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A Visit to a Stave Church

When I travel, whether I am on a research trip or not, I look for genealogy connections to the places I am visiting. This week we drove around the Black Hills of South Dakota. In Rapid City we stopped at a spot that linked us to our Norwegian heritage.

The Chapel in the Hills retreat ( is home to a spectacular Norwegian stave church. It was built in 1969 as an exact replica of the Borgund Stavkirke in Laerdal, Norway. I first visited this place as a girl shortly after its construction.

The original church building, one of Norway’s oldest and best-preserved, dates to the 12th century. It sits at the end of the longest fjord in Norway, the Sogn fjord. The builders at that time used the same construction techniques as those for Viking longboats. The church was built with a wood called malmfuru (a very hard type of fir) that is no longer available.

The South Dakota stave church was built instead with North American Douglas fir. It is called a stave church because it uses large wood pillars, or staves, to support the building. It sits on a foundation of flat stones. The wood is fastened with dowel pins, not nails. The only metal in the building consists of door hardware and locks. The structure is embellished with beautiful wood carvings.

From my first visit many years ago, I remembered only a church out in the woods. The site has grown since then. In addition to the church building, the chapel site now includes a meditation trail, an authentic grass-roofed house (stabbur) that serves as a gift shop, and a log cabin museum. The museum was built by a Norwegian prospector who arrived during the Black Hills gold rush. It displays antiques that were either brought from Norway or made by Norwegian settlers.

The Chapel in the Hills was conceived and built to expand the ministry of the Lutheran Vespers radio hour. Today it is a special ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Its mission is to provide a place of beauty and inspiration to both local residents and tourists. Church services and weddings take place there.

This wonderful site helps preserve the area’s Scandinavian faith and heritage. It was a joy to see it again

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