A Finnish legend: St. Urho’s Day celebration led by Werner

Becky Werner helps keep the legend of St. Urho, who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland, alive and well. The legend of St. Urho was created in Virginia by Richard Mattson.

VIRGINIA — To celebrate St. Urho's Day, one needs purple and green plastic grasshoppers. Just ask Becky Werner, who's been busy searching the dollar stores in time for St. Urho's Day, which is today, March 16, the day before the more famous St. Patrick's Day. Legend has it St. Urho drove the grasshoppers out of Finland, as St. Patrick did with the snakes in Ireland.

And the legend was created right here in Virginia by the late Richard Mattson, a manager at Ketola's Department Store on Chestnut Street. In a piece Mattson wrote about St. Urho he said, "Winters are long and cold in Virginia, Minnesota, on the Iron Range. Gene McCavic, a co-worker at Ketola's, chided me in 1953 that the Finns did not have saints like St. Patrick... So I fabricated a story and thought of St. Eero (Eric), St. Jussi (John) and St. Urho, which had a more commanding sound. So I said, 'We have St. Urho. To save the grape crop, he drove the poisonous frogs from Finland before the last ice age.'" The legend was later revised, frogs being replaced by grasshoppers, which had threatened the wild grapes of Finland.

That is, until St. Urho rid the country of grasshoppers. And St. Urho's Day has its official colors of royal purple and Nile green, just as St. Patrick's Day is represented by green.

The birth of a new saint and the folk legend that followed was featured in the Mesabi Daily News by longtime managing editor Clarence Ivonen of Virginia. Mattson wrote that St. Urho "was born of peasant stock... given a scholarship to a Stockholm, Sweden, seminary and studied in Paris under Catholic theologians. He was transferred to southern Finland where farmers grew barley and oats, and bogs created a breeding ground for frogs... In desperation the farmers asked their new priest, Good Father Urho, to help them.... As legend grew, frogs were changed to grasshoppers."

Mattson wrote of visiting Finland in the 1980s and going to St. Urho's Pub in Helsinki. "I was astounded and continue to be amazed as St. Urho's Day is celebrated decades later with people wearing green for grasshoppers and purple for grapes."

Becky Werner will be taking part today in a St. Urho's Day event up north at Lake Kabetogama, where she met her late husband Arvid Lehto. Settled largely by Finns, Kabetogama for years celebrated the day. "It keeps me looking forward to something," Werner said at her home at the Laurentian in Virginia. She has prepared raffle baskets filled with all things purple and green. And the St. Urho's committee sponsors many events, including a benefit in 2016 when Werner's son Rusty needed a stem cell transplant. Both of her sons, Rusty and Rocky, live at Kabetogama and daughter Debbie Jagunich lives in Iron. Werner, 88, is a native of Littlefork. Her second husband was the late Wes Werner.

For the Kabetogama celebrations over the years the "oldest Finn on the lake" would be designated St. Urho, and there would be a Finnish program, even a parade. The events were started in the early 1970s, when the Methodist pastor noted that there were a large number of Finnish people. "One year it was 20 below and we still had games outside," Werner said.

Each year the planners sell wooden St. Urho's Day buttons and "hide the grasshoppers," Werner said. She recalled the time she "lay down and rolled and rolled through the snow and didn't find the grasshopper."

As for plastic grasshoppers and bunches of grapes, Werner said, "I had a hard time finding them at the dollar store over here. I found two, but no grapes. The dollar store in Hibbing, they had all kinds of them." She even put some on the tables in the Laurentian dining room — along with the St. Patty's Day shamrocks.

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