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St. Urho
Legendary Patron Saint of Finland
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Saginaw, Minnesota

Just six miles west of Twig
(somewhere past the sticks)

St. Urho legend's creator,
Richard Mattson, dies

St. Patrick got fierce competition from Finnish grapes-saver
Linda Tyssen Williams
Mesabi Daily News
Thursday, June 07, 2001

VIRGINIA, MN -- The Irish had their St. Patrick and the wearin' o' the green.

So why not the Finns?

Thus the good St. Urho was born nearly 50 years ago at Ketola's Department Store in Virginia, thanks to a fun-loving Finnish-American named Richard L. Mattson, who figured it was time for a saint of the Finns' very own.

Mattson died on Tuesday [June 5th] in a Duluth hospital. He would have turned 88 on the Fourth of July.

The fame of St. Urho, who drove frogs from Finland and saved the grape crop, has spread far and wide, even across the sea to Finland where there's more than one St. Urho's Pub. There's a St. Urho's statue in Menahga, Minn., and one in Finland, Minn., and the Helsinki Bar in Butte, Mont., has a St. Urho's celebration. Mattson's wish that St. Urho and the wearing of the purple and green would live on would be fulfilled.

Mattson, a manager at Ketola's for 42 years, once wrote this about how he created St. Urho: "Winters are long and cold in Virginia, Minnesota, on the Iron Range. Gene McCavic, a co-worker at Ketola's Department Store, chided me in 1953 that the Finns did not have saints like St. Patrick. I told her the Irish aren't the only ones with great saints. She asked me to name one for the Finns. So I fabricated a story and thought of St. Eero (Eric), St. Jussi (John), and St. Urho. Urho, a common Finnish named, had a more commanding sound.''

So Mattson told McCavic the Finns had a St. Urho. And to save the grape crop, he chased all the poisonous frogs from Finland before the last Ice Age. Never mind that grapes never grew in Finland -- this is legend.

The women of the store threw a St. Urho's party in the coffee room, and Mrs. McCavic wrote a poem in "Finglish'' dialect (best read aloud). It begins, "Ooksie kooksie coolama vee, Saint Urho iss ta poy for me! He sase out ta rogs so pig unt kreen, prafest Finn I effer seen!'' The legend had begun.

Clarence Ivonen wrote in the Mesabi Daily News in 1956, "While the sons and daughters of Erin were paying their respects to St. Patrick, Mattson was loudly praising the feats of 'Saint Urho.''' It was the first known mention of St.Urho ever published, and in the years since, the saint and his holiday have been featured in newspapers across the country. "I was actually there at the start of his legend. That's why he was special to me,'' Ivonen said in a phone interview.

"He was one of a kind, not only for St. Urho, but for the way he greeted everybody at Ketola's Department Store. He always had a smile and a witticism. That's part of the St. Urho legend, always tongue in cheek and a quip. He had that twinkle in his eye,'' Ivonen said.

Dave Torrel of Sparta, who also has written St. Urho's poems, said Mattson had a great sense of humor. "He thought this was a great thing that it had gotten as far as it did. He started that day just as a fun thing. There should be a lot of Finnish people who have fun over the day,'' Torrel said.

Mattson's son, Marc Mattson of New York City, said his father "got a big kick out of starting a legend.'' A few years after Mattson spun his tale, a Bemidji college professor named Sulo Havumaki changed the frogs to grasshoppers. Marc Mattson laughed about "intellectuals debating something that was made up.''

The story of St. Urho is perhaps best told in Richard L. Mattson's own words, as reprinted in "The Legend of St. Urho,'' compiled by Joanne Asala.

"I have given lectures on this long-neglected saint, explaining to rapt audiences that he was born of peasant stock on the Finnish-Swedish border. After showing promise in schools, he was given a scholarship to a Stockholm seminary and studied in Paris under the humanist Catholic theologians. When Urho returned to Finland, he was given a parish in a rural area... A small creek and bogs created an ideal breeding ground for poisonous frogs... This had a devastating effect on the new young crops. The people appealed to the gods in 'The Kalevala' and then to the Christian God with no results. In desperation they asked their new priest, good Father Urho, to help them.

"After studying the problem and the height of a frog jump, Urho built a sluice high enough to contain the frogs. They eventually went to a holding pond. Then the frogs were sailed to France in the holds of ships with ice to preserve them. Thanks to the Finns, this is how the French first acquired their taste for frog legs.''

St. Urho's Day was originally to be a May celebration, Mattson wrote, "but everyone wanted to have a party in March as the Finnish answer to St. Patrick.

"The response became phenomenal -- going nationwide within a few years with programs, parades, parties, greeting cards and buttons. I have heard there is a movement in the southwestern states to make St. Urho the patron saint of refrigeration, which makes it possible to ship fresh fruits and vegetables to the rest of the nation. Who knows when and where miracles will end?''

Marc Mattson said his father was a "mover and shaker'' and the "mayor of Chestnut Street.'' He started the Saturday Night Dance Club at the Coates Hotel, a gala affair with formal gowns, tuxedos, big band music -- and Mattson and his wife Carolyn gliding across the floor like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

People would speculate on what Mattson's middle initial "L'' stood for, and Mattson would jokingly tell them "Lovable.'' So in honor, Mattson's grandson, Travis Myers of New York City, gave his own son "Lovable'' as a middle name.

Richard L. Mattson had numerous health problems over the years, but he used his sense of humor to help him through, sometimes wearing a T-shirt that read "Mayo Clinic Cadaver Society,'' Marc Mattson said.

And Myers said his grandfather "went out with a smile on his face.''

Richard L. Mattson had said his tombstone epitaph is to be "I finally made it.''

The truth is, if success can be measured by a legendary saint named Urho, Mattson found it a long time ago.

Story at Mesabi Daily News