Rev. Marianne Platou Olsen, leads the Church of Greenland’s Northern Deanery.  Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

Rev. Marianne Platou Olsen, leads the Church of Greenland’s Northern Deanery. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

*By Claus Grue

It is a bright and crisp Sunday morning in mid-May in Ilulissat on Greenland’s west coast, more than 300 kilometres north of the Arctic circle. As usual, the sea is scattered with glittering icebergs in different shapes and sizes. This morning, like most mornings this time of the year, new formations of frozen water, calved from the Greenland icecap at the bottom of Ilulissat Icefjord, have made their way out into the Disko Bay and shaped up right in front of Zion Church, one of Church of Greenland’s two churches in use in Ilulissat. Built in 1779, this dark-brown wooden jewel is the oldest church in the country and a natural meeting place for locals.

240 year old Zion Church in Ilulissat is Greenland’s oldest. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

The interior is welcoming and colourful, with blue-painted benches and a white-painted wooden ceiling held up by white pillars along both sides of a red-carpeted aisle. Large Roman-style windows allow plenty of daylight into the room. Its warm and welcoming atmosphere is further boosted by a small organ located in the rear left side facing the entrance, so that the organist can bid people welcome.

Zion Church’s welcoming and colourful interior. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

Teaching confirmands is key

This particular Sunday morning is no different from the other Sundays when worship is held here. As usual, plenty of people have come and there aren’t that many seats left in the benches. Two young boys come running in late to find a couple of free spots in one of the back rows after the organist has started to play. Confirmation season is approaching but before these kids can be confirmed, they are expected to attend worship each Sunday for ten weeks. When they don’t, they can be pretty sure that Rev. Marianne Platou Olsen, dean at Church of Greenland’s Northern Deanery, will notice it and have a word with them later on. To her, and her colleagues in the Ilulissat parish and elsewhere in the deanery, teaching confirmands is key.

“Going to church on Sundays is an important part of their biblical education and they need a good explanation for not showing up”, Platou Olsen says.

Now, with autumn around the corner and confirmations done for now, she is pleased that 99 percent of the 14-year olds throughout her deanery have had their belonging in God’s Christian family confirmed this year.

She is quite firm about mandatory worship attendance for the confirmands. She also very much enjoys teaching, which may have something to do with her previous occupation as a schoolteacher.

“I’ve had children around me all my life and I have always loved it. Being a pastor is even better than being a schoolteacher because it gives me the opportunity to preach the Gospel and inspire kids and youngsters to worship God and live a Christian life”, she says.

A witness and public servant

Being a Christian witness, listening to people, giving them hope and guiding them in a positive direction is what she is called to do every single day.

“I am anxious that people here have faith in me, and that they feel that they always can come to me and share their burdens. And I want parents to bring along their children to church”, she explains.

Being the dean means being a public figure people can turn to and trust. She regards pastoral care as the most important part of a pastor’s job. In a predominantly Inuit society, where strong indigenous traditions are challenged by western lifestyles, the need for pastoral care is substantial. Two years ago, a three-times-a-week SMS-chat pastoral care service, covering the whole island, was launched by the Church of Greenland.

“It is of course always better to talk face to face with people, but in a large country with a spread-out population, this is a good alternative. We see a growing demand for it and we are now six pastors from different parishes in Greenland on alternating duty ready to respond”, Platou Olsen explains.

More clergy are needed

Filling vacant clergy positions is often difficult, particularly in rural areas. The same goes for musicians, and also trustees representing their congregations. The solution to the shortage of clergy is usually to engage catechists, eligible to shoulder some – but not all – of ordained pastor’s duties.

“Fortunately, we have managed to educate and recruit very competent catechists. But still, ordained pastors are obliged to pay regular visits to congregations where there aren’t any clergy in order to perform services catechists cannot. That means a lot of travelling for me and my fellow pastors”, Platou Olsen explains.

Travelling in this context often means helicopter or dogsled, and being away from home several days at a time, in some cases even weeks.

Huge formations of ice calved from the Greenland ice-cap. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

Another challenge in Northern Greenland is to engage enough people, youngsters in particular, to be active in church life.

“Youngsters nowadays tend to preoccupy themselves with other things. We must sustain the dialogue we initiate with them when they are confirmed and find ways to engage them in choirs and other activities”, Platou Olsen points out.

Alternate worships in two churches

Each Sunday, worship is held in either Zion Church or in the somewhat larger Naalakatta Illua, which means Our Holy Father’s House, located on a hillside overlooking the town and the bay. This is also a wooden building, albeit squarer and more barn-like in its architecture, and not as old as its sister church down by the shoreline.

Our Holy Father’s House is the other church in Ilulissat. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

These two churches are among the most northerly located Christian churches in the world. As members of the World Council of Churches (WCC), through the Church of Greenland, they provide an arctic dimension to ecumenism, where climate change-issues are cardinal.
“It means a lot to us to be part of the worldwide Christian fellowship, because it widens our horizon and makes us heard far beyond the shores of Greenland. It enhances our understanding of church-life in other countries and inspires us in a spiritual way”, Platou Olsen says.

Rooted in her beloved Greenland

Already as a child, she felt a call to be a public servant when she grew up. Being the daughter of a Greenlandic pastor meant moving quite a bit all around the island, meeting and socializing with all kinds of people. Her father, Niels Platou, was not only a pastor but also as well-known author and actor who starred as a seal-hunter in the Academy Award-nominated movie, ”Qivitoq” from 1956.

“My childhood was so happy and exciting, and I guess I knew already then that I wanted to work with people”, she recalls.

Approaching retirement next year, Platou Olsen can look back on a fulfilling professional life, serving the public as a schoolteacher for 25 years before finally walking in her father’s footsteps and heeding God’s call to become a pastor back in 1999.

After initially having served in nearby Aasiaat, Greenland’s fourth largest settlement, she was recruited to the parish in the Nuuk, the capital, in the year 2000.    
“I eventually landed on the right shelf in life and I am fortunate to have a job where I work with people, rather than sitting in an office all day. And being privileged to do so in my beautiful home country”, she concludes.

With a population of almost 6 000, Ilulissat is Greenland’s third largest settlement. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

Her roots in Greenland run deep and she truly treasures the island. Before she was asked to head the Northern Deanery in 2013, she and her sympathetic husband Jakob, who is a retired trawler fisherman, lived in Denmark for a short while.

“It is a completely different kind of life there and we missed the nature, the food and the people in Greenland. Here, people smile more and everybody know each other. In Denmark, often you don’t even know your neighbour”, Platou Olsen says.

Like many Greenlanders, she was sent to Denmark to go to school as a teenager. She spent three months there being homesick most of the time.

Her priority now is to pave the way for her successor by travelling around in her vast deanery to listen to what people want and expect from the Church of Greenland.

After that, she and her husband will probably settle in Nuuk, where she hopes to continue teaching catechists and theology students.

After all, working with people is what brings her joy and energy.


*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.

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