In Rapid City, South Dakota, USA, on the edge of the Black Hills, in a peaceful green space on the older side of town, there stands a delightfully unexpected structure: a carved wooden church in medieval style called the Chapel in the Hills. It is in fact a replica of the Borgund Church, a Stavkirke (Stave church) built in the late 1100s, which stands in Laerdal, Norway. So what, you may wonder, is it doing here?
Well, in the 1960s South Dakota native Dr. Harry Gregerson, the creator and preacher of the Lutheran Vespers Radio Hour, was looking for a way to expand his ministry and make something more tangible than a radio broadcast. He decided to build a structure near the Black Hills that could give vacationers a place of pilgrimage and worship. In choosing to make a copy of the Borgund church, he created a link to the cultural roots of the Norwegian Lutherans who settled in South Dakota. The Norwegian Department of Antiquities sent the blueprints of the church and a local construction company spearheaded the effort. The wood carvings were a joint project between the Norwegian master carver Erik Fridstrøm and Helge Christiansen of Rapid City. These fantastic flourishes inspire awe and yet seem quite at home here. Rapid City is right next door, and yet the area recedes into the hills, feeling quite remote and peaceful, an excellent place to meditate. There is also a small Norwegian museum and a stabbur, a small grass-roofed storehouse, that serves as a visitor center. The stabbur was built in Norway, shipped to Rapid City in pieces, and rebuilt here.
The flourishes on, in and about the church weave together Christianity with pre-Christian Norwegian symbols. The continuity between the Christian and naturalistic symbolism is both beautiful and striking. It can be interpreted as a refreshing acknowledgement that the same God might choose different ways to speak to different peoples. The first congregants of the Borgund church would have been converted Vikings, with minds shaped by Norse myths and naturalistic rituals.
Runestones are stones decorated with naturalistic motifs. The Vikings and the Celts were masters at making runestones; many of their descendants Christianized the art form so they could keep their artistic language. These two feature serpents and dragons, symbols of chaotic forces which shape time and nature, ambivalent forces which both destroy and build up. The rectangular, seated runestone on the left shows that time and Creation have been forever marked by the Cross. In the crucifixion, life has also been destroyed and rebuilt. Common themes were important to encourage conversion and promote understanding.
The entire church is circled by an antechamber/corridor. Weapons were to be dropped in this space and were not allowed in the house of worship. In case you think the Viking converts were progressive, you should know that men and women entered through different doorways and did not associate with each other in the church building. Children entered with the women until the young boys came of age. Young men were then allowed to use the men’s doorway inside the front entrance.
The men’s entrance with intricate carving. More dragons and serpents.
The women’s entrance on the side of the church, featuring carvings of lionesses, a rather ferocious symbol of femininity. Note the lioness faces at the bottom of the pilasters. I imagine these Viking ladies were not wallflowers.
One of the outside doors features a metal ring. In medieval Borgund, any criminal who was touching this ring could not be apprehended by authorities. It was apparently not unheard of for such people to starve to death on the steps of the church, covered in their own excrement.
Inside the church, there is a plain door with no adornments next to a sliding window that opens into the corridor. This was a station for people with leprosy, so that they could take Communion without entering the church proper.
III: A Ship of a Different Kind
The church interior is fashioned as an upside down Viking ship, cleverly using the most familiar of forms, but also turning it on its head. Look at those ominous faces carved on the high posts!
The altar and chancel area stand out for their simplicity. The pan fixed in the front served as a baptismal font.
IV: There Be Dragons
High atop the church building there are four dragons, fashioned like those that would have been at the prow of a Viking ship. In addition to serving practically as aids to drainage, they functioned much like gargoyles, impressing people and “chasing away devils”. The detail and the care that goes into each shingle, each cross, each flourish is absolutely marvelous.
I happened to catch a squirrel sunning himself on the high branches, mimicking the dragons astride the church. Nature seems playfully at peace with this Stavekirke from another land. On another day, in another post, I may take you on the walkway that leads back toward the hills, where the rabbits feed lazily, and the forest is peopled with life-sized stone figures that range from moving to creepy. But for today this magnificent building is more than enough.
All images by Katherine McDaniel, 2015