Deaconess Institute’s hospital was turned into a military hospital and the staff was assigned to duties necessitated by the war. In 1942, the National Board of Health in Finland held a negotiation to clarify the institute’s situation and decided that the state would remain in charge of the institute of Vyborg until the end of 1943. It was also decided that the institute in Lahti would be run with financial aid from the state and the deaconess training which had started in Vyborg would be continued in Lahti. The conditions outlined in the peace treaty in the summer of 1944 left Vyborg as a part of the Soviet Union, permanently sealing the Vyborg Deaconess Institute’s fate and its new location in Lahti.

”The post-war years were not easy for the institute.”

The post-war years were not easy for the institute. The sisters missed their old facilities and had difficulties settling in Lahti. Supplies were generally scarce, and work had to be conducted in overcrowded facilities. Furthermore, the institute’s financial situation was challenging, and it lacked investment funds. However, in 1950 it was able to build a new hospital with financial aid received from both the state and the City of Lahti.

During the 1960s economic upturn the institute’s financial situation also improved. During the rest of the 20th century, the Lahti Diaconia Institute’s operations included hospital work, diaconia training, old people’s homes and daytime care facilities for the intellectually disabled. In 1969, the institute celebrated its 100th anniversary, and a history of the institute (Vuosisata diakoniaa Viipurissa ja Lahdessa), written by its manager Pentti Erkamo, was published. The sister meeting held during the celebrations was the biggest one ever organised by the institute, with nearly 200 participants.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the welfare state and the increased number of services it was providing also affected the operations of the Diaconia Institute. In 1972, the institute decided to discontinue its hospital work and transfer it over to the City of Lahti, which subsequently rented the necessary facilities from the institute. The services intended for the intellectually disabled were also transferred over to the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities in 1980. During the final years of the millennium, the institute’s administration paid careful attention to the social changes that had taken place after the 1990’s depression.

”The institute’s administration paid careful attention to the social changes that had taken place after the depression.”

The reduction in public services and the Diaconia Institute’s ability to offer facilities to new operators resulted in an increase in the number of services provided by the institute at the turn of the century. The construction of Teemuntalo’s housing and service centre, the launch of home care and nutrition services and the foundation of a day-care centre all took place after the early 1990s. During that same period, the institute’s volunteer work was expanded to reach street children in Vyborg and families suffering from substance abuse in the Lahti region, which created new forms of activities.

The second decade of the 21st century has posed its own challenges to the Lahti Diaconia Institute. Municipal budget cuts have led to the adoption of procurement mechanisms, through which the public sector attempts to outsource the required social and healthcare services as inexpensively as possible through tendering and the use of service vouchers. The competition has become increasingly difficult as large enterprises have begun to provide services alongside the traditional third-sector operators. In addition, financial limitations have also had an impact on the training department, with various reforms introduced in order to make the operations more efficient.

The Diaconia Institute responded to these challenges by merging the secondary education it provides with that of the deaconess institutes operating under the foundations of Helsinki and Oulu to form a single, larger education unit The Diakonia College of Finland. The institute has also reduced the number of services it provides, focusing on those activities that form the core of its operations at any given time. However, it has also increased the number of new ways of providing aid and support to those at risk of becoming socially excluded or left without other forms of help.