The Robert F. Thomas Chapel, located in the heart of Dollywood theme park, holds about 225 guests.
The quaint building also holds a great deal of history. Fifty years worth, in fact.
Comprised of wooden pews and a small stage, the chapel has been one of the anchor points of the park since 1973 — long before it was called “Dollywood” — and was officially recognized on its 50-year anniversary during a celebration service on Sunday, May 21.
Joey Buck, full-time chaplain at Dollywood, led the service in front of a full house that included “spill-over” seating outside the building. (See feature story on Buck here).
“Isn’t this exciting?” Buck said to the crowd. “We’re at a theme park. We’re at Dollywood. And we’re at church at Dollywood!”
The chapel, built as a replica of the Appalachian mountain churches in the 1800s, hosts weekly worship services each Sunday during Dollywood’s operating season (early spring through late fall). It is also the site of special Christmas services in November and December, along with other events throughout the year.
Hymns, history, harmonies
The celebration service lasted about 45 minutes — roughly 15 minutes longer than a normal Sunday service at the chapel — and included hymns, history, harmonies and a hand-picked banjo.
“The story of the chapel is fascinating,” Buck said. “And it’s also fascinating to think about the stories that brought each of us here today. We have gathered as strangers, coming to a theme park, and worshipping together.”
Attendees, most of whom were dressed in T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes, listened as Buck delivered a sermon that examined the key elements of worship: Prayer, praise and Scripture.
The service also included a two-person “worship team” — with one on piano and the other on banjo — leading the congregation in singing hymns such as “Shower of Blessings” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Other hymns were sung by a small choir.
Buck interweaved bits of the chapel’s history into his message and encouraged the congregation to “remember where, when and why” the Lord had “guided us to this moment.”
He reminded attendees that the act of worshipping God isn’t confined to a traditional church.
“(While you are here) at Dollywood, you will ride world-class rides, eat world-class food, see world-class shows and — now that you’ve stepped inside this building — attend a world-class church service,” he said. “We are the best in the world at theme-park church services.”
Buck was lightheartedly referring to the fact that Dollywood is the only theme park that holds a church service each Sunday.
Dollywood, in fact, is one of only two theme parks in the country, along with Silver Dollar City in Missouri, that houses a church.
“Our hope is that you will leave here today knowing that we have worshipped the Lord together,” Buck said.
— It is named for Robert F. Thomas — a traveling doctor/preacher who was a soul-winner in Sevier County and other parts of Tennessee. Coincidentally, he was the doctor who delivered Dolly Parton. (The chapel was named in his honor nearly 20 years before Parton became part owner of the park).
— Constructed during the winter of 1972–73, the chapel was officially dedicated during a special service/ceremony on May 26, 1973.
— Park managers made the decision to build a chapel as a gift to the community, and Sevier County residents supported the construction by donating money, time and other gifts.
— Although ownership of the park has changed hands numerous times since the 1970s — it operated under the names “Goldrush Junction” and “Silver Dollar City, Tennessee” prior to Parton becoming part owner in 1986 — the chapel has remained an anchor point of the park.
— The chapel was built to provide a place of worship for employees and guests who are at the park on Sundays. Having the park open on Sundays was a controversial move in the 1970s, but the chapel provided an option for families to come to the park without missing Sunday worship.