It may be only 42 years old, but the Chapel in the Hills is as revered as the 861-year-old Norwegian church it is modeled after.
The little wooden church in Chapel Valley attracts thousands of visitors every year from all around the world.
At its summer peak, between 100 and 150 people every day visit the Chapel in the Hills, which is a special ministry of the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The chapel is open daily from 7 a.m. until dusk, May 1 through the end of September. The gift shop and visitor center building opens at 8 a.m. Evening prayer services are held every night at 7:30 p.m. from the second Sunday in June through the last Sunday in August.
Doreen Arneson, president of the chapel’s board of directors, said nine ELCA pastors take turns officiating at the services.
The chapel was built in 1969 to house the Lutheran Vespers radio program. To honor the radio program’s listeners’ Norwegian heritage, it was designed to be an exact replica of the famous Borgund stavkirke (stave church) in Norway, which was built around 1150. When the Lutheran Vespers radio program left the site in 1975, the focus of the chapel shifted to a tourism ministry.
The Rev. LeRoy Flagstad said that was a difficult time for the chapel. Flagstad has been involved with the chapel since 1996 and has just finished writing a history of the chapel. He hopes it will be published later this year.
“Not very many people are aware of the crisis that that brought to the Chapel in the Hills in terms of its continuing purpose and its funding and support and so on,” he said.
After the radio program was relocated to Minneapolis, he said, a closer tie to the South Dakota Synod was developed. Local support from the people and the churches in Rapid City made it possible for the Chapel in the Hills to continue.
He said there are about 50 volunteers who perform a variety of tasks every week. Those volunteers, he said, are really the key to the chapel’s operation.
Volunteer Jan Boettger of Rapid City said she likes coming to the chapel after a day at work because it is so peaceful.
“And I think all of us volunteers enjoy the interaction with all of the people who visit who come from all around the world,” she said.
Craig Lewis has been the chapel’s manager since April, and he, too, likes talking to visitors.
“We’ve had a lot of Norwegian visitors tell us how much it reminds them of their home country,” he said.
Lewis and his wife, Yvonne Steindal, live in what used to be the parsonage on the site. His wife, who is youth pastor for Trinity Lutheran Church and Lutheran campus pastor at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, fills in for the evening prayer services at the chapel when needed.
Lewis said there are a number of ideas being discussed among the board members for the chapel’s future, such as opening it for special events at Easter and Christmas, and extending evening prayer services from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
They also are looking at the possibility of hosting small concerts as well as a “stories on the steps” story-telling series on the patio.
Lewis said they also have talked about opening the gift shop on weekends the month before Christmas.
There are big plans, too.
“We would like to put a nice stone labyrinth here on the property, with rock walls and gardens and make it a nice place for people to use,” he said.
They would want it done in a manner that would please Arndt Dahl, whose donation in the 1960s made the chapel possible, he said.
“It was really important for him to do everything first class, and we want to stay with that tradition and do everything to the best possible standards we can,” he said.
The chapel attracts visitors from around the world, but Lewis said he is amazed at the number of local people who tell him they were not aware of the chapel.
“We probably get two or three a day from Rapid City who didn’t know we were here and just happened to come upon us,” he said. “I want Rapid City to know what a treasure we have in the chapel and that it’s going to take the whole of Rapid City’s support to keep it alive and as beautiful and as well-preserved as it is.”
Arneson said their main focus is on maintaining the chapel, which costs about $14,000 every four or five years to re-stain. She said money for the chapel comes from donations, the gift shop and from weddings.
April Abbott of Sidney, Neb., grew up near the chapel and said it is just as she remembered it. “But when you are little, you remember it bigger,” she said on a family outing to the chapel. “I also remember they always played music.”
Instead of music, a recording now plays inside the chapel that explains the building’s architecture, history, symbolism and connection to the Christian church.
Flagstad, who has officiated at many weddings and evening prayer services at the chapel, said the vesper services tend to be casual and last about 30 minutes. He said even when the temperatures rise, the building remains fairly cool because of the log structure.
Flagstad said he is excited about the future of the chapel because there is a new kind of spirituality in the country that is not tied to buildings or to denominations.
“It’s a spirituality that is tied more to one’s personal encounter with God, and that takes place in a variety of ways and in a variety of places,” he said.
The chapel’s nature setting, prayer walk and the sense of peace and rest that people have when they come to chapel are salutary ingredients that will bode well for the chapel’s future, he said.