A Spiritual and Cultural-Historical Journey
from Pirita to Vana-Vastseliina

Pilgrim’s route

St Martin’s Church in Kambja

Very little is known about the earlier history of Kambja. We do not even know to whom the church was consecrated: mention has been made of St Mary and St Martin. In any case the Kambja parish does not go back to ancient history. Documents record it first in 1471 and it has mostly been assumed that an independent parish was formed here only in the second half of the 15th century from parts of Otepää, Võnnu and Tartu parishes. On the other hand, the Kambja clergyman Borchardus de Kambie was mentioned as early as in 1330. Rural priests always operated at parish churches, so the Kambja parish could be much older than currently thought.
Time and wars did their work and data about the earlier life of the church are scarce. The stone church was probably built in the second half of the 15th century. The walls of this short and wide nave constitute the western part of the present church. Renovation of the church revealed the old square chancel and remains of the vestry walls. These were unfortunately demolished by the restorers. The contours of the walls are marked on the floor of the church. Only the chancel was probably vaulted as the nave had a simple wooden ceiling.

Gradually, the church became too cramped and in 1874 large-scale extensions were under-taken. Building a church is a serious matter – archives contain no fewer than four different reconstruction projects, three from a productive master builder Johann Gottfried Mühlen-hausen. They must have seemed too dull for the congregation. A much more modern design was offered by the Tartu master Paul Schilling, who also designed the Catholic church in Tartu. The old chancel was demolished and replaced by a spacious neo-Gothic nave, joined by polygonal altar room and vestry. According to the fashion of the day, the walls were made of natural stones and bricks. Compared to the renewed church, the 18th century wooden bell tower seemed rather shabby and in 1937 a new slender west tower was erected after the design of Arnold Matteus. With the onslaught of the Soviet troops in 1944 the church caught fire and the entire interior was destroyed.
The church stood in ruin throughout the Soviet era. Restoration started in 1989 and eight years later the main work was completed. No attempt was made to recreate the pre-fire interior. The room was designed in modern forms of the time, supplemented by few Gothic elements. The church was consecrated in 2009. The Kambja St Martin’s Church is the biggest rural church in southern Estonia.


Kambja has a special place in our Swedish-era cultural history. In memory of the New Testament published in 1686 in South-Estonian language, a plaque was unveiled in the church in 1996, bearing the title page of the publication. The main translator was Andreas Virginius, Kambja pastor between 1640 and 1701. The work was finished by his son Adrian Virginius, executed by the Russians in the Great Northern War. Between 1702 and 1744 the sexton and schoolteacher here was Ignatsi Jaak – one of the most gifted graduates of Bengt Gottfried Forselius’s seminar. He was one of the two schoolboys whom Forselius introduced to King Karl XI in Stockholm in 1686. There are memorial stoned to all of them near the church.
There is also a memorial in front of the church to an Estonian folk school, erected in 1987 (sculptor Endel Taniloo) with words of the poet Hando Runnel:
              Writing starts in church,
              people start in books.
             („Punaste õhtute purpur”, 1982)

In 1932, Gustav Adolf, the crown prince of Sweden, visited Kambja and planted an oak tree in the churchyard. The tree is thriving.

Kaur Alttoa, 2016