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Knaphus honored, Norway remembers famous son

Locals learned about Knaphus and Church

Torleif S. Knaphus, the Norwegian LDS sculptor whose famous works include the "Handcart Pioneers" statue on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, has been remembered this week at the Lutheran church in Norway where his family attended prior to their conversion to Mormonism and emigration to Utah.

This Lutheran church in Vats, Norway, was attended by Torleif Knaphus and family prior to his conversion and emigration to Utah in 1906. In the cemetery next to the church are the headstones of scores of his relatives.
This Lutheran church in Vats, Norway, was attended by Torleif Knaphus and family prior to his conversion and emigration to Utah in 1906. In the cemetery next to the church are the headstones of scores of his relatives. Photo: Photo by Allen P. Gerritsen

Brother Knaphus (1881-1965) was born in Vats in southwestern Norway. Vats, with a population of about 1,200, has a small, white Lutheran church (the state religion) that is the hub of the parish and also serves as the record keeper for life events of the people in the area.

The Knaphus family and ancestors had attended the church for centuries prior to his conversion. In the cemetery next to the church are the headstones of scores of his relatives.

Six years ago, the Knaphus Family Organization worked with the owner of the current Knapphus area (the extra p was added to the name to conform to changes in the language) to erect a memorial honoring Brother Knaphus and the "Handcart Pioneers," his most recognized statue. (See "Sculptor honored in Norway," Church News, Sept. 7, 2004.)

On the 7-foot stone monument is a copy of the sculptor's bronze bas-relief of the "Handcart Pioneers." Below it, etched in black granite, is information about the original Knaphus farm, the family and the promising young artist who once lived there.

In 2009, the family organization gave a copy of the original "Handcart Pioneers" statue to the Norwegian Emigrant Museum in Hamar, Norway. Also last year, family members gave a copy of one of the sculptor's bas-reliefs to the pastor and congregation to display in Brother Knaphus' boyhood church.

The gift is a miniature of his 33-foot frieze entitled "Jesus Christ, the Fountainhead of the Church," which he completed in 1923 for the Cardston Alberta Temple. The donated piece is about 39 inches wide. The sculpture depicts Christ at the well teaching the woman from Samaria. Copies of this large relief are located in many ward meetinghouses in Utah and Nevada.

The Vats pastor and the regional Lutheran leaders agreed to have the art piece placed in the historic church since the subject matter was in keeping with their beliefs. They also gave permission to have a bronze informational placard in Norwegian under the relief, telling of the piece and its sculptor, including two etched photos of the artist.

Every other year, the communities around Vats join to celebrate their heritage and tell of the history and traditions of their area. Due to public interest about the gift to the Vats church, the organizers wanted to focus this year on Torleif S. Knaphus, whose family surname is one of the area's namesakes. During the week of June 6-12, the Norwegian flag flew at many homes, farms and businesses in the area. On June 8, the attendees met at the Knaphus Memorial adjacent to the main highway about 20 miles east of Haugesund on the west coast of Norway. Included in the celebration was Ismo Hiltunen, president of the Haugesund Branch, and a few other members. However, the majority were locals who had not heard of Torleif Knaphus or the LDS Church.

"The spirit in the room was strong as the presentation told about Brother Knaphus' work in the Church," President Hiltunen said. "I could tell the people were strengthened by the presentation as they came to know the Mormon church and the man who was born right here."

Some 70 people learned the history of the handcart pioneers, the statue and the sculptor who was born and raised not far from the historical marker. The attendees then walked to a nearby business with indoor space large enough to view a presentation illustrated with projected images about the sculptor, his life and art work.

At the presentation, a copy of Brother Knaphus' extensive pedigree chart was placed on the wall for the group to see. Many crowded around it and noted that they had common ancestors.

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