Dollywood’s chapel is an iconic fixture of the park. Think you know the Robert F. Thomas Chapel? Yep, there’s a weekly church service. And, yes, the building is named in honor of the doctor who delivered Dolly Parton. But there’s a lot more I bet you don’t know. I sat down with Dollywood’s Chaplain Joey Buck to find out the history and stories behind this beloved church.
How Old Exactly?
The chapel is not as old as it looks. Built through the winter before Goldrush Junction’s 1973 season, the chapel was dedicated May 26 of that year.
Though the chapel was built in the early 1970s, its construction and contents lead you to believe it’s an old country church from the turn of the century. That’s because the park’s theme was Appalachian life in the late 1800s/early 1900s. And, thanks to a lot of help from the community, the chapel is almost as old as positioned. See below!
Park managers made the decision to build a chapel that would be a gift to the community. As a nod to the strongly-held Christian faith in the region, Sevier Country residents rallied in support: donations poured in from churches, schools and individual families. Going through old notes from the dedication, I learned:
- The windows came from Nancy Academy, the first secondary school in Sevier County (1806-1890). They were donated by D.D. Butler, a farmer, businessman and Christian layman.
- The doors for the chapel were donated from Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church. They were made by the trustees of the church in 1891. Jim and Adam Tarwater were specifically named as two of the trustees.
- Some of the pews also came from Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church. The rest came from the old courthouse when they re-modeled. The pews date back to the late-1800s.
- The chapel bell was given through the efforts of “Mrs. Brad King” and was dedicated to her father John Emert. It was formerly used at the Williamsburg School.
- Later, Dollywood craftsmen also contributed. This carving of Jesus as the Great Shepherd was a welcome addition during the mid-90s chapel re-model.
- That stained glass behind the carved image of Jesus is also significant. It was donated from First United Methodist Church. It’s from the turn of the century. The glass was donated in honor of James Davis—aka “Deacon Davis” of Goldrush Junction. The park hired this local evangelist to be a roaming character. He helped perpetuate the chapel as a symbol of faith for the community and opened the opportunity for Sunday worship in a theme park.
- Through the years, other individuals have donated items such as pianos and quilts, but please note the Robert F. Thomas Chapel no longer accepts donated items.
Open?? On Sunday?!
Before the chapel was built, many states were subject to Blue Laws—also known as Sunday Laws. That meant Goldrush Junction (and most everything else!) was not open on Sundays. But, now that there was a chapel and a church service, this new attraction within Goldrush Junction served an important role. It allowed those with strong convictions and those who wanted to follow the progressive culture to meet in the middle.
Who Was Robert F. Thomas?
The chapel is named for him—who is Robert F. Thomas? Yes, he has a connection to Dolly Parton.
But remember, the chapel was named and dedicated before the park became Dollywood. Dr. Thomas was a mountain doctor and traveling preacher. He was important to Sevier County because though he had the medical training to set up his practice anywhere, he chose to commit himself to this rural community. He was an advocate of immunization and set up clinics all over the county to make better healthcare accessible to more people. He was willing to reach patients by whatever means necessary—and often that meant walking to make house calls.
Thousands of Prayers
This picture is worth way more than a thousand words. Chaplain Joey Buck has the prayer request bound every year. Guests are invited to sign their names—or share prayer requests—as they come through the chapel. According to Chaplain Joey, every Dollywood guest is either at the park celebrating or trying to escape. Either way, there’s a place to jot your prayers.
Built on the Shoulders of the Faithful
Dollywood guests are invited to participate in a 30-minute service every Sunday the park is open:
11:30 a.m. from March through October and 5:30 p.m. during our Smoky Mountain Christmas festival.
But, you can’t talk about the chapel without mentioning faithful volunteers: MaryJo Bertram and Cricket Russell. MaryJo has been the VOLUNTEER pianist for the service for 20 years.
Cricket has led music during the service for 28 years! She works at Dollywood and will work her lunch break around the service time so she can be there.
I hope you learned something you didn’t know before—but I really hope that you make it a point to visit the Robert F. Thomas Chapel the next time you come to Dollywood. If the walls could talk, there would be countless stories to hear!