Years ago, I had a friend named Charlie who was a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy.
A musician and an electrician, Charlie was a bon vivant, a Labrador of a man who made friends quickly and easily, often through the sheer force of his enthusiasm.
So it wasn’t surprising when Charlie found his way to Dollywood, he quickly joined the team.
For a couple of seasons, Charlie was one of the guys who hung the Christmas lights.
He was also a sound board and light man for various shows.
One Christmas season, I was visiting Charlie at the park and he was working a Christmas show inside the church.
It was in that capacity that I first visited the Robert F. Thomas Chapel in the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge.
Is the Dollywood chapel real?
I’d passed the chapel several times before, maybe even had stepped inside it.
But until that night, it had never been anything other than a decoration, a set piece designed to create the feeling of an old mountain village.
It never occurred to me that the little church inside the theme park could be “real.”
I’ve always had an affinity for old churches. I find them comforting, peaceful in ways that modern churches can never replicate.
How old is the chapel at Dollywood?
Not only is the church real, it’s also rich in history. While the Robert F. Thomas Chapel inside the Dollywood theme park isn’t really that old, it does pre-date Dollywood.
It was dedicated in May of 1973 as part of Goldrush Junction. But, and this is really interesting, it isn’t exactly new either.
The windows were donated from Sevier County’s first second school, Nancy Academy, which was open from 1806 to 1890.
The doors are from the Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church and were made by a church trustee in 1891.
The pews are from the Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church and the old Sevier County Courthouse. They date back to the late 1800s.
And those aren’t the only antiquities in the church.
The bell is from Williamsburg School.
The stained glass behind the carved image of Jesus as the Great Shepherd (created by Dollywood craftsmen), is from the early 1900s.
The official Dollywood Parks Blog reports “the piano is a restored 118-year-old instrument … it was donated by former Dollywood host Michael Stinnett, who now owns Antique Piano Shop.”
And so, while the church itself isn’t a relic of the past, the spirit of an old mountain church is very much alive within the more modern walls.
I don’t know if it was the history of those pieces or simply the atmosphere, but I found myself sitting in the back of that church as moved as if I was in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, or more recently St. John’s in the Wilderness in Flat Rock, North Carolina.
Was the Dollywood chapel named in honor of Dolly?
I always assumed the chapel was rechristened after the park became Dollywood. But that’s not the case.
The chapel is named after Robert F. Thomas, the mountain doctor who made a house call to deliver one Dolly Rebecca Parton on Jan. 19, 1946.
Thomas’ reputation was such that the folks at Goldrush Junction named the chapel in his honor more than a decade before Dolly took over the park.
According to the official Dollywood Parks blog, “he was willing to reach patients by whatever means necessary — and often that meant walking to make house calls.”
The chapel is open to guests whenever the park is open and there are regular Sunday services at 11:30 am during the regular season and at 4 pm during the Smoky Mountain Christmas celebration.
Note that these times are subject to change, so be sure to check the current schedule.
Guests are welcome to sign their names or leave prayer requests at the registry as they come through the chapel.
Each year, those requests are bound and saved.
Why is there a church inside of the Dollywood theme park?
Sure, the idea of a church inside a theme park can seem strange.
Dollywood is, after all, entertainment and the mixture of entertainment and religion can go wrong, can seem exploitative, even crass.
But here, for this little church built with so much love and history from other local churches, there is nothing that feels out of place.
Unlike the workshops throughout the valley, which cannot escape the feeling of faux-history, the chapel is authentic and real.
Even in a theme-park world filled with the cacophony of cotton candy induced sugar highs, wailing train whistles and screeching eagles, it is a calm, cool respite, a place where you can relax and gather your thoughts.
But, don’t do it too long. Those 1890 pews aren’t built for modern comfort.
Dollywood chapel weddings: Can you get married at Dollywood?
It is possible to have a dream wedding at Dollywood, but you’ll likely have to do so through Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa.
To learn more about weddings at Dollywood, visit their website.
Have you been to a service at the Dollywood chapel? Let us know in the comments.