A church for the ages

Stave church
The Hopperstad Stave Church replica is based on a Norwegian church built in the early 1100s.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

About a dozen years ago Guy Paulson was thinking about retiring from his job as a research scientist in Fargo.

But this is a man who grew up on a farm. He couldn't face retirement without a project. So he decided to build a church.

It's not just any church, but an exact replica of a Norwegian Stave church dating to the 1100s. It looks like a small wooden cathedral. Built around a framework of Norway pine logs, the church has sharply pitched roof, towering steeple and ornately carved religious and pagan symbols.

Paulson says there's no single reason he chose to build the replica stave church.

Guy Paulson
Guy Paulson did all of the detail carving for the stave church. Log home builder Don Guida of Park Rapids, Minn.,erected the framework of 16 staves from Norway pine.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"(I) grew up in a home where my father was very Norwegian, in a family that was very Lutheran. Probably just as important, or maybe more important, I have just always enjoyed building things," explains Paulson as he sits in his small workshop carving a Celtic design on a bowl.

Wood carving has long been his hobby and that hobby became a full time job when he retired in 1996. He designed an exact replica of a church in Hopperstad, Norway, with help from local architects.

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Paulson spent thousands of hours over five years, carving the ornate Christian and Pagan symbols. A head of Christ is over the altar area and dragon heads perch atop the roof.

Paulson traveled to Norway find a copy of the original plans and take exact measurements of the original church.

A rooster weather vane tops the pagoda-like structure of the stave church. Hundreds of stave churches were built in Norway during the middle ages, but only 28 remain.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"If you're a Norwegian it would seem insulting to have someone in this country do a replica and then not do a replica," says Paulson. "Obviously we wanted accurate replication because why would you do a replica if you didn't do the best job you could."

Paulson and his family paid for the project, then donated the completed church to the city of Moorhead.

The church is located on the grounds of the Heritage Hjemkomst Center which houses a Viking ship replica built by a local man that was sailed to Norway. The church is often used for weddings or family reunions, and it's open for public tours.

Church dragon
Historians believe stave churches were often built on pagan sites. They often incorporated pagan and Christian symbolism.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland says people often ask him about the stave church when he travels.

"The one fun story I love to relate to people around the state is when the Rolling Stones were here and Mick Jagger's personal trainer who is Norwegian opened his window the morning after they'd flown in and looked out and there sat the stave church," Voxland recalls. "He was excited and ran all the way over here to see if he really saw what he thought he saw. I understand he dragged poor Mick through to make sure he understood a little bit about his trainer's heritage and history."

When he's asked about the response to his stave church, Guy Paulson is likely to offer an answer befitting his Norwegian heritage.

"I suppose those that don't like it, they probably don't say anything," he explains. "Those that seem to enjoy it are very complimentary and that's always nice, and you see people on the street and they say something quite pleasant. Those who don't care about it probably say 'He's a nut that shouldn't have been.' But that's okay."

Paulson admits the project turned out pretty well. He's hoping it will stand as long as the original built some 800 years ago.

Church detail
Each of the 24,000 shingles on the church were cut by hand to match the exact shape of those on the original church.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

When asked to reflect on his accomplishment, Guy Paulson cuts away several chips of wood before answering.

"The main thing probably is we met an awful lot of nice people that I wouldn't have otherwise met," says Paulson. "So, maybe that's just as important as anything, you know."

The Moorhead Hopperstad Stave church will host a Scandinavian music and lecture series for the next five weeks to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Guy Paulson's retirement project.