Nonni and Manni and the Jesuits of Iceland

Jon Sveinsson in Japan : Source: Nonnahus Museum, Akureyri

In between projects last week and on a whim, I started searching for information on any Jesuit presence in Iceland. Don’t ask. It seems there’s not that much to be found, unlike that great era of Jesuit missionary enterprise that we know so much about here in the Americas. The Jesuit missionary map tends to run east and west and not toward what was once known as the Apostolic Prefecture of the North Pole, where responsibility for Iceland’s Catholic minority one resided. Post-Viking Lutheran Iceland was not exactly friendly inter-faith territory.

But it’s always individuals who make a difference. I think the Ignatian influence in Iceland might well be captured in the story of just two Jesuits. One is a 20th century American Jesuit, Alfred J. Jolson, who was posted to Iceland by Pope John Paul II in 1987 to serve as the Bishop of Reykjavik. The second, Jon Stefan Sveinsson, was born in Iceland in 1857 and became a Jesuit in France. At the age of 12, Sveinsson sailed to Europe for a classical education. He eventually converted to Catholicism and was ordained a Jesuit in 1880.

This “import/export” image resonates with that powerful Ignatian image of spiritual conversation, whereby you enter through a person’s door in order to encourage them to exit by “your” door.

First the import door, then the export door.

Bishop Alfred J.Jolson (1928-1994). Source:Catholic Diocese of Reykjavik.

Bishop Jolson arrived in Iceland with some cultural connections. His grandfather, Gudmundur Hjaltason, had left Iceland in 1905 for a new life in the United States. In 1928, his grandson was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut where he was educated in the Jesuit manner, eventually joining the order, and was ordained in 1958. Over a 35-year period, based mostly in the U.S. and with various postings to Italy, (then) Rhodesia, and Iraq, Jolson taught sociology, social work, and business administration. He is tagged as the first Catholic bishop ever to graduate from Harvard Business School. Then, in 1994, while visiting Pittsburgh, he died from complications following heart surgery. He was 65.

Jón Stefán Sveinsson grew up with his younger brother, Armann, in Akureyri when Iceland was still under Danish rule. Plans for his education in France were interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war and he spent his first few years in Denmark, in the company of German Jesuits who had relocated following Bismarck’s anti-Catholic policies. With deep links now to Germany and Denmark, Sveinsson eventually entered the Jesuit novitiate in Amiens. His brother Armann, followed, but died of tuberculosis in 1885. Devastated, Sveinsson continued his formation, studying literature, philosophy, and theology. After ordination, he taught in Denmark for the next two decades.

Jon Sveinsson (1857-1944)
Source: Nonnahus Museum, Akureyri

In 1912, Sveinsson gave up teaching and, within a year, wrote what would be the first of twelve Nonni und Manni books (Nonni is the affectionate version of Jon and Manni of Armann). The books include autobiographical details and the adventures of two young brothers, Nonni and Manni, growing up in Iceland with their mother and grandmother, and an absent father. The books are wholesome yarns with elements of Ignatian spirituality. The boys face all kinds of dangers. The older, thoughtful brother is the constant caretaker of his younger, more risk-taking sibling. They overcome obstacles after moments of discernment, and prayer usually addressed to Saint Francis Xavier. Endings are mostly happy. The final book in this series was published posthumously in 1949.

1988 Icelandic-German television coproduction Nonni and Manni.

Teaching in Denmark and writing in German in the heat of the tensions that erupted into the First World War, Sveinsson’s first novel was published by the celebrated German Catholic publishing house, Herder, in 1913. Eleven more would follow as the adventures of Nonni and Manni became an international publishing phenomenon, with accumulated sales by 1936 (a critical year in Germany’s progress toward another world war) estimated at over six million copies and translations in 30 languages. In 1988, German and Icelandic television produced a mini-series based on the adventures of Nonni and Manni. And a German postage stamp with Sveinsson’s portrait followed.

Sveinsson was an international publishing celebrity and missionary. He toured France, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, and the U.S. before moving on to Japan, where, at the age of 80, he spent a year at the Jesuit-founded Sophia University in Tokyo. He had finally followed the footsteps of his beloved St. Francis Xavier.

Back in Germany in October, 1944, the nursing sisters at the St. Francis Hospital in Köln moved Sveinsson into the hospital’s air-raid shelter because of the allied bombing. The mother superior said, “Although he was very weak in body and mind, he was always happy and cheerful, childishly grateful and undemanding, as in his healthier days.” Sveinsson was 86 when he died. He was buried, quickly and quietly, in Köln’s Melaten-Friedhof cemetery under the constraints of a war that would not cease for almost another year.

Source: Nonnahus Museum, Akureyri

Back in Akureyri, Sveinsson’s small family home is now a museum, the Nonnahus (Nonni’s House), celebrating an Icelandic literary figure who happened to be Jesuit and whose reputation was built far beyond the shores of the island. 


Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 09:51h, 22 November Reply

    Thank you Kevin!

  • Roy Frank Obrigewitsch
    Posted at 10:04h, 22 November Reply

    Fascinating, Kevin. Thank you.

  • Jim Radde
    Posted at 13:15h, 22 November Reply

    What a gift. Thank you Kevin.
    Jim Radde

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