PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (WZTV) — Tucked away in the Smoky Mountains, there’s a little white Chapel with its bell ringing proudly for all of Dollywood to hear every Sunday.
Years before Dollywood took over the park, previous theme park managers built the little chapel as a gift to the community. Little did they know, the chapel and the man it's named after would end up having an unlikely thread tying them to an East Tennessee child turned global superstar.
With wooden pews dating back to the late-1800s and windows from the first secondary school in Sevier County, the chapel oozes old country charm.
Inside the little chapel hangs a picture of a man riding horseback to a tiny cabin. The illustration, in its inconspicuous spot, paints a picture of the start of Dolly Parton’s life at her “Tennessee mountain home.”
The man riding horseback in the picture is Dr. Robert F. Thomas, a well-known mountain doctor and traveling preacher at the time. Dr. Thomas was passionate about helping the people of the Smoky Mountains no matter what it took, even making house calls.
On January 19, 1946, Dr. Thomas took a house call that would end up changing the world. He traveled to the Locust Ridge area of the Smokies and delivered Dolly Rebecca Parton. In return, the Partons paid Dr. Thomas with a sack of cornmeal.
The child would end up being a country music icon and a household name, with her lyrics known around the globe. Some of them even about the beloved doctor who brought her into the world.
“Dr. Thomas was a man
The Lord must have appointed
To live among us mountain folks
In eastern Tennessee
And he delivered more than half
The babies in those mountains
Among those babies
He delivered me” Dolly sings in her song Dr. Robert F. Thomas.
Before the chapel for Dr. Robert F. Thomas was constructed in 1973 at what was then Goldrush Junction, Dollywood representatives say some states were under Blue Laws or Sunday Laws, which would prohibit most businesses from opening on Sundays. But the chapel built for less than $35,000 and backed by community members who wanted to worship at the church inside the theme park, ended up bringing some people who strongly supported and those who opposed it to a middle ground.
More than 40 years after its creation and after Dolly became involved with the park in 1986, the chapel continues to bring people together. Tennesseans donated pieces of the church like old pews, windows and even the sleepy-sounding piano. Now, volunteers and Dollywood employees hold weekly church services to keep the chapel’s spirit alive.
MaryJo Bertram has served as the chapel’s volunteer pianist for 22 years. She tickles the ivories of the restored 118-year-old instrument that was donated by a former Dollywood host.
Dollywood employee Cricket Russell has been leading the chapel’s music service for nearly three decades. She takes her lunch break to be able to attend the 30-minute service each week.
Anyone who goes to Dollywood on a Sunday can be involved too. Guests are invited to ring the old school bell turned church bell before attending the service and submit their own prayer requests as they come through.
Like Dollywood representatives say, “If the walls could talk, there would be countless stories to hear!”
Learn more about the chapel hours here.