In the middle of the popular Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee sits the Robert. F. Thomas Chapel. This small, one-room church is an iconic fixture in the park and holds church services every Sunday. The chapel is named after the local Sevier County doctor who delivered Dolly Rebecca Parton—the fourth of 12 children to Robert Lee and Avie Lee Parton.
Dr. Thomas was a mountain doctor and a traveling preacher. On January 19, 1946, Dr. Thomas traveled to Locust Ridge, Tennessee on a house call when Dolly Parton’s mother was in labor, ready to give birth to the now country icon. The Partons were very poor and could only pay the doctor with a sack of cornmeal.
Dr. Thomas was important to Sevier County because he chose to commit himself to this rural community and reportedly would make more than 1,000 house calls each year. As the only physician in the mountain community, he traveled by Jeep, by horseback or on foot to nearby communities. He treated illnesses, delivered babies and performed surgeries—almost always in the home of his patients.
The level of poverty in the area was vast, and Dr. Thomas was often paid in the form of chickens, eggs, produce, hogs and, on one occasion, a whole cow. It was only fitting to dedicate this chapel to the doctor who was committed in faith and service to his community.
The Robert F. Thomas Chapel was built in 1973 but was constructed to look like an old country church from the turn of the century. At a total cost of $35,000, the church was built to fit into the theme park’s Appalachian theme.
The chapel was constructed with the encouragement of the large Christian community in the area. Donations of the antique windows, door and pews came from schools, churches and individuals who wanted to contribute to the little chapel. The windows were originally from a local school in Sevier County dating back to 1806. The doors were donated from a local Methodist church from 1891. The pews hailed from an old courthouse and date back to the late 1800s.
The small stained-glass window behind the carved image of Jesus inside the chapel is from the early 1900s. It was donated by First United Methodist Church in honor of James Davis—aka ‘Deacon Davis’ of Goldrush Junction. The park hired this local evangelist to be a roaming character. He helped perpetuate the chapel as a symbol of faith for the community and opened the opportunity for Sunday worship in Dollywood.
The church holds a 30-minute worship service every Sunday for visitors of the park. During the service, there is singing, piano playing and a short, nondenominational message of encouragement.
For more information, visit www.dollywood.com.
Dollywood is located at 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd. in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.