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Our History

A Handshake Across the Sea Since 1953

Original Finlandia Foundation plaque
The original Finlandia Foundation plaque.

The first chapter in the history of the Finlandia Foundation, which formally took place in 1953, had its beginnings back in the war-torn Europe of the 1940s. Finland was struggling through war and diplomacy to maintain its independence.

Yrjö A. Paloheimo had organized the Finland Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and as Finland was plunged into the Winter War by the Soviet invasion he turned his energies to raising money and broad support for his beleaguered homeland.

Toward the end of the war, his audience was mainly Finnish-Americans, for after 1941 Finland was a co-belligerent with Germany fighting against the Soviet Union (then America’s ally). With German help, Finland was fighting to recover her own territories lost during the Winter War.

Yrjö A. Paloheimo was a Field Secretary for a U.S. organization called Help Finland.
Yrjö A. Paloheimo was a Field Secretary for a U.S. organization called Help Finland.

Over the course of five months during 1945, Paloheimo visited 150 Finnish-American communities scattered all over the United States to solicit support. These communities were well known for harboring residents with strong views and often sharp political and religious differences, but as Paloheimo wryly reflected in 1983 “during the Second World War…Finnish Americans were united more than ever before, or after, in trying to help Finland.”

Besides wanting to help Finland, the community leaders shared another concern closer to home: “what to do that the younger generations would join in their cultural activities and help preserve their societies’ Halls and Churches in the future.”

Starting the Organization

The nine founders meeting in the Fenyes Mansion's Pirtti room.
The nine founders meeting in the Fenyes Mansion’s Pirtti room.

These two pervasive concerns noted by Yrjö Paloheimo in 1945 — nurturing the connection with and transmitting a sense of Finnish-ness on to the younger generations in the United States — have defined the mission of the Finlandia Foundation over the past half-century. How to achieve these aims in practical terms has been of course the hardest problem, and each Board of Trustees over the decades has had to renew the mission and create appropriate programs.

The post-WWII leadership created and named the foundation itself under Paloheimo’s guidance. They wanted to build on the unprecedented unity of the war years and create something lasting. But it took eight years to achieve a new national organization that Paloheimo and others felt “would unite all Finland Friends in this country” and help perpetuate Finnish culture in the United States.

The name Finlandia Foundation had first occurred to Paloheimo in 1947. Other foundations were researched as models, and the American Scandinavian Foundation was considered the best example because of its national reach and its tax-exempt status.

Paloheimo, who had become the Honorary Consul of Finland for Southern California, wrote a Constitution and Bylaws. On the evening of January 21, 1953, nine founders finally met at the home of Consul Paloheimo and his wife, Leonora Curtin Paloheimo, to give unanimous approval to the Constitution and Bylaws. The Finlandia Foundation was official.

  • Mr. Otto Collanus
  • Rev. Omar Halme
  • Dr. Vaino A. Hoover
  • Dr. Bennett Kantola
  • Mrs. Leonora Paloheimo
  • Rev. Everett Torkko
  • Consul Yrjo A. Paloheimo
  • Mrs. Suomi Rauhanheimo-Owen
  • Mr. Jaakko Tae
The outside of the Fenyes Mansion in 2012
The outside of the Fenyes Mansion, 2012.

The setting was the Pirtti Room inside the Sauna House on the grounds of the Fenyes Mansion that had formerly belonged to Eva Fenyes, Leonora’s grandmother. Subsequently, this residence housed the Finnish Consulate and is now the home of the Pasadena Museum of History.

The national office of the Finlandia Foundation, officially opened in June, 2004, is located within this same complex of buildings.

Establishing the Organization

Finns Connect South Florida at their Vappu celebration
FinnsConnect South Florida at their Vappu celebration.

Initially the Finlandia Foundation established chapters in major cities, received dues, and awarded scholarships for musical study in Finland and the United States. As the composer Jean Sibelius had agreed to be a patron of the Finlandia Foundation, the scholarships were called the Sibelius Music Scholarships.

Yrjö A. Paloheimo was elected first President, followed by Dr. Vaino Hoover in 1962.

Under the long tenure of the first two Presidents, from 1953 to 1983, vigorous local Finnish-American chapters were formed in communities throughout the country: New York City, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Santa Barbara, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Tidewater Virginia, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh, and Phoenix. Some thrived, others faded, and new ones emerged.

  • Finnish-American Heritage Society, Inc., Canterbury, Connecticut
  • Finnish-American Society of the Midwest, Chicago, Illinois
  • Finnish Americans and Friends, Hibbing, Minnesota
  • Finnish-American Heritage Society, Inc., West Paris, Maine
  • The Finnish-American Society of Dallas-Fort Worth Dallas, Texas
  • Finnish American Home Association, Sonoma, California,
  • Finlandia Club of Sacramento Valley, Sacramento, California
  • The Finnish Center at Saima Park, Inc., Fitchburg, Massachusetts
  • Finnish-American Heritage Association of Ashtabula County, Ashtabula, Ohio
  • Finnish American Society of the Delaware Valley, Levittown, Pennsylvania
  • Finnish Heritage Society-Sovittaja, Rutland, Massachusetts

The affiliated chapters and Finnish-American organizations are the grassroots of the Finlandia Foundation. They are active sources for new trustees and program development, providing the Foundation with a membership base of some 7,000 members.

Composing the Organization

FFN leaders, Hoover and Paloheimo
FFN leaders, Hoover and Paloheimo

Historically, the Finlandia Foundation was composed of two parts: The Finlandia Foundation National (non-tax exempt administrative body), which was originally founded in 1953, and the tax-exempt Finlandia Foundation Trust, which was initiated by Dr. Vaino Hoover some years later due to an unintended development. The vigorous growth of the chapters as self-supporting cultural organizations had begun to cut into the administrative funds and scholarship money available to the national body, as the scholarships had been funded from chapter dues and contributions.

President Hoover’s solution was not to raise dues (then $1 per member) or reconfigure the relationship with the chapters; instead he chose to create the tax-exempt Finlandia Foundation Trust and to endow it with his own money. The income from the Trust was then used exclusively to fund scholarships and a small grants program. Hoover also covered the administrative costs for the non-tax exempt Finlandia Foundation National from his own pocket. During the Hoover era there were thus two Boards of Trustees and tenuous communication between chapters and the two national bodies.

In the 1980s, following the deaths of its first two Presidents, Vaino Hoover in 1983 and Yrjö Paloheimo in 1986, the Finlandia Foundation began a process of reorganization. As an initial reform, a single board of trustees coordinated The Finlandia Foundation National and the Finlandia Foundation Trust. In 2002 the trust was eliminated completely.

The Finlandia Foundation now operates as a private, philanthropic foundation. Under the leadership of Gertrude Kujala (1984), Jorma Kaukonen (1989), Juha Makipaa (1991), Carl W. Jarvie (1993), Paul O. Halme (1995), Inger Pancoast-Edwards (1999), John Suomela (2001), John Laine (2003) and Ossi Rahkonen (2013) the Foundation has greatly increased its grants and scholarships and become the major source of private funding for Finnish and Finnish-American cultural activities in the United States.

Spreading the Organization

Yrjö A. Paloheimo's original office.
Yrjö A. Paloheimo’s original office.

The foundation newsletter, edited by Eero Korpivaara (after 1984), by Arthur Koski (from 2000 to 2005) and Armi Koskinen Nelson (from 2005 to 2010) has grown from 4 to 24 pages, and is mailed to members bi-annually (it is also available here). Additionally, FFN produces a free, monthly e-newsletter.

The Foundation Trustees now geographically represent all areas in the United States where significant Finnish-American communities developed. Professionally they range from business people to community leaders. In generational terms, the trustees include post-WWII immigrants from Finland as well as second and third generation descendants of the original pre-1924 immigrants.

In the 1990s, the capabilities and activities of the Finlandia Foundation expanded considerably. Under the skillful management of the Finlandia Foundation Finance Committee, the overall endowment grew from $500,000 in 1993 to well over one million dollars in 2000. In the early years of the new century, the Board initiated a national fund raising campaign to ensure the continued growth of its funding capability. In 2020 the endowment stands in excess of $2,800,000.

In 1992 $47,000 were awarded in grants and scholarships; by 1997 the awards exceeded $100,000. In 2021, awards totaled $182,000.

Most gratifying for trustees and chapter members is putting the foundation funds to good use. Dozens of excellent projects are funded each year. Individual projects range from outdoor mural paintings of Kalevala scenes in the Upper Peninsula community of Hancock to major international festivals showcasing Finnish and Finnish-American talent; from nuts-and-bolts support for the preservation of halls to the underwriting of promising young scholars and artists.

Connecting with the Organization

In its early years, the first Patron of Finlandia Foundation National was Finnish composer, Maestro Jean Sibelius.

Finlandia Foundation National (FFN) was formed in 1953 in Pasadena, California, under the leadership of Consul Yrjö Paloheimo, who served as president for the first six years.

A main goal of the Foundation was to “unite all friends of Finland in America and perpetuate Finnish-American cultural institutions.” One of the questions that arose was, “How could Finland, remote and far away, assist in this effort?”

The concept of “Finnish culture” in the minds of Foundation Trustees at that time was exemplified by the thrust towards music, and that is not a surprise since the first four years of the existence of FFN (1953-1957) were also the last four years of the life of Jean Sibelius.

Sibelius agreed to be associated with the fledgling foundation as its Patron or Sponsor in Finland. The first Finlandia Foundation National scholarship fund was named after Jean Sibelius, and in 1954 the composer was presented with a birthday scroll with over 2,000 donor names for the Sibelius Scholarship Fund.

Järvenpaa,  April  13, 1954

The Finlandia Foundation
170 North Orange Grove Avenue Pasadena 3, California U.S .A.

I have received your letter on February 28, in which you ask me to be the Patron of your association.

Nothing would please me more than that the cultural relations between our two countries, which have always been close, would become even stronger to the benefit of both nations.

Thus, I can fully appreciate the work performed by your association, and I consider your offer a great honor. I accept  it with pleasure and wish your association continued success as a cultural bridge builder.

With warm regards, Respectfully yours, Jean Sibelius

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

The year 2004 was an historic year for the Finlandia Foundation National with the opening in May of its first national office during its 50 years of existence. The excitement continued with the announcement that conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen agreed to become the Patron of the Foundation.

Salonen was born in Finland in 1958 and studied at The Sibelius Academy and with private teachers in Italy. He is currently the Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. From 1992 until 2009 Salonen was chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was also Music Director. He appears as guest conductor with orchestras around the world.

In September 2020 he became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. 

Salonen’s talent as a composer was recently recognized with the Nemmers Composition Prize from the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University.

Cultivating ties with Finland has always been a central purpose of the Foundation, and with Esa-Pekka Salonen as its Patron, Finlandia Foundation National reaffirms its commitment to Finland and to the recognition of the value of music within our lives, beginning with the education of our younger generations.

Expanding the Organization

Finland Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde and FFN President Ossi Rahkonen at the 60th Anniversary Gala
Finland Ambassador Ritva Koukku-Ronde and FFN President Ossi Rahkonen at the 60th Anniversary Gala

The long record of funding excellence in the performing arts continues with the Performer of the Year Award initiated in 1995 by Trustee Anja Miller.

After celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2003, the Finlandia Foundation is striving to enhance its past achievements and to become a model in its own right of a small foundation dedicated to the continuing vitality of one ethnic group in the United States.

In March 2013 in Pasadena, California, FFN chapter representatives, FFN members, friends of Finland and dignitaries gathered to celebrate the 60th anniversary of FFN and look forward to a vibrant future.

This article continues to be updated to reflect the current number of FFN chapters and other developments.

Dig Deeper: Black Ties and Miners’ Boots

This brief history of Finlandia Foundation is based on the summary compiled for the annual report of 2000 by the History Committee of the Board of Trustees, chaired by Jon Saari. In 2003, for the 50th anniversary of the foundation, Jon wrote a book-length history entitled Black Ties and Miners’ Boots: Inventing Finnish-American Philanthropy. A second edition of the book was published in 2010.

All new members of FFN receive a copy of the organizational history book, Black Ties and Miners’ Boots by Jon L. Saari. If you would like to purchase a copy, please review the payment options below.

Each book is $19.95, plus $2.50 for shipping and handling. California residents must pay an additional 9.25% sales tax.

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Along with your name, address, and phone number, send a check payable to:

Finlandia Foundation National
254 N. Lake Ave. #852
Pasadena, CA 91101