Stavkirke Honors Washington Islanders’ Heritage

Embellished with a dark wood stain, scalloped shingles and intricate carvings, one destination on Washington Island looks like a structure from another era. The Stavkirke honors Washington Island heritage — not as an original structure built by Scandinavian settlers, but as a modern creation inspired by history.

A sense of community drove the idea for the church and made its construction possible. In 1983, island pastor Rev. James Reiff envisioned building a structure that reflected the influence of Scandinavian immigration on Washington Island. He suggested a design based on an iconic structure of 11th-century Scandinavia: a stavkirke, or stav church. Constructed of wood rather than stone, the architecture of such churches resembled Viking ships. 

Pat Mangan, an architect from Sister Bay with an interest in these churches, proposed a design based specifically on a well-preserved stavkirke in Borgund, Norway, that he’d visited. Mangan drew up the floor plans and materials list, and craftspeople and carpenters from the Door peninsula began volunteering their time to construct the church. 

“There are no precise blueprints available for constructing such a church,” said Richard Purinton, a Washington Island Ferry captain and author who helped build the Stavkirke and continues to contribute to its upkeep. “The carpenters had to figure out how this thing was going to be put together.”

The homeland of long ago and far away inspired the idea and design for the Stavkirke, but its composition comes from present-day home: Algoma Lumber Company milled pine from northeastern Wisconsin for the main church structure, and northern parts of the state supplied white cedar to create the roof shingles. By August of 1995, the church was dedicated, and it gained a decorative bell tower four years later. 

Photo courtesy of Destination Door County.

Upright poles known as “stavs,” or masts, characterize the Stavkirke’s design. In Norway, this type of construction allowed the churches to withstand strong winds and storms. Washington Island’s Stavkirke has 12 upright stavs. The traditionally dark color of these churches comes from a pine-tar coating that extends the life of wooden structures.

Gary Hendrickson created the Stavkirke’s acanthus carvings: a design similar to rosemaling that imitates Mediterranean leaves. 

“Acanthus carvings were sort of the pinnacle of decorative carving in Norway and Sweden,” Purinton said. “It’s a very prescribed and precise type of carving, with the swirls imitating the [acanthus] vines. You don’t just improvise.” 

These carvings intermingle with Purninton’s own carving contributions: flat, Celtic-inspired carvings that pay homage to Vikings in general, as well as to Ireland and Scotland. 

Volunteers did landscaping around the church grounds, including a “prayer path” through the woods. A short boardwalk section leads to the road where Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church — which owns and manages the Stavkirke — resides on the other side. 

Typically, Trinity Lutheran hosts weddings, baptisms and Wednesday evening services at the Stavkirke. The church is also open freely to the public, with between 8,000 and 10,000 people visiting it each summer. 

“The hope is that people will find something that strikes their spirit,” Purinton said. “We hope that they will find something peaceful, meditative — that they’ll go away with something in addition to having seen a point of interest on Washington Island.” 

Related Organizations