Original text by Eeva-Maija Viljo

History of Seili

The island

The Finnish name of Seili is a corruption of its Swedish name, Själö. The origin of the name is unclear, but it is likely that it comes from the Old Swedish word själ (modern Swedish form säl), meaning 'seal'. The name indicates that the island has been a retreat for seals and attracted seal hunters in early times. At least until the 18th century, Seili comprised two islands separated by a shallow sound, which has disappeared because of land uplift, an after-effect of glacial compression during the last ice age. When the first hospital on Seili was established in the 1620s, the were already two farms on the islands. Their lands and buildings were the property of the Swedish Crown, so the island could be used as a location for moving the leper hospital out of Turku.

The Hospital of St George and the Hospital of the Holy Ghost

The leper hospital, dedicated to St George, was originally located on the outskirts of medieval Turku. According to a Royal Decree in 1619, its buildings were burned down and the inmates transported to Seili. Only the chapel of the hospital was spared the fire and later brought to Seili to serve the new leper hospital. The lepers were lodged in new buildings on the smaller of the two islands. This is now the spit on the eastern side of Seili where the new church stands. It was raised on the same spot as the timbered chapel from the Hospital of St George, which was dismantled, taken apart, brought to Seili and re-erected there. The old chapel has completely disappeared, as have the buildings of the lepers' hospital around it. The last leper died in 1785, and the establishment on Seili became a hospital for the mentally afflicted.

The tradition of the mental hospital, which remained on Seili until 1962, began with the medieval Hospital of the Holy Ghost in Turku. This place was dedicated to the care of the poor infirm of the town, and its upkeep was the responsibility of the local parish. In contrast, each parish in Finland was supposed to contribute to the financing the leper hospital and supporting its inmates.

After the Reformation and the confiscation of church property by the crown in the 16th century, the running of both the Hospital of St George and the Hospital of the Holy Ghost was disrupted at times. They had been partially united under a common administration. At any rate, when the Hospital of St George was moved to Seili, the inmates of the Hospital of the Holy Ghost were likewise transported there. The combined hospitals had one director, who also oversaw the farm the hospital had on the island. The buildings of the poor infirm were situated on the larger island along with residences for the director and his family, the servants of the hospitals, and the two priests appointed to care for the spiritual needs of the community. There was no contact with the lepers, except during services in the church, attended by both communities together.

Wars and the peasant revolt in the latter half of the 16th century had probably contributed to the disastrous economy of the hospitals. The contributions from the parishes to the leper hospital came in irregularly, and the administration had to send out pleas for more support. The inmates resorted to begging, which sent them wandering around the countryside. It seems to have been this practice in particular that led to the reorganisation of the leper hospital and its economy in the 17th century.

The Royal Decree of 1619 guaranteed each inmate support for life, or until they were healed and could leave the hospital. Upon arrival, they paid a fixed sum that was extracted either from the person in question, their parents, or the parish where they had been a resident. Known lepers had to be turned in to the hospital, and begging was strictly prohibited. The location of the hospital on an island helped to enforce the rule.

The living conditions of the community on Seili were similar to those of any village in the archipelago. The sick or infirm people of the hospital - the inmates of the Hospital of the Holy Ghost seem to have been treated in much the same way as the lepers - were not fit enough to cross the sea on their own, whether by boat or over the ice in winter.

With minor variations, life in the hospital community continued along the lines laid down in the early part of the 17th century. The hospitals and their inmates were more or less forgotten in Turku or their former parishes. Once the diseased and the infirm were no longer housed in the city itself, the tradition of collecting alms for them at church services, or of donations on special occasions like Christmas or Easter, died out in Turku. The institutional obligations of the Church to take care of the sick and the poor had changed character. There were no more exhortations to private people to remember the unfortunate lepers as had once been the practice. For instance, in the 15th century, Bishop Bero II granted 40 days' indulgence to those who took part in Wednesday devotions at the chapel of St George.

The mental hospital and its buildings

There must have been people with mental deficiencies and disorders among the parish poor from Turku. The first actual records on the existence of this particular category of infirmity are from the 18th century. The poor hospital was gradually transformed into a mental hospital, apparently not according to a specific plan, but as a spontaneous process. At any rate, the frequency of mental illness cases among those sent to Seili made the transition from a leper hospital to a mental hospital almost a natural one. Except for tyhe chapel, the extant buildings on the island date from the 19th and 20th centuries. Most of them were built for the mental hospital which functioned there until 1962.

A new hospital was designed and built in 1800-1803. These were the first masonry buildings on Seili. The building on the south side of the courtyard served as the main building in this early 19th-century phase. Originally it closed off the short end of a rectangular courtyard orientated north to south.

The yard, surrounded by the hospital buildings and a wooden fence, formed an enclosure. The original kitchen and bakery building has now been joined into the western wing of the main building. The other, wooden buildings have been entirely replaced by later masonry structures.

The buildings that housed the mental patients contained rows of single cells, 187 cm x 207 cm in size. In the earliest times, they were a veritable prison where violent or agitated "madmen" were put in chains. Already in the 18th century, the hospital had a blacksmith on its payroll. In late 18th century, Seili hospital was administered by a special body of high-status officials appointed by the Crown who also oversaw the operation of similar establishments in Sweden. After the break with Sweden in 1809, control of the hospital was turned over to one of the offices of the Finnish Senate (Hallituskonseljin, myöh. Senaatin Kansliatoimituskunta/Regeringskonseljens, sen. Senatens Kansliexpedition). The head of the office (Count Carl Eric Mannerheim), accompanied by a medical doctor (Fr. W. Radloff), immediately made an inspection tour to the island and found that the living conditions in the hospital were scandalous. The inmates had no bedding and scarcely any clothes. They were given no medical attention, albeit the food rations were plentiful. According to the custom from previous centuries, when each inmate had a regulated upkeep that was distributed in kind, it was the responsibility of the personnel to see to that the inmates could exchange their surplus provisions for other necessities, such as salt, bedding, clothes, etc. This practice had been neglected, and the director of the hospital was made to resign. The inspectors started their reformations by ordering straw mattresses for the inmates who had had to lie on bare boards.

This began the gradual transformation of the institution into a mental hospital and the inmates into "patients". The development of the Seili hospital was tied to national plans to create a system of hospitalization for mental patients, the foremost objective being the establishment of a research hospital connected to the University of Helsinki. The hospital on Seili was to be moved to Turku, but the great fire of Turku in 1827 prevented the implementation of this plan. An Imperial Decree was given in 1840 to build a mental hospital in Helsinki. At the same time, Seili was designated as a hospital for incurable mental patients who were not expected to regain sanity. This was a typically bureaucratic decision: medical experts objected to the categorisation of mental cases into curable and incurables. In accordance with the new status of the Seili institution, designs for extensions to the buildings were made by the town architect of Turku, Pehr Gylich. He added the north and west wings, which were built in 1851. The former kitchen building, on the eastern side of the enlarged courtyard, continued to serve in its original capacity.

The ordinance of 1840 gave detailed instructions on treatment for insanity. Only after careful initial treatment in a provincial hospital, and possibly also in Lapinlahti mental hospital in Helsinki, could a patient be pronounced incurable and sent to Seili. It was acknowledged that a doctor was needed for the hospital, but the only provision for medical care were regular visits by nearby district physicians. Professor Carl von Haartman, under whose direction Lapinlahti had been built and organized, suggested that the office of pastor at Seili Hospital should be changed into that of medical specialist. The pastor was, in fact, dispensed with, yet no medical officer taken in his stead. Finally, in 1899, a specialist in mental ailments was appointed to Nauvo as a district physician, and his visits to Seili became a weekly occurrence.

As had happened in other countries in previous centuries, the mentally ill of Seili hospital aroused the interest of the idle curious who arranged boat trips, advertised in Turku newspapers, with the explicit purpose of watching the odd behaviour of the "mad". The head physician of Lapinlahti, who made an inspection tour to Seili in 1869, deplored these touristic outings. Viewing the mad was not the only custom that showed a lingering of pre-Enlightenment mentality in the attitude towards mental illness. The test for recovery reveals that the belief connecting insanity to evil spirits and ungodliness had not entirely died out. The test consisted of an examination on the Catechism by the Nauvo pastor. If the patient passed, they were to released from the hospital after having been given Holy Communion.

National plans to reorganize mental care and build new hospitals were started in the 1880s, and included proposals to enlarge the hospital on Seili. The plans were only carried out on a small scale. In 1889 all male patients on Seili were transferred to the new hospital in Käkisalmi (now on the Russian side of the Finnish border), and Seili became exclusively female, the patients being either "incurables" or criminally insane.

At this stage the main building was rebuilt into its present form according to designs by Jac. Ahrenberg from the Board of Public Buildings. The kitchen was renovated and joined to the extended northern wing. The advisability of solitary confinement for the patients had been questioned, and two large new rooms, a dining hall and a common room, were added to the main building. Adorned with an arrangement of three window openings, these can be seen jutting out at the ends of the north or main façade.

The isolation of Seili Mental Hospital seems to have increased in the late 19th century and into the 20th century. Farming and buying and selling of produce had tied Seili to the economic network of the archipelago. With modernization and the decline of farming at the hospital, contacts with the outside world became more restricted. At any rate, the contrast to "normal" life seems to have grown. Seili was a non-place that was not even notified that Finland had declared independence, but a couple of weeks after the event an official notice did come about the institution of the eight-hour working day. In the 1950s, a new head of the National Board of Health, Leena Sibelius, finally stated that in the light of the modern principles of mental care, the practice of deporting patients and cutting off their contacts to friends and relatives could not be justified. It was decided to close down Seili Mental Hospital. The last patients were repatriated to hospitals in their home districts in 1962. The island and its buildings were given over to the Archipelago Research Institute of the University of Turku and to the National Research Institute of Forestry (Turun yliopiston Saaristomeren tutkimuslaitos, Metsäntutkimuslaitos).

The church

The medieval chapel of St George, which had been brought from Turku in the 1620s, was torn down as irreparably deteriorated. The present church was constructed in its place site in 1733, overseen by a master builder, who had previously participated in the building of the wooden church of Merimasku. The earlier chapel functioned as a model for the new church. It is built on a cruciform ground plan of bilateral symmetry. The east-west axis dominates, especially in the interior, the north and south cross-arms being both narrower and lower than the other two. The sacristy takes up about half of the north arm. A rood-screen separates the altar area from the nave, but in addition, the entire west cross-arm is cut off from the rest of the church by a similar screen. This was the lepers' area with its separate entrance on the western side. The rest of the congregation used the entrance in the south arm. The interior, with the exception of the pulpit, has never been painted. The exterior of the church was weather-boarded and painted with red ochre already in the 18th century. The original wooden shingle roof was tarred. The church resembles many other 18th century churches in the Finnish countryside.

The window and door details date from repairs made in the 1870s or in the early years of this century. The sheet-iron roof was made sometime between 1906 and 1951, probably in the 1930s concurrently with the new weather boarding. The chapel was thoroughly repaired and several structural failings corrected then.

The pulpit was made in 1734 by Johan Björkman and painted to imitate black and white marble. The painting was done by Carl Johan von Holthusen, who also donated the painting which now hangs above the pulpit. The altar painting by Helge Stén is from 1948-49. The valuable cult objects, many of them medieval and transferred to Seili at the same time as the chapel of the Hospital of St George, are now in various museums, but the 17th-century bells are still on Seili. They hang in an external belfry which has been rebuilt several times. The present one is from 1960, modelled after the original. Presumably, its gothic construction follows the tradition from the Middle Ages in principle, if not in every detail.

The cross on the church yard, raised in 1984, commemorates the lepers who died on Seili.



Kansallisarkisto, Rakennuhallituksen piirustukset, Iea



Fagerlund, L.W., Finlands leprosorier I, Bidrag till kännedom af Finlands natur och folk, 43, Helsingfors, 1886, 105-311.

Granström, Thor, Nagu församling och prästerskap, Nagu sockens historia I, utg. av Nagu kommun, 1992, 63-211.

Nikula, Sigrid, Finlands kyrkor. Borgå stift I. Åbolands posteri I, utg. av Museiverket, 1973.

Pesonen, Niilo, Terveyden puolesta - sairautta vastaan. Terveyden- ja sairaanhoito Suomessa 1800- ja 1900-luvulla, Helsinki: WSOY, 1980.

Turunen, Sakari & Kalle Achté, Seilin hospitaali 1619-1962, Käytännön lääkäri, 1976, 1.


19.01.2010 21:14 Pieta Voipio