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  • Writer's pictureDante Mazza

Old Swedes Church

Updated: Jan 26


Old Swedes Church and churchyard seen in November 2018

The Holy Trinity Church of Wilmington, Delaware (also known as "Old Swedes") is one of the oldest church buildings in the United States. It is the single best-preserved structure connected to the early Swedish settlers of the Delaware Valley.

Completed in 1698 and still in use today, this National Historic Landmark is significant for its English field-style architecture, status as a longstanding symbol of religion in America, and close association with the early settlers of New Sweden.

 

The New Sweden Colony

A model of the Kalmar Nyckel (Key of Kalmar), the ship that the founders of New Sweden sailed to the New World. A full-scale replica of the ship has been built and is docked near the church at the site of Fort Christina, with regular sailings.

The English were the first Europeans to explore the Delaware Valley region as part of their colonization of Virginia. Delaware itself, as well as the river, bay, and Native American tribe indigenous to the area, are all named after English Lord Thomas West, the 3rd Baron De La Warr, who was Governor of the Virginia colony at the time the region was first explored, around the year 1600. Some small outposts were established, but Native Americans quickly destroyed those. Subsequent efforts by the Dutch met the same fate, and the area remained devoid of a permanent European colony.

By the 1620s, the English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese had each established lasting, commercially profitable settlements in the New World. Taking note of their success, a Dutch trader named William Usselinx presented King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden with a plan to form a for-profit trading company that would operate in Asia, Africa, and the New World. The King agreed to the proposal, and Usselinx set about accumulating the capital needed to launch the business. Unfortunately, King Adolphus died before the operation could be launched, and Usselinx found himself in dire financial straights, jeopardizing the plan's future.

It was another Dutchman who stepped in to continue the effort. Peter Minuit, former Governor of the Dutch colony New Amsterdam (later New York) and the man who famously "purchased" the island of Manhattan from Native Americans, arrived in Sweden to finish what Usselinx had started.

Upon the death of King Adolphus, control of Sweden had passed to his six-year-old daughter, Queen Christina. However, because she was so young, the Kingdom was run as a regency by Count Axel Oxenstierna, who had been the King's right-hand man and a major proponent of the original plan to establish a colony in the New World. Oxenstierna ensured that Minuit got the resources he needed, and in August 1637, a group of settlers boarded the Kalmar Nyckel and headed for the New World.

The group arrived in the spring of the following year, landing first near what is now Lewes in southern Delaware before heading north up the Delaware Bay to a small peninsula that sits where the Brandywine Creek meets the Christina River, just before the two flow together into the Delaware River meters away. The church yet accessible location even featured a natural jetty of large rocks.

It was here that Fort Christina, named for the Queen, was constructed, and the New Sweden colony began.

 

Founding Old Swedes

The church is surrounded by an extensive graveyard, a fitting setting as it was built on the site of Fort Christina's original burying ground.

The New Sweden Colony did not long remain Swedish. Within 20 years, the Dutch captured the area, eventually transferring it to the English along with their New Amsterdam colony. Each of these transfers was swift and bloodless.

Despite the changes in governance, the Swedish inhabitants of the area remained proud of their heritage and culture, including their Lutheran religion, which the Dutch, having no ministers or churches of their own in the colony, joined in on, primarily through intermarriage between the two groups.

Soon after the establishment of Fort Christina, the settlers laid out a small village on the hill above the fort in what is now downtown Wilmington. The new town church included a burial ground up the hill from the fort and a small wooden church. Two ministers served this church in its early days, both of whom became severely disabled. The first grew old and could not walk, while the second went blind.

Neither were thus able to fulfill their duties, and the people of the now Dutch-controlled New Sweden needed a new local minister. They sent word of their condition to New York, where traders regularly traveled to Amsterdam, and a letter was sent to the Lutheran congregation of that city, requesting that a Swedish minister be sent to the New World to continue church services. But unfortunately, they received no response, and a minister never came.

Another newcomer did, however, appear on the shores of the Delaware. His name was Anders Printz, and he was Swedish, the nephew of former New Sweden Governor John Printz. Anders heard the plea of his fellow citizens and returned to Sweden with news of their condition. He relayed the information to John Thelin, a Swedish postmaster, who promptly wrote a letter to the people of New Sweden requesting more details of their settlement's status, and inquiring about how many worship materials (Bibles, hymnals, etc.) they needed.

"In memory of Charles (Carlchristopher) Springer

Born Stockholm Sweden 1658

Came to America 1678

Died Wilmington, Delaware 1738

A founder and builder of this church. Warden, Vestryman, and Councillor from the founding until his death. His body rests beneath the east wall of the South portico"

When the letter arrived in town, the people of New Sweden may have had trouble reading it, as the working language of the region had shifted to Dutch, if not for the help of one Charles Springer.

Springer was a native of Stockholm who had been kidnapped off the streets of London, where he had been working with the Swedish Ambassador, and brought to Virginia to work as an indentured servant on a tobacco plantation. When his term was up, Springer had walked from Virginia to what is now Wilmington, where he proceeded to live among his fellow citizens in New Sweden.

In the absence of a full-time minister, Springer had been leading prayers and reading the Psalms and a few published sermons the community had on hand to those who would assemble at makeshift services. So when the letter from Sweden arrived, Springer crafted a lengthy, detailed response in his native language, a necessary task as the letter was bound for the King of Sweden himself. Springer requested that two Swedish ministers be sent to Delaware along with Bibles, sermon books, catechism books, meditation books, and more, all of which the community pledged to pay for. He also gave a full accounting of the community's overall health and details of daily life and even included a list of all the Swedes living there.

Springer's letter did indeed find its way to the Swedish Royal Court, where King Charles XI took a considerable interest in his former subjects living along the Delaware. He wrote to Dr. Olaf Suebilius, Archbishop of Sweden, and asked that ministers be sent to New Sweden as requested. The Archbishop gathered three, Erik Bjork, Andrew Rudman, and Jonas Auren. On direct orders from the King and with a precious cargo of dozens of religious books donated by him, they set sail for America. They were accompanied by Anders Printz, who planned to return to New Sweden and settle there permanently.

A portrait of Erik Bjork, who led the effort to construct Old Swedes and served as its first pastor for several years, hangs in the church entryway

Upon arrival, the three men divided up the territory of New Sweden so that they might adequately serve the people. Bjork was placed in charge of the congregation in the town next to Fort Christina, which met at the small wooden church near the old fort burying ground, a building that was 30 years old.

Pastor Bjork realized that a new building was immediately needed to reinvigorate the long-ignored congregation. In July of 1697, records kept by Bjork indicate that the congregation committee agreed to set about constructing a new church building "of brick or stone."

A Google Maps screengrab shows the Old Swedes Church built on a rise above the site of Fort Christina and the docking place of the modern-day Kalmar Nyckel along the Christina River. Congregational commissioner John Stalcop donated a portion of the elevated land.

In terms of location, Bjork writes that the burying ground "did not extend sufficiently high up on the elevation or hill for a convenient place without standing over graves," so additional land for the project, including space for a new churchyard, burial ground, and pathways leading to and from the building was sold to the congregation by commissioner John Stalcop for the low price of just four pounds.

The donated land and the existing burying ground provided enough space for Bjork to finally construct the house of worship that the faithful citizens of New Sweden had long desired and deserved.

 

Building Old Swedes

The original section of the church is built from locally quarried granite, brought to the construction site by wagon in the warm months and by sled in the winter.

Erecting such an edifice would be the greatest construction challenge in the New Sweden colony since the building of Fort Christina itself. Unfortunately, most area residents were farmers who lived in modest log buildings similar to the old church and did not have the architectural or engineering skills such a project demanded. Though the people of New Sweden could farm their own food, it soon became clear they would have to farm out the construction of the new church.


Bjork and the congregation turned north to Philadelphia, where they contracted with English masons, carpenters, and other craftsmen to construct a building sixty feet long, thirty feet wide, and twenty feet high. The cornerstone was laid on May 28, 1698, and construction progressed from there.

Mason Joseph Yard led the construction of the four walls, built of locally quarried granite, while carpenters John Smart and John Harrison handled the roof, pews, pulpit, doors, and window frames. The windows themselves were installed by the Dutch glazier Lenard Osterson. On the exterior, various Latin inscriptions were written in iron letters, later painted red, made by Matthias de Foss. The phrases included, "If God be for us who can be against us?" "EMMANUEL" and "Christ is our polestar."

Members of the congregation pitched in however they could, hauling stone and lumber to the building site, acting as manual labor for the project, and donating the funds necessary to pay the hired experts and purchase materials. All wood was sawed on-site, and a local blacksmith made all the project's nails. The total construction cost is estimated to be 800 British pounds, roughly the equivalent of $10,000 in 1913 U.S. dollars, or $260,000 today.

By the late spring of 1699, work on the church's exterior was wrapping up, and the building was ready to be dedicated. Bjork planned the ceremony for June 4, Holy Trinity Sunday, fitting since he also intended to name the church Holy Trinity.

In his account of the historic dedication, Bjork relates that:

"God graciously favored us with a bright and beautiful day, for our entrance into our new church at Christina, after so much labor and expense...The consecration took place in the presence of many hundred persons of various religions besides our own..."

Following the dedication, a lengthy feast of celebration was held, paid for by the congregants, in the home of John Stalcop, which featured the very best fruits of their land and labor from veal and mutton to sugar and eggs to wine, and ale, a feast to which all were welcome. Trinity Sunday, in the ensuing years, became an annual event of feasting and celebration in honor of the church's anniversary.

Some sixty years after the founding of New Sweden, its most enduring edifice had been completed.

 

Architecture & Design

The brick steeple tower was added in 1802. A belfry was planned for in the original design but not completed during the initial build, so the bell, which arrived from England in 1772, was instead hung upon a walnut tree in the churchyard.

Despite its strong connection with Swedish heritage, Holy Trinity Church is truly a work of English architecture due to its English designers and builders called in from Philadelphia.

The church's original design was simple: a plain stone rectangle with a brick floor and a shingled roof with gables on either end. The walls were massive, measuring three feet thick and 20 feet high. A door was set in the middle of the west side as a main entrance, with an additional one on the south side and two on the north side to provide access to the vestry.

Two windows were built into the north and south walls, and a larger one was installed in the east wall, just over the altar.

Plain glass windows were replaced with stained glass when the church underwent a thorough renovation in 1899

The stained glass window behind the altar is a focal point of the interior. It depicts Jesus Christ teaching a lesson and symbols of the Holy Trinity, for which the church is named. The altar railing is carved walnut wood painted white. The altar is topped with marble which encloses and preserves the original stone altar.

The pulpit is the oldest in the United States, crafted of black walnut wood. The dove hanging from the sounding board was a gift from Sweden and is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. A group of congregants donated the wood. The pulpit remains in its original location.

While the exterior design forms a steep triangular gable roof, a lower hanging segmental arch ceiling was installed on the interior, built from logs covered in plaster. The interior walls were also covered in white plaster to create a single, smooth design. The gallery is not original but was added in 1774 as the congregation expanded. It is accessible only from an exterior staircase built on the south porch. The pipe organ dates to 1965, a relatively modern addition to this immensely historic building

The original box pews were crafted of fir or pinewood. Wooden benches later replaced them, but an 1842 renovation restored replica pews in the original layout, with a wide center aisle of brick. Pews were given out to the families that had helped the most with the construction process and were passed down from generation to generation, though they could also be sold.

Bjork writes that a stone floor was initially installed underneath the pews, but he felt that brick looked better and requested it be used to complete the project. During the 1842 renovation, a wooden floor was laid over the bricks, only to be removed in 1899. However, the bricks beneath were so well preserved that they were left in place. The bricks were initially laid in a herringbone pattern like the one seen in the square section above.

A rear view of the church, showing the east gable end of the roof. The entire roof was originally covered with cedar shingles and has been replaced many times in renovations through the centuries.

 

Old Swedes Through the Centuries

Bjork remained Pastor at Old Swedes until 1714 when he was called back to Sweden by the King. However, he remained in touch with his former congregation even across an ocean. In 1718, Holy Trinity received the splendid gift of a silver Communion chalice, a paten plate for serving the Eucharist, and a box for storing it, all courtesy of the Fahlun Mining Company, which operated the historically significant Fahlun Mine, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the district to which Bjork had moved.

Rev. Andreas Hesselius took charge of the parish a bit before Bjork's departure. He was succeeded by his brother, Samuel Hesselius, who was followed by the Rev. John Eneberg in 1733. It was during Eneberg's tenure that what is now the city of Wilmington was formally established, and the area's rural character began to change slowly.

Peter Tranberg took over as pastor in 1742, coming from a nearby congregation across the Delaware River. Upon his death in 1749, he was succeeded by the Rev. Israel Acrelius, who authored the authoritative History of New Sweden, which tells the story of the region's settlement and church's founding. The first significant renovations to Old Swedes were made during his tenure. Acrelius eventually fell ill and returned to Sweden in 1756

Over the next several decades, Old Swedes witnessed remarkable history as the Delaware Valley changed rapidly. The Declaration of Independence was signed in nearby Philadelphia in 1776, and the Revolutionary War soon found its way to the region. As the British moved to capture Philadelphia, their forces met continental army troops at the Battle of Brandywine, which the British won. British troops quartered in Old Swedes after the victory as they prepared a final assault on Philadelphia.

By 1791, the United States was a new, independent nation and the Swedish population of the area once called New Sweden had dwindled considerably. Since the tenure of Israel Acrelius, services at Holy Trinity had been conducted in both Swedish and English. Reverend Lawrence Girelius, who a British Army officer had once ordered to perform service for the troops living in the church, decided to follow the lead of many of his predecessors and return to Sweden. Rather than request a new pastor from Sweden, the congregants withdrew formally from the Church of Sweden and joined the Protestant Episcopal Church. Old Swedes today remains an active Episcopal parish.

As the city of Wilmington continued to develop, the church soon found itself on the literal outskirts of the city as well as the metaphorical outskirts of its social and religious life. In 1830, after over 130 years of continuous use, Old Swedes was decommissioned as an active house of worship, and the parish moved operations to a new church building in the heart of downtown.

Even so, the city's most historic building was not entirely doomed. Later that decade, a group of local women undertook to raise funds and make necessary repairs to the building, inspiring another local, Henrietta Allmond, to leave more renovation money to the church in her will. When Allmond passed in 1842, Old Swedes received its first significant restoration, modernizing and changing many of the original details. Most of these changes were undone by a more thorough 1899 renovation in honor of the building's 200th anniversary, which restored the church to its original appearance.

Regular church services resumed in full by 1854. There was intermittent service in the years surrounding the Civil War, but full traditional worship continued soon after its conclusion. To this day, service is held at Old Swedes on Sunday mornings. The historic building is also open seasonally for visitor tours during the week.

 

National Historic Landmark

The official National Historic Landmark plaque is affixed to the north side of the belfry tower. It was presented to the church in 1963

No significant changes were made to Old Swedes in the first half of the 20th century, just necessary repairs. A ceremony in 1938 marked the 300th anniversary of the parish and the 239th anniversary of the church building. However, a strong interest in formally preserving the historic building became prevalent in the years following World War II.

In 1947, the Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church Foundation was established to "provide for the care, maintenance, and preservation of Old Swedes...as a historic monument." The foundation's earliest projects included repainting some of the woodwork and, later, the entire church interior. As those intrepid citizens sprung to action to protect their local landmark, the U.S. Federal Government became poised to join their cause.

Dating back to the 1906 passage of the Antiquities Act, the Federal Government had always maintained at least a nominal interest in historic preservation. These efforts were amplified during the Great Depression with the passage of the Historic Sites Act and the establishment of the Historic American Buildings Survey, the first official federal effort to document the nation's historic resources.

After the Depression and War, an effort arose to preserve the buildings identified in the survey. Since it would be too costly and impractical for the government to assume ownership of every relevant historic site, the National Historic Landmarks Program was established to register and honor these historic places.

Prospective Landmarks were identified by additional studies based on various themes. One of these, Dutch and Swedish Exploration and Settlement, quickly identified Old Swedes as an eligible Landmark site. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall announced the church's new status in 1961, within the program's first year. Old Swedes was one of the first 300 Landmarks designated nationwide.

Because of their strong association with Sweden, the designation of Old Swedes and the nearby Fort Christina site as National Historic Landmarks was seen as a moment to celebrate the relationship between the United States and that country. Accordingly, a special ceremony was held to mark the installation of the official plaques in March of 1963, attended by a high-profile delegation.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the plaque to the Rector of Old Swedes and Delaware Governor Elbert Carvel while Prince Bertil of Sweden and the Swedish Ambassador to the United States looked on. Johnson also gave an address, and a formal luncheon was held to honor the occasion.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson presents the National Historic Landmark Plaque to Old Swedes Church in 1963.

National Archives photo

Old Swedes has thus enjoyed its status as an officially recognized historical treasure of Delaware and the nation for over 50 years. Today, it is also included as part of First State National Historical Park.

UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church

Delaware

is hereby designated a

REGISTERED NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK

Under the Provisions of the Historic Sites Act of 1935, This Site Possesses Exceptional Value in Commemorating and Illustrating the History of the United States of America

Signed:

Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior

Conrad Wirth, Director, National Park Service

 

Significance


As one of the oldest church buildings in the United States, Old Swedes can be counted among an elite group of American historical sites. Yet, as a representation of the New Sweden colony and its hearty founders, Old Swedes stands alone. In a nation built on the stories of millions of pioneers and immigrants who crossed oceans to change their own lives and the course of history, Old Swedes is a corner of that nation that directly reflects that history and does so for a group whose significant efforts are often overlooked when the nation's story is told. Furthermore, its status as an early National Historic Landmark and the success of its preservation is a testament to the heartiness of the program itself.


 

For Further Information

Download the Old Swedes National Archive File

Includes the official nomination form, historic photos, correspondence, building reports, and historical narrative about the church


Official Website

First State National Historical Park

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