Farmers and framers: How a stave church took Long Island

Photo courtesy of Steve Helmold and Karen Olsen Steve Helmold and Karen Olsen's wedding at St. Mark’s church.

Photo courtesy of Steve Helmold and Karen Olsen
Steve Helmold and Karen Olsen’s wedding at St. Mark’s church.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

On Saturday, October 27, the Scandinavian East Coast Museum sponsored a trip to St. Mark’s church in Islip, Long Island. Why? Believe it or not, this Episcopal church is built in Scandinavian stave architectural style. Karen Olsen and Steve Helmold had been encouraging us to visit this unique gem for years.

We finally did it. A dozen of us car-poolers from Brooklyn were joined by several Sons of Norway members from local Long Island lodges. What a delight to approach this wonderful complex of Northern European style buildings—charming and pristine, surrounded by bucolic greenery. Best of all, we were welcomed by two Norwegian flags that festooned the entrance of the church.

The trip began with Victoria Hofmo, President of the SECM giving a brief talk: “What is Stave Architecture?” (Full disclosure: VH is me). “It was derived from palisades style. Palisades construction entails plunging wooden poles (buttress posts) into a trench in the earth. Another piece of wood is attached horizontally to the upper part of the posts. This allows for other poles to be attached to the supporting frame created, like a picket fence. Eventually, due to rot, stone replaced earth as a support for the posts. The buttress posts evolved into framing, which was and is surprisingly strong, allowing for more open and higher spaces without any outside supports, like flying buttresses. This style was used for long houses and farm buildings
“So for the purpose of this talk, instead of calling the Vikings ‘Farmers and Fishermen,’ we should call them ‘Farmers and Framers.’ A similar type of construction is utilized in the building of Viking ships, which depends on a large keel (buttress post), attached to horizontal support. To these supports, planks are overlapped into the space, like clapboard.” At that point, Karen Olsen pointed out the apse of the church, which contains the altar, because its graceful wooden curves mimic the hull of an upended Viking ship.

The stave form reached its zenith with the fabrication of churches. These wooden-tiered constructions began to be erected when the Vikings accepted Christianity. This was mostly due to political and economic reasons, as others refused to trade with pagans. You can see the very recently converted pagans’ ambivalence in the elements of stave churches. They hedge their bets, developing a Christian place of worship including dragon heads and other pagan symbols.

Other Scandinavian elements in St. Mark’s Church include: upside down triangles on the pews (dragon teeth), the wooden shingles on the outside of the church (the texture of dragon skin), and a stained glass window on the left side of the apse that includes a purple-hued Viking ship.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a more recent Scandinavian addition: a Viking ship model hanging from the ceiling. Karen Olsen explained that it was donated by Zone 1 SON members and made in Vietnam. It is in this church that the local SON lodges hold their annual memorial service to honor members who have passed away. Donors wrote the names of a loved one on a scroll, which was placed inside this ship. Ken Johnson explained that a ship represents “The journey of life through the church.” This church is so beloved by SON members that Karen and Steve were married there in traditional Norwegian bunads, in August 2010.

Hofmo ended her presentation with images of contemporary stave architecture. One example was a Colorado boathouse, built in traditional stave style with wooden shingles and protruding dragon heads. The other is a church in Arkansas located in a wood. It consists of a stave steel frame and no wooden planks. Instead there is only clear glass. The frame becomes the architecture. You have created a soaring space, a geometric fantasy. The result: you are one with the forest, yet protected from wind and water.

Steve Helmold spoke about how this church got its stave beginnings. In the 1880s, William K. Vanderbilt traveled to Norway and was enamored by the stave churches. Shortly after he returned to Long Island his daughter became engaged. He offered to build an entirely new church (where his daughter’s wedding would take place) and a rectory, if he were allowed to build it in the stave style. He hired the renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt.

According to the church’s website, “What Mr. Vanderbilt offered—and provided—was to replace a simple, rectangular, 30-year old, white frame building with a magnificent stave Church. And he did it at his expense, including the cost of bringing craftsmen and materials from Norway.

It was completed and consecrated in 1880. It was also fortunate for the church that Vanderbilt was a good friend of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who designed many of the windows. One particularly beautiful one pairs irises with lilies, and another was wrought in Gothic geometric style—a triune with deliciously colorful gumdrop-shaped pieces. In fact, the church is a wonderful place to explore different styles of stained glass—Gothic, Tiffany, and pre-Raphaelite-inspired rendering of romantic females, and painted glass more in the Germanic style.

Pat, one of St. Mark’s parishioners, lived through its most devastating tragedy. In December 1989, teenage vandals deliberately broke into the church and set it on fire. Pat said the glass was in pieces on the floor because the soldered lead that had held the fragments together just melted. You can still see evidence of this incident when you examine the painted glass closely. Some have small black spots from the high temperatures, which began to melt the glass. Pat told us how the parishioners began to rebuild the church in all sorts of ways. They elaborately and lovingly embroidered new pillows to kneel on. She showed us a beautiful one she had sewn. She also spoke about how the church’s floor had been littered with nails. She asked the congregation if it would be okay for her to design them into a cross. They said yes, and she still wears it to this day.

The cost to restore the church was estimated at 2.3 million, and insurance would only cover half. There was an outpouring from the community and the church was re-opened in February 1992. What is remarkable is that the stave frame did not burn; it was charred but usable.

There were more treasures to be discovered in the church’s substantial vintage/second hand shop. We shopped diligently. Satiated, and laden with our new purchases, we moseyed on back to Brooklyn, taking a last glance at this beauty, sad to leave it behind.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.