Once a year, I go with my sister, Celeste, to Bjorklunden in Door County, for a girls weekend via Lawrence University, where she works in the registrars office. We spend the weekend shopping, eating, crafting and giggling, with many other women of Lawrence and their friends and family members. There is always a basket class, a bead class and some other craft class (this year it was wool felting). My sister teaches the bead class, and I assist her, as the classes are usually large. It’s a wonderful two days away from the usual stresses of life, and I look forward to it for many reasons, not the least of which is the immediate feeling of peace I get the moment we drive on the property.
A bit of history, because I think it’s important to why this place holds such power over my spirit. Specifically, Bjorklunden is the northern satellite campus of Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. It didn’t start out that way, however.
The land, just south of Bailey’s Harbor, was purchased in 1928 by Winifred and Carelton Vail, who, like many Chicagoans of that era, built a summer home on it, naming it Björklunden vid Sjön (in Norwegian, “birch forest by the water”). Thus began their family traditions of spending the summers on the shores of Lake Michigan. Tragically, Carelton was killed in a car accident in 1932 (in Sturgeon Bay I think, which means it would have been the summer). Thru her grieving process, Winifred determined to build a chapel at Björklunden similar to one she saw in Lillihammer, Norway, while traveling Europe the year following his death. In 1934 she remarried to Don Boynton, and together, they made her vision of a “sanctuary of peace” come true. In 1939 the chapel was built, but it was the next 9 years of labor that sets it apart.
Winifred, already an established artist who had painted many murals of Norwegian culture, biblical verses and family in the lodge, would carry this over to the interior of the church. However, they also did all of the wood carvings in the chapel – from the basic carvings of dragons heads on the ends of the joists to the elaborate baptismal font and pew ends.
The font in particular is an extraordinary piece of art. It has all 12 disciples on it – three on each side. The first time I saw it, I crouched down next to it, and lightly traced the figures, imagining the hours spent on it. The Boynton’s would carve at home in Illinois during the winter months and bring the finished pieces up during the summer.
I first visited the chapel with my other sister, Maribeth, in 2010, on a similar weekend. It was a colder March than this past one, so we could see our breath inside the unheated chapel. It was dark inside, and hard to see everything at first. And oh so very quiet.
We spoke in hushed tones and took our pictures in silence. A hesitant hand would occasionally reach out to touch a carving or a mural, briefly intruding, and then drawing back to the safety of a jacket pocket.
I didn’t want to intrude on Winifred’s relationship with God, although I believe she built the chapel precisely for that reason – to share her love of God, her being in love with God. To show it, to be obedient to it, to express it.
We left after about 20 minutes, walking slowly back thru the woods, talking about what we had seen. The rest of the afternoon was spent digging thru the history of Bjorklunden in the library, learning as much as we could about this fascinating woman and her journey to build a chapel.
This is the foundation, I believe, of the peace I feel on this stretch of Lake Michigan coast. It culminates with long walks thru the woods and meditations and soul searching on the beach (regardless of the weather), which I will explore further in Part 2.