Before there was Pennsylvania, there was New Sweden.
In the 1600s, Sweden was one of the powers of Europe, and when dissatisfied members of the Dutch West India Company suggested that Sweden launch its own venture in the New World, the nation’s leaders were receptive. In 1637, the New Sweden Company sent two ships to North America, where they arrived at the Delaware River and established an outpost where Wilmington, Del., now stands.
Their colony lasted fewer than two decades, from 1638 until 1655, when it was overtaken by the Dutch. But the settlers left their mark on the land that is now the United States, says the Rev. Kim-Eric Williams, a descendant of Swedish settlers who has served as a Lutheran pastor and taught the Swedish language at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It was incredibly idealistic and not practical, and they never made any money out of it at all,” Rev. Williams said. “But the profit was in the people who came over.”
Those settlers developed the agriculture of the Delaware Valley and established peaceful relations with the native people living there, he said. They brought over the practice of building log cabins, which caught on and took on a symbolic quality in American culture. The mark the settlers made extends to the present day: Their descendants are projected to range between 10 million and 20 million people, he said.
One visible reminder of the Swedish colony can be found at the Gloria Dei Church National Historic Site in Philadelphia, about 1½ miles from Independence Hall. The congregation dates its origin to 1646, when a church was dedicated at Tinicum Island. In 1677, the church moved to its current site, where its brick building was completed in 1700.
Gloria Dei Church National Historic Site
916 S. Swanson St., Philadelphia, PA 19147. (About 1½ miles from Independence Visitor Center.)
- Driving time from Pittsburgh: Without stops, at least five hours
- Hours: The church can be visited from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, except during religious services, which are held Sundays at 10 a.m. The church is closed on Mondays.
- Admission: Free
- Accessibility: The church has a ramp at the door, but the cemetery is not accessible to those with mobility challenges and there are no accessible restrooms on site.
- Good to know: Visitors wishing to receive a National Park Passport stamp should call ahead to make sure the rector will be in the church office.
It would be hard to visit the church and walk around its grounds without feeling a connection to history. Inside, hanging from the ceiling, are models of the Fogel Grip and the Kalmar Nyckel, the ships that first brought settlers from Sweden to the Delaware Valley. A list of pastors and rectors of the church begins in 1698. A marker notes that Betsy Ross, known in popular culture as the maker of the first American flag, was married there. The pews are marked with small plaques remembering parishioners from at least the early 1700s until nearly the present day.
The church was named a National Historic Site in 1942, six years before Independence Hall received that designation. The congregation of Gloria Dei, also known as Old Swedes, continues to own and maintain the church and grounds, and the National Park Service has provided additional land, it explains in a brochure available by the church door, to provide the church with space in its now-urban environment.
The church now has about 85 active members and another 35 or so supporters, along with a couple hundred supporters of the historic site, said the Rev. D. Joy Segal, the church’s rector.
“We’re, if not the oldest, one of the oldest congregations in the United States in continuous use,” said Jeanette Woehr, the church historian, who says her family has belonged to Gloria Dei since the 1820s. “When there were times we couldn’t use the church, the congregation still continued to meet in people’s homes.”
Among those times were the American Revolution, when the British used the church as a hospital, she said.
As the surroundings have changed, the church has adapted. The congregation thrived with the help of the religious tolerance enshrined in William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, according to a display at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia. In 1758, the church requested permission for the pastor to preach occasionally in the English language, according to Ms. Woehr. In 1845, the church, which had been Swedish Lutheran, joined the Episcopal Church.
At Gloria Dei on a recent afternoon, women and children walked near a preschool program located on the grounds, while inside the church, a man rehearsed on the organ, which Ms. Woehr says dates to 1903. That evening, the vestry, a group of members that serves as a governing body, met in a building a short walk across the cemetery from the church.
Rev. Segal said the church is considering its identity and working to ensure it is part of its Queen Village neighborhood. The members are aware of their place in a history that stretches back centuries.
“We got handed something that’s over 300 years old,” she said. ”There’s a great history. We intend to do our part to make sure we can hand it off to the next generation and the next generation.”
Karen Langley: email@example.com or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley