King Oscar II Chapel Sits as Border Sentinel

Photo: John W. Barry  King Oscar II Chapel sits as sentinel over land and sea. It was once whitewashed for even greater visibility.

Photo: John W. Barry
King Oscar II Chapel sits as sentinel over land and sea. It was once whitewashed for even greater visibility.

Patricia Barry
Hopewell Junction, N.Y

Matt Barry
Molde, Norway

Far from the hustle and bustle of Oslo or Bergen sits the charming King Oscar II Chapel (Kong Oscar IIs Kapell) in eastern Finnmark. A sentinel overlooking the Barents Sea, the King Oscar II Chapel beckons travelers—including our family in 2012—to this distant outpost of Norway.

About 2500 km from Oslo along a mostly E6 route (or about 2000 km via Sweden and Finland), King Oscar II Chapel is located farther east than Kirkenes. It can be found in the tiny settlement of Grense Jakobselv at the mouth of the Jakobselva where this Norwegian-Russian border river flows into the Barents Sea.

King Oscar II Chapel has played a role in the history of this strategically important region. Borders and land claims in this area of Finnmark and the Kola Peninsula (now part of Russia), as well as access to the sea, have evolved over many centuries. In 1826 a treaty between Norway and Russia established the 200 km border that we know today, formed largely by the rivers Jakobselva and Pasvikelva further to the south.

Border disputes continued despite the 1826 treaty. In 1869 the King Oscar II Chapel was built as a boundary marker, a “stake in the ground” to further demarcate the border, while also providing a chapel for the residents of recently established Grense Jakobselv. King Oscar II visited the chapel in 1873 and at his behest the chapel received his name.

Our family had the opportunity to visit King Oscar II Chapel in 2012 on a cold and rainy June day. We were fortunate to have Arnhild as our tour guide, a friend and longtime resident of Kirkenes, where our 60km drive to Grense Jakobselv began. Even at the start of our trip, the nearness of the border was evident. In Kirkenes street signs are written in both Norwegian and Russian; bilingual road signs point to Murmansk/Мурманск.

Driving to the border was itself an adventure. E6 (whose northern terminus is in Kirkenes) took us to E105. We drove past the Storskog Border Checkpoint, the only legal border crossing from Norway into Russia. Border restrictions are posted multiple times along the way. Travel regulations describe border markings (yellow posts with black tops for Norway, red and green striped posts for Russia) and use of the river for fishing and navigation. Rules of border conduct include photography prohibitions as well as prohibition of such actions as “intentionally making contact with, or acting in an insulting manner towards persons on the other side of the border” and “throwing items across the border.”

At the Storskog checkpoint we turned onto Route 886 and passed Jarfjordfjellet, Norway’s oldest mountain. The barren and rocky landscape shrouded in low clouds had a stark beauty. Ten kilometers from King Oscar II Chapel we stopped at a military station to pick up the chapel’s key. Earlier Arnhild had inquired at a tourist information office in Kirkenes and then with the military about borrowing the key. The key was a simple skeleton-type design and very large, more than six inches long, a fitting design for the nearly 150-year-old chapel.

We drove to the literal “end of the road” where Route 886 terminates at Grense Jakobselv in a parking area openly exposed to the Barents Sea. It was a blustery June 28th! The weather at the Barents Sea was stormy with near gale force winds, huge waves crashing on the rocks, and temperatures of about 3-4C.

At this point we were so far east that we were about due north of Cairo, Egypt! Also, Russia, just across the small border river, was two hours ahead of Norway’s time. Finland’s intermediate time zone disappears at this point where Norway and Russia meet north of Finland.

From the Barents Sea we then drove inland less than a kilometer to the King Oscar II Chapel. The stone church, facing north to the sea, sits prominently on a steep hillside. Its elevation, along with the barren landscape and low-growing vegetation, make the chapel visible from land and sea. (For many years it was whitewashed for even better visibility as a landmark for sailors). Etched in stone above the door is “Kong Oscar IIs Capel.” We opened the large door with the key Arnhild had obtained—a difficult task with the strong winds blowing from the sea.

Photo: Matthew T. Barry The chapel interior is simple and light.

Photo: Matthew T. Barry The chapel interior is simple and light.

The chapel is small, with seating for about 70. Its interior is plain with white walls and a simple altar and cross. The organ, though of simple design, is impressive. The pews are light colored wood. The windows are clear, except for a few panes of stained glass at the top. Through the windows we could see manned military watchtowers across the river. (While both countries patrol the border, Russia’s presence seemed more evident to us than Norway’s.)

From Arnhild we learned more about the chapel and the area. While there are no permanent residents of Grense Jakobselv today, King Oscar II Chapel is still used for services, including weddings. Hymn numbers were displayed for a recent service. She told us that around Christmas or New Year’s every year the army transports Kirkenes-area residents to the chapel, via tracked vehicles, on roads closed in the winter.

Photo: Matthew T. Barry This plaque commemorates royal visits in 1959 and 1969.

Photo: Matthew T. Barry This plaque commemorates royal visits in 1959 and 1969.

Plaques remind visitors of the history of the chapel. One written in both Norwegian and Sami translates to “King Oscar II heard the word of God here July 4, 1873.” Another plaque commemorates King Olav V’s visits to the chapel for its 90th anniversary in 1959 and, together with then-Crown Prince Harald and Crown Princess Sonja, the centennial jubilee in 1969. A third plaque commemorates Crown Prince Haakon’s visit in 1996.

Photo: John W. Barry The chapel received its name after King Oscar II visited in 1873.

A small cemetery lies at the bottom of the walk up to the chapel. The names on the gravestones are Norwegian, Russian, Sami, and Finnish, a reminder of this remote area’s role as a cultural crossroad.

The King Oscar II Chapel was a highlight of our 2012 trip to Norway. Arnhild made the trip special, with her hospitality and knowledge—obtaining the key that allowed us inside the usually locked chapel, telling us stories about the chapel, and keeping us warm with her borrowed winter hats and gloves.

Visiting the King Oscar II Chapel taught us not only about the history of the chapel itself, but also about the historical political and cultural importance of the Grense Jakobselv border region.

This article originally appeared in the March 7, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.