The story of the Catholic Church in Iceland has been one of struggle. One key figure was Jón Ögmundsson.
Irish monks discovered Iceland in about 800. The first settlers were pagan Norseman who gradually had contact with European Christians. In 996, King Olaf Trygvesson commissioned the first native missionary, Stefnir Thorgilsson. In about 1000, the government issued a decree suppressing pagan practices and mandating Christian baptism. In 1056 Iceland received its first bishop at Skalholt, in the southwest.
In 1106 Jón Ögmundsson was named bishop of a second diocese, in the north at Holar, 235 miles from Reykjavík, the capital. Jón had visited Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland. He brought in a shipload of wood for a cathedral in an area of broad meadows that had more than 300 farms.
Jón set about eliminating paganism. That included changing names of days of the week, so the “Day of Odin” became “Mid-week Day” and the days of Týr — the Norse god of law — and Thor — the Norse god of thunder — became “third day” and “fifth day.” Unlike Iceland, we still call these Wednesday, Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
Changing names is one thing, changing people and erasing lore is much harder. More than a century after Jón died, the Norse myths were preserved in the “Prose Edda” and “Poetic Edda.”
Jón’s relics were taken to the cathedral in 1200 — he had been honored as a local saint. A government decree made his feast a holy day of obligation. Pope Innocent III canonized him in 1201.
In later years, the church Jón built was destroyed. The only remnants are its cracked bell and stone altar.
The Catholic Church in Iceland was outlawed during the Protestant Reformation. One bishop was deported in 1541 and the other stayed and fought. He was captured in 1550 and executed with his sons. Lutheranism became the official religion and the government seized church property. Interestingly, Latin remained the official language of Icelandic Lutherans until 1686. Catholics who wouldn’t convert fled, mainly to Scotland.
Catholic priests were banned until the 1850s. There are now about 5,500 Icelandic Catholics — about two percent of the population.
Sources: saints.sqpn.com; saintpatrickdc.org; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; and wikipedia.org.
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.