Grava is a parish consisting largely of leafy suburbs on the outskirts of Karlstad, which is the county town of Värmland (pronounced approximately Vairmland) in the west of Sweden. If you were to draw a line on a map between Stockholm and Oslo and bisect it, you would see Karlstad nestling at the top of a big lake, indeed the third biggest freshwater lake in Europe, called Vänern (Venern). A closer look would reveal a long river, Klarälven (Klarelven – literally “clear river”) and a built-up area marked as Skåre (Skorer). Grava parish now consists principally of Skåre and its 6,000 or so inhabitants, but also includes some of the surrounding fertile countryside. A century or so ago however Grava parish was a much larger area, both towards the city itself and across the river, including what has now become the town of Forshaga, which has long been independent with both its own municipal status and its own parish church.
Grava’s church lies on the edge of the countryside between the original road from Karlstad leading north along the river valley and that which replaced it, which in turn has itself been superseded by the present route 62. The church is surrounded mostly by fields, principally for potatoes and beef cattle. There is nothing that might suggest that Grava was ever a township, and indeed it wasn’t. There is no shop, no village high street, nor any ruins to indicate that these might once have existed. Yet the district was well enough inhabited to make the building of a church worthwhile and to maintain it until the march of suburbia in the last forty or fifty years brought a welcome addition to the population, supplementing the dwindling number of rural inhabitants.
The present white-painted stone building has its origins in the early 1600s, though there was apparently a small wooden church a little way to the north at an earlier date of which no trace remains. Like so many churches it was added to as the community grew and funds permitted. A tower was added in 1645 and the building eventually assumed its present cross shape in 1773. The tower was rebuilt in its present form in 1862. The church is surrounded by a graveyard, the original part of which is ringed by a substantial dry-stone wall. Like most Swedish graveyards it is maintained to a very high standard; no broken grave-stones and rampant weeds here! Even in the depths of a snowy winter people can reach the graves of their loved ones without difficulty. At All Souls-tide the graves twinkle with the light of hundreds of candles.
There is no vicarage or manse to be seen. For reasons lost in the mists of time it was decided to build the pastor’s residence on the other side of the river. Thus to get to church the pastor had to get on his horse, whatever the weather, ride down-river to the ferry, cross the river and ride up-river the other side – same procedure to get home again. Even in the depths of the coldest of winters it would have been a brave man who ventured to attempt to cross the ice on horseback. These days however the pastor lives in a comfortable house in Skåre in the midst of her parishioners.
One thing, virtually forgotten until very recently, made Grava more important than it might have been: the pilgrim route from Skara on the other side of the lake all the way through Värmland into Norway, terminating at Trondheim. The pilgrims made this long and hazardous journey partly by boat, the rest on foot through the forests, to pray at the tomb of St Olaf (King of Norway 1015-28 – contemporary with King Canute in England and King Malcolm II in Scotland). Churches along the pilgrimage route gave shelter and encouragement to the travellers, and this link to early Scandinavian Christianity has recently been renewed with new signposts at Grava and other churches on the route, and pilgrims again making the journey (though in considerably less challenging circumstances than prevailed a thousand years ago).