Nestled in the pines on the western edge of Rapid City, Chapel in the Hills has been a landmark, tourist attraction and wedding venue for half a century.
The traditional Norwegian stavkirke marks its 50th anniversary this weekend with a concert and dancing on Friday, a day of festivities Saturday, and morning worship on Sunday. Affirmations of wedding vows, traditional Scandinavian music, entertainment, crafts and food, and a service rededicating the Chapel’s ministry will highlight the weekend-long anniversary party.
“This (celebration) will be a nice capstone on everything,” said Brian Kringen, who has served as managing director for Chapel in the Hills since 2016. “What we’re really looking forward to is watching people enjoy it and take it all in. … This Chapel is so special to so many people.”
The public is invited to any and all anniversary celebration events. Extra parking is being made available on Chapel grounds; visitors also can park along most residential streets in Chapel Valley, Kringen said. A shuttle will be on standby. Guests who park farther away can call the Chapel to request the shuttle.
Chapel in the Hills was dedicated on July 6, 1969, and now welcomes between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors a year. The Chapel began as the vision of Rev. Harry R. Gregerson, a Lutheran pastor. Gregerson had a radio program “Lutheran Vespers” and was looking for a way to expand his ministry. Chapel in the Hills served as the home of his radio program until 1975.
Gregerson envisioned Chapel in the Hills as a peaceful retreat for worship and contemplation for locals and tourists. The nonprofit Chapel remains a ministry of the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With the help of visiting guest pastors, the Chapel hosts 7:30 p.m. services nightly from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Kringen encourages local churches to use the Chapel more frequently for outdoor services, church picnics or service projects for youth groups.
Because many of Gregerson’s listeners and many South Dakotans share a Scandinavian heritage, the Chapel’s design honors Scandinavian culture and traditions. The Chapel is an exact replica of the 800-year-old Borgund Stavkirke in Norway. The Norwegian Department of Antiquities provided a set of blueprints of Borgund Stavkirke that a local construction company followed to build Chapel in the Hills. The intricate woodcarving was created by Erik Fridstrom, one of Norway’s best woodcarvers at the time, and Helge Christiansen of Rapid City.
Initial financing for the Chapel was given by Arndt E. Dahl, who funded the land, the original structures and the landscaping. Dahl also started compiling photo albums and scrapbooks about the Chapel, Kringen said. The pictures and clippings reveal community pride in the Chapel from the very start.
“The Chapel was a pet project for the entire city. Everybody was proud when it was built and most residents know it’s here. It’s one of those jewels in the community,” Kringen said.
A log cabin museum and a grass-roofed “stabbur” visitor center/gift shop near the Chapel also pay tribute to Scandinavian culture. The authentic “stabbur” store house was built in Norway and assembled on site in Rapid City. The cabin museum was originally built by a Norwegian prospector who came to the Black Hills in search of gold.
A meditation trail was added in 2010. Accented by benches and statuary, the trail winds into the hillside behind the Chapel and offers another peaceful retreat for prayer and reflection. “It’s become a lot more popular than we anticipated,” Kringen said. “It’s just a nice way to get away.”
The Chapel’s Scandinavian roots and distinctive architecture are prime attractions for many locals and tourists. Some are introduced to the Chapel while attending weddings or special events there. Others visitors seek prayer or meditation. For younger generations, the Chapel is a popular setting for prom and senior pictures. Regardless of what draws them to the Chapel, all visitors seem to find a bit of the spiritual retreat Gregerson envisioned.
“What they all end up experiencing is just the feeling of peacefulness and quietness. It’s a place to slow down and catch your breath. People tend to linger here,” Kringen said. “Something magical happens when you come through the gates.”
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The Chapel’s unexpected appeal as a wedding destination started before it was officially dedicated. The first wedding took place there in June 1969. Gregerson believed the wedding would be a one-time event, but the Chapel has hosted about 5,000 weddings over the past half-century, Kringen said.
In 1969, few wedding venues existed in the Black Hills so the Chapel became a popular site. On a summer Saturday, it’s not uncommon for the Chapel to book four weddings a day. Wedding fees, in fact, are one of its primary sources of financial support. At least 60 couples who wed at the Chapel will participate in the Affirmation of Marriage Vows service on Saturday, Kringen said.
Anniversary celebration schedule:
Friday, 6:30 p.m. An evening of dance and music on the Chapel patio, featuring Sons of Norway dancers and a Hardanger fiddle concert by Rapid City native Jaimie Didier, plus light refreshments and an evening worship service.
Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Scandinavian arts and crafts fair, featuring demonstrations of Scandinavian and Viking-era crafts such as rosemaling painting and Hardanger embroidery, and Scandinavians foods including lefse, krumkaka, ebelskievers and rosettes. Viking Connection, a program by the Historical and Cultural Society in Clay County, Minn., will demonstrate iron forging, leather work, wood carving and more. The public also can meet some of the craftsmen who helped build Chapel in the Hills.
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Black Hills artist Jon Crane will be at the Chapel to meet the public and celebrate the release of his new watercolor painting. It's a summer scene and companion piece to his winter painting of the Chapel. A preview of the painting is on the Chapel in the Hills Facebook page.
3:30 p.m. All couples who married at Chapel in the Hills are invited to participate in an Affirmation of Marriage Vows service. Couples are welcome to bring their families. Patricia Caldwell Miller, wife of the late Gov. Walter Dale Miller, will be a special guest. Walter Dale Miller was the only South Dakota governor to marry while serving as governor. He and Patricia wed on July 4, 1993, at Chapel in the Hills; they were married until his death in 2015. Anyone who was married at Chapel in the Hills but who has lost their spouse is welcome to attend the service. Kringen said at least 60 couples who wed at the Chapel will participate in the service.
5 p.m. Service of rededication of the Chapel’s ministry. Former Chapel pastors, volunteers, families of the Chapel’s founders and benefactors and other friends of the Chapel will be special guests.
In honor of its anniversary, Chapel in the Hills is selling tickets to win a commemorative quilt created by Chapel volunteers. Funds raised will support the Chapel’s ongoing ministry. The drawing will take place after the service of rededication. Tickets can be bought online at chapel-in-the-hills.org/anniversary/quilt.html.
6 p.m. Picnic for all; a free-will donation is requested.
7 p.m. Concert by the group Tidlos from Norway, performing traditional Norwegian hymns and folks songs.
Sunday, 10 a.m. Community worship service at the Chapel.