By Evelyn Kelly, PhD
It was a silent night in 1818, and it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. For Father Josef Mohr in the village of Oberndorf, Austria, it was wonderful because Christmas was coming and war with Napoleon was over. It was the worst of times because a mouse had chewed the organ entrails, and there could be no church music. The war had ravaged the village leaving turmoil, suffering and hunger. Needed was the spirit of Christmas and joyful music to provide hope.
Inspired by a Silent Night
Sitting on a small hill in the peaceful Alps, he pondered his situation with no music. Inspired, he took out a pen and wrote a poem he titled Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. Why not set the poem to music? He contacted his organist Franz Gruber who composed a melody using his guitar. The church had Christmas music, and we have the best known all Christmas hymns: “Silent Night.”
The first chapel
During our excursion from nearby Salzburg, we are deposited in the village of Oberndorf. The whole being of this city is saturated with memorabilia and souvenirs of Silent Night. We make our way through the hoopla and climb the steps to a small white octagonal building with a tiled roof, a cupola bell helmet and lantern. The setting is framed by two large evergreens.
River flooding destroyed the first little chapel, but in 1936, a new chapel on a higher site was built. In fact, the whole town of Oberndorf moved about half a mile upstream. It was a joy to experience the site commemorating where the great Christmas carol was written and performed.
The second chapel
In Frankenmuth, Michigan a 56-foot-tall chapel is nestled on the southern tip of Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. Billboards on the Interstate advertised this wonderland, but seeing the little Silent Night chapel is a wonder in itself.
In 1976, Wally Bronner was on a European trip buying ornaments and memorabilia for his Christmas store. The family had started the Christmas store in 1945, the same year that war had ended. When visiting Oberndorf, he had a marvelous idea: to build a replica of this chapel at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. He got permission from the Oberndorf city officials and set out to recreate the chapel in Frankenmuth at the south end of town.
Care was taken to make it as authentic as possible. Inside, guests may hear in 30 different languages the message of Christ’s birth as told in Luke 2:1-19. Outside, lamp posts line the walkway with Silent Night displayed in 300 languages. “Silent Night” may be heard inside and outside the chapel grounds. Bronner’s display also includes a life-size nativity scene. The inspirational landmark is fully illuminated at night, and open daily for visitation and meditation at no charge.
An Important Message at Christmas
From Austria to Michigan, the story of Silent Night has an important message for our world today. The small chapel is a tangible reminder of the spirit of peace in the world. I loved the story and the chapel so much that I ordered a small chapel replica from Bronner’s. I display the little chapel with my Christmas decor, and I tell this story of Silent Night to guests and to everyone who will listen.