On a hill on the outskirts of Rapid City, South Dakota, the Chapel in the Hills is an exact replica of the Borgund Stavkirke, a church built around 1150 near Laerdal, Norway.
Originally built to house the “Lutheran Vespers” radio program, it opened in 1969. The Black Hills are home to many Lutherans who trace their lineage to Scandinavia, and so the Norwegian-style church seemed like a natural fit.
After the show moved to Minneapolis in 1975, a non-profit corporation was formed to oversee the church and its grounds. The Stavkirke has no congregation and relies on endowment funds, donations, weddings, and gift shop sales for its upkeep.
Perhaps it’s because of my Scandinavian heritage, but I was totally charmed by it. The church sits on 30 acres of forest and neatly landscaped lawns and has a lovely little prayer walk winding up the hill behind it. Also on the property are a traditional Norwegian grass-roofed stabbur, or storehouse, that houses a gift shop and a log cabin museum with historical displays.
The Chapel in the Hills itself is gorgeous, a towering structure of wood with intricate designs inside and out. The carvings were a collaboration between a master woodcarver in Norway and another craftsman in the Black Hills. The plans for the building were provided by the Norwegian Department of Antiquities.
When you stand inside the building and look up, the ceiling resembles a Viking ship turned upside down—which is appropriate because when the church was built, their congregants likely included some of those newly converted Vikings.
The church has other features that blend pagan and Christian elements, including a carving of snakes and dragons (representing the battle between good and evil) that surrounds the front door. The side door, also known as the women’s door, has carved lions, bears and wolves, also a carryover from pre-Christian traditions.
Take note of the large ring on the front door. Known as the Sanctuary Ring, in Norway it would have offered protection to outlaws who grasped it. As long as they hung on, the authorities could not arrest them (folklore says that more than a few outlaws starved to death while holding tight).
During the summer months, a nightly worship service is held in the church from 7:30 to 8:00 p.m.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.