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Arland O. Fiske: Story of the Cathedral in Trondheim

No church building in the world is as exciting to me as Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. This is not because it is the largest church in Scandinavia, but because of the story that goes with it.

I grew up in a house where the picture of the church was hung on the living room wall on our farm since 1906. It is now in the possession of the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot, N.D.

The Nidaros Cathedral dates to July 29, 1030, the day that King Olaf Haraldsson was slain in the battle at Stickelstad. Friends carried Olaf’s body 75 miles from the battlefield to the River Nid for burial. Soon people began to claim that the fallen king performed miracles. A year later, Bishop Grimkel declared Olaf to be a saint and a martyr.

His body was put in a silver casket studded with jewels and placed on the altar of St. Clemens Church. His burial sword was brought to Copenhagen, where it is now in the National Museum. (I have a replica of the sword mounted on a board and hanging on my living room wall).

It was not long before Olaf was called “Norway’s Eternal King,” a title still given to him. On the site of his burial, a spring of water was reported to flow. People came to it for healing, according to the saga by Snorri Sturluson. A chapel was built and the altar was placed where Olaf had been buried. Soon a flood of pilgrims from all over northern Europe began trekking to Trondheim making it the fourth most frequented shrine on the continent. Pilgrimages were good tourist business.

Olaf’s younger brother, Olaf Kyrre, began building the new Christ Church on the site in 1070. Many fires have ravaged this church, but it has always been restored. The most recent renovation began in 1869. The length of the building measures almost 400 feet. The baroque organ, one of the largest in Scandinavia, was built in 1930.

The work of many famous sculptors adorns the outside of this building. Gustav Vigeland, best known for his statues in Frogner Park in Oslo, made some of them. The husband to cousin Gunhild, Stephen Krogstad, spent his entire adult life making statues for the west wall. The king twice honored him at a banquet for his work.

The greatest feeling for this historic church is experienced in worship. Despite the splendid architecture and furnishings, the liturgical service is quite plain. Even if one knows only a little Norwegian, it was not difficult to follow. I timed the pastor’s sermon. He used only 11 minutes for the pulpit prayer, reading of scripture and the sermon (that would not do in America). He spoke plainly and clearly. There was nothing pompous about it. The sanctuary was fairly well filled, including quite a few young people. The music was outstanding, both the choir and the organ. Concerts and recitals are regularly held in the nave of the cathedral.

Whenever I approached this gray soapstone building, I got the feeling I was walking on holy ground. The Cathedral towers above all the other buildings of the city and can be easily reached by walking from any part of the downtown. A cemetery surrounds it on the north and east.

I have been to Nidaros several times. On one of my visits to Trondheim, cousin Gunhild arranged a private tour of the building for my wife, Gerda, and I. She also pointed out to us the statues that her husband had made.

Whatever a person may think about the saga of Olaf the Saint, there is a mystique about this place. Even though Olaf’s body has secretly been buried somewhere in or near the Cathedral and its casket melted down for the king’s treasury in Copenhagen, Nidaros continues to cast its spell on all that visit it.

Next week: Denmark’s Jelling stone.

— Arland Fiske, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.