Make a vow and your wish will come true

When you sit inside the church, you see far out over the Atlantic ocean. At the front door is a framed prayer by Bishop Sigurður Pálsson , written by Catholic nuns: " This is no ordinary house, rather heaven on earth. Because the Lord of the heavens lives here ."  Strandarkirkja 2020. Sigurjón A. Geirsson

Almost a millennium ago, supernatural powers prompted men to build a church they called Strandarkirkja . Ever since, it has been considered a miracle church. People travel from all over the world pouring out their heart's desires inside its small interior. Promises of money, gold and precious things are offered in exchange for an answer to their prayers. 

Before Strandarkirkja was built, Selvogur didn't have a church. This was unusual as most farm communities in Iceland had a church. Not having a place of worship weighed heavy on the residents. A church wasn't just a place where they gathered together to worship. Their religious belief demanded it. 

If someone suddenly fell ill, there was no time to find a priest. This meant that many of Selvogur residents died without confessing their sins or receiving the priest's blessings. 

This was devastating. If they wanted a Christian burial for their loved ones, it could take weeks before a priest would arrive to sanctify the burial ground. 

The Selvogur community had been wanting a church for decades, but their request was always rejected. It would cost too much, they said. There was nothing the community wanted more than a church and a priest to be their guide, friend and protector. Only then could they stop worrying. Instead of dying with their sins, they would receive grace. 

They turned their thoughts toward the heavens and begged the Mother of God (Mary) to have mercy on them. Their prayers were said with pure faith and a burning desire for everlasting salvation. At first they were certain their prayers would be heard. But as time passed and nothing happened, the doubt kicked in and they wondered if they would ever get a church. 

The Northern lights in Selvogur. One has to wonder what they people a millennium ago thought these supernatural lights in the heavens were.  Andrew Stawarz

There had to be a reason for their unanswered prayers. Some of the Biblical stories rested on their minds. Could it be that their prayers were rejected due to vanity or wrongful desires? This weighed heavy on their hearts. They did love their farmlands very much and felt fortunate to live in such a prosperous area. The land was forested, green and fertile. 

Their sheep wandered and graced freely. In fact, their animals ran wild all winter, with a few exceptional harsh winters. The ocean was rich in food and nutrition. The sky was full of birds. It truly was a paradise on earth. Some even called it Sæluvogur (Happy Cove) instead of Selvogur (Seal Cove).  

Did they appreciating their worldly things more than spiritual ones and therefore God was displeased with them? Had they been thinking more about the Happy Cove than the heavenly paradise? 

Selvogur as it looked in 2015. Around 1000 years ago, this area did not have the church and it was forested.  Ryan Stavely

A few men had spent some time in Norway and were heading back to Iceland. They were all young and strong men. Some of them had been working in the king's court and enjoyed its benefits. The king payed them generously and sent them off with gifts. Some say they were carrying chopped wood to bring to Skálholtsbær.

Excited about living the good life in Iceland, they jumped onboard their ship ready to finally meet their sweethearts. The men all knew that with their wealth and noble lineage, the women would be lining up. There was so much to live for. All the great things in life was on their horizon. 

A viking ship at Viking World , a viking museum in Reykjavik

The young men hadn't sailed long when the weather grew dark and stormy. Being as strong as they were and with the determination to enjoy the good life, they fought with all their might to keep the ship afloat. It was a struggle to keep the ship above water in the terrible storm. 

They quickly realized they were losing the fight and with nothing else to turn to, they looked up towards the sky. The ship's captain had heard that  St. Thomas of Canterbury  had helped many, so he called to him for help. They waited for the weather to calm, but it never did. The captain soon realized that it wasn't working, their lives were still in peril. 

The ship's crew and the captain turned to every saint they could think of. Their prayers were silent, but they were all asking for their lives to be saved and to be guided safe to land. Nonetheless, they were ready to meet their maker, but not without a fight. They decided to die like true viking warriors.  

The conditions kept getting worse and the vision of ending up at the bottom of the ocean was the only one matching reality. They felt completely helpless. The captain fell to his knees again and shouted out to the Holy Mother of God, Mary. His voice drowned in the roaring waves and the thunderous wind. His words were to the effect of:

We desire life and we are not ready to enter death's door. Holy Mother of God, have mercy on us and give us life. We promise to praise your holy name and our sweethearts will pay you dearly and give gifts to the church .

The captain let out a deep breath, he was having a hard time shouting in the storm. This all seemed so unfair, but he wasn't ready to give up just yet and continued,

Holy Mother of God, I am ready to offer the church at home a new regalia and a new altar tablet. Both of them will be of great workmanship to equal its value. As you know, the regalia is old and worn out and the altar tablet so worn out that the image of the Holy Mother of God doesn't show its full potential.

The captain was certain that the Holy Mother of God would be pleased. But the waves just got larger and stronger. The large frothy waves seemed to be playing catch with the ship. He knew this meant that the Holy Mother of God wasn't accepting his offer.

Holy Mother of God, I will give the church half of my belongings and sanctify it in your name. It would be of great support for the church. For all the money, many souls will be given repentance and entrance into the Holy Place.

Now the captain stood up. He didn't feel he had to be ashamed of such an offering. It was obvious that his offer would save many souls. But the storm wasn't calming down and the frothy white waves rose high up in the air. Chills went down his spine. He stood there in fear of the Lord and the saints.

By now he had completely lost the control of the ship and they were at the mercy of the ocean. It was only a matter of time now, they could feel the moment had come. 

The captain looked over at his crew. They were utterly exhausted and barely clinging to life. He looked up at the dark as coal sky for the last time.  Somewhere behind the darkness he knew there was help to find. He was sure of it. 

At this point, he had called out to all the saints he could think of, except St. Nicholas the Saint of the Seas . He couldn't believe he hadn't thought of him earlier. He stretched out his arm in a fist as if he was cursing the sky. He shouted out to God, begging him to prove his existence. If God chose to let them die, he was merciless and if St.Nicholas wasn't allowed to save them, he was a useless protector of the sea navigators. 

St. Nicholas.  Galerie Art Praha  

After a short moment, the captain and his crew looked back up into the sky and saw the clouds separate. Far into the distance they saw a glimmer of light coming closer and closer.

In the light were grand pillars rising from the ocean that reached all the way up into the sky. The pillars were clear and twinkled in the most beautiful light. Between the pillars, a church appeared, large and beautiful. The brightness around it was brighter than any sunlight they had ever seen. Light beams shimmered as far as eyes could see.

The men watched in awe. At first the captain thought it was merely a vision of a dying man. But he was still very much alive and standing upright still. Then finally the answer came. It overwhelmed him and he reached both hands up into the sky to worship. It wasn't that Mary or St. Nicholas didn't want to help them. 

All along they had been calling on the wrong saint, the captain thought to himself. Each saint had a specific calling or task and it was St. Nicholas' calling to watch over the sea. It wasn't appropriate for the other saints to overstep their boundaries.  

Now when he had called out to the right saint, the sea became calm. St. Nicholas was going to take over the ship and guide them safely towards land. He was going to lead them to the very spot they were to build a church.

The wind calmed and the sky opened. Behind the clouds the stars were twinkling. The clouds kept moving away until they were completely out of sight. The sky was blue and beautiful. The warm, soft air felt more like an early spring morning than a fall morning. 

Hallormsstaðaskógur National Forest in East Iceland. This was probably more similar to what the men on the ship saw almost a thousand years ago when they neared Selvogur. Only the shoreline at Selvogur was very difficult for ships to sail into, especially in bad weather. Guide to Iceland

They were beginning to see land ahead. The countryside was beautiful. In the east they saw the tree covered heath called Heiðin.  Brimgarður was further away. It was impossible to reach land without a guide. They sailed in toward Brimgarður and waited for the right time to enter the strait.  

The captain wondered if it was there they were supposed to build the church. They feared being stranded and considered turning around. That's when they saw a shining white spirit-being by the bay. She was wearing a white gown and holding a cross in her hand. The being emitted brightness towards the land and the sea. She signaled them to come towards her.

A statue of the spirit-being that guided the seamen safely into the bay.  Pálína Guðfinnsdóttir

The waves were once again calm and the ocean flat as a mirror. With the spirit's guidance, they sailed in safe and sound to shore. Once safe on land, the spirit seemed to have disappeared. They looked around, but she was nowhere to be seen. In fact, they couldn't see anyone anywhere.

The farm closest to them was Strönd. The farmer had seen the men and gone out to meet them. It wasn't expected to see an unfamiliar ship come to shore in Selvogur, especially without guidance from the locals in a horrible storm like that night. The farmers in the homes a little further away followed suit. They all wanted to see who was on this ship. 

A replica of the farm Strönd . Its last inhabitant was Vigfús Ingimundarson.  The area suffered terrible sandstorms, resulting in the main living quarters to disappear in the sand. In 1696 he had had enough and left his home.  It was never to become a living quarter again.   Sigurjón G Arnarson

The captain and his crew told the men their story and about the vows they made. They had promised to build a church where they sailed to shore. St. Nicholas had guided them to this lonely beach. They had vowed to make the church as glorious as the possibly could. It was to have a regalia and an altar tablet.

As a gift to the saints, the crew donated candles and candle holder along with several other items in appreciation for sparing their lives. 

The church was to be sanctified to Mother Mary and Thomas of Canterbury. But it was to be for the glory of St. Nicholas. The captain was going to create an image of St. Nicholas to place in the church. 

The captain continued explaining to the farmers that the church doors were to face the ocean and should always be open while there were ships on the ocean. No ship would go down as long as the doors were open, as St. Nicholas would protect them. 

The church was built in Strönd and was called Strandarkirkja (Strönd's Church). The men believed it was an angel sent from heaven that guided them to land, so they named the bay Engilsvík (Angel's Bay) and the strait Strandarsund (Strönd's Straight). From the captains description, the doors on the original church would have been facing the ocean.  Alfreð Dreyfus Jónsson

The farmers could hardly contain their excitement. They had been so desperately wanting a church that this truly felt God-sent to them. They all worked together to build the church out of timber. The Selvogur community finally felt their happiness was complete. 

They had, through miraculous means, received the church they had been waiting for. It was built because God wanted it to be built and the saints had chosen the spot. 

Little did they know that many miracles would take place in connection with the church. They didn't know that this church would be a beam of light to people all over the world. Even now, seven centuries later,  people travel far and wide to make vows in this little church in exchange for miracles.

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  1. Thank you for the full story about the church, amazing!

    1. Thank you. For a long time the story was only told orally, so some of the details were a bit hazy.


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