Sunday May 17, 2009, 11:12 PM
UPPER DEERFIELD TWP. -- The tunes were familiar in any church, but the words spoken were of Jeesus Krist, Issand and Jumal (God), Aamen and Halleluuja.
Pastor Thomas Vaga and his son, Markus Vaga, led the Northville Estonian Lutheran Church Sunday in readings and scripture and Meie Isa Palve, or "The Lord's Prayer."
It was only the beginning of an afternoon celebration of 60 years since Estonians left their country and arrived at Hoover Village, in Seabrook.
For Maarit Vaga, sister to the younger pastor and daughter to the elder, it was an honor to travel from Albion, N.Y., to sing special, almost aria-like songs for the congregation.
"This is where they got their foundation in American culture and really their beginning for a brand-new life," she said. "It seemed like a natural thing to come and celebrate because, after all, Seabrook was a significant location for our family, my father, certainly."
She feels the celebration is very significant, even though she never lived in the area, since she grew up hearing stories her father told about what Seabrook afforded the Estonian immigrants.
"They came with nothing," she said of the Estonians who fled and arrived here in 1949 while Soviet Russia, then Germany, then the Soviets again invaded their country during World War II. "They literally had nothing to go on, no country, no citizenship, everything that they had owned or possessed was null and void.
"This became a critical place for them."
Aere Vaga, the elder pastor's wife, who is from Estonia's neighbor, Finland, said she was "so glad the Estonians have (celebrated) and survived 60 years and to be so happy and having their own language.
"I respect their nationality and their culture and their language, greatly," she added. "And at the same time, these people were great Americans. They are really good patriots."
During the celebration after at Centerton Country Club, in Pittsgrove Township, many had words about the Estonians making a place for themselves in Seabrook, and they thanked wholeheartedly the sponsorship of work from C.F. Seabrook and family.
"We really appreciate just how much the Estonian community went through, fleeing from the Soviets and the Nazis," said Upper Deerfield Mayor Bruce Peterson. "Many of the older members walked for miles, slept in woods, just to get to safe ground, leaving everything behind.
"Certainly coming here was not an easy start. ... Conditions were Spartan at best. But you, as a community, immediately rose to the occasion. You succeeded in ways we can't even fathom. You became our bankers, our business managers.
"You have just given so much to the community."
What was originally 1,000 Estonians in Seabrook has dwindled to less than 100, but their celebration was nonetheless vibrant, with some women wearing traditional, intricately embroidered blouses and long, colorful skirts.
Markus Vaga, who with his father alternately hold services at the church on the first and third Sundays of the month, said Seabrook and the church and Estonian community here is almost like a home to him.
"It's kind of nice to know that it's continued for this many years, especially for him; it's kind of a homecoming," he said. "It has special memories for me ... we would come down here and visit.
"It's just great to know that after all these years, it's still an ongoing community, even though it's getting smaller."
Thomas Vaga, now living in Howell, said in comparison to other Estonian groups, in Seabrook, "especially the congregation, is very well attended."
The church is surrounded and cared for by the Estonians, with loved ones from Germany and other Slavic countries also finding their final resting place here.
The Estonians, Vaga said, learned a basic English course back in 1949.
He remembered coming to Seabrook and going to Seabrook School and then later Bridgeton High School, which back then taught Estonians through songs and plays and more.
"(They) knew how to teach us in a dynamic, organic way, not overbearing," he said. "We had integration without any laws."
The programs would teach them to be Americans, as well as Estonians, and gave an example he recited by heart: "We have come from many lands and from many peoples, but we have come together and we form America."
He also especially remembered the Christmas programs at Bridgeton High School with the same carols, and C.F. Seabrook, who they all knew affectionately as "The Old Man."
"It's like coming home here," he said. "This is wonderful."
He's also very humbled that he's able to stand at the altar and preach where his pastor, the late Dr. Rev. Mihkel Soovik, once taught him about God as a child when first he came to America.
"I'm very happy, and I thank the Lord," he said. "By the grace of God I stand here. I thank God for being so gracious with my family and to the Seabrook community."