Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Holy Trinity Church (Old Swedes) - Wilmington, DE

The Delaware Valley is the valley through which the Delaware River flows, including the main drainage basin and such cities as Wilmington, Delaware; Camden, New Jersey; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first white settlers to successfully colonize the Delaware Valley were Swedes, Finns and Dutch. The ship Kalmar Nyckel, from Gothenburg, Sweden, arrived in the Delaware Valley in March 1638 (see this timeline). The ship inhabitants built Fort Christina next to the Christina River which flows into the Delaware River at what is now Wilmington. 
This U.S. stamp commemorates the 200th anniversary of the founding of Wilmington, DE at Fort Christina. The picture is found here
When the Kalmar Nyckel returned to Sweden that year, 24 men were left to defend Fort Christina and to trade with the Indians. The first families in what became known as New Sweden arrived back at Fort Christina on the Kalmar Nyckel in 1640, two years later, and a Church of Sweden priest held the first services there that year. More settlers trickled in thereafter. What is known as New Sweden, which covered the lower Delaware Valley, lasted from 1638 to 1655. In 1655 Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch Director-General of the colony of New Netherland, led a military expedition to reclaim the Delaware River valley for the Dutch and the Delaware Valley was then incorporated into New Netherland.  
New Sweden is in gray along the Delaware River. New Netherlands is in purple along the Hudson River, with a base in New Amsterdam that is now Manhattan. 
In 1656 the ship Mercurius arrived from Sweden carrying Swedes and Finns (this was during the time of the Swedish Empire when Sweden included modern Finland). After some Dutch resistance, as the Dutch had just taken the Delaware Valley the year before, the settlers were allowed self-governance in the area around the Christina River. Many more arrivals of Swedish settlers through the years staked out plots of land in the Delaware Valley. In 1664, Peter Stuyvesant surrendered New Netherland to the English under terms that allowed the Dutch, Swedes and other settlers to continue to enjoy their lands. In 1697 three ministers commissioned by King Charles XI of Sweden, including Eric Bjork, along with Swedish Bibles, hymnals and other religious books, arrived in the Delaware Valley to serve the Swedes and Finns. Bjork became the new pastor at Crane Hook, which used a log building. Bjork began looking for a permanent church and settled on an area behind Fort Christina. Holy Trinity Church, with Eric Bjork as the first pastor, was dedicated at Christina (now Wilmington) on July 4, 1699, Holy Trinity Sunday. 
Holy Trinity (Old Swedes)
View from the opposite side.
A painting of Eric Bjork found inside the front door.
The inscription beneath the painting.
Holy Trinity was built of local blue granite and bricks used as ship's ballast. It was built on the burial ground of Fort Christina, on a rise above the fort. It was 60 feet in length, 30 feet wide and 20 feet high. It did not originally have a bell tower. The first bell for the church was from a ship and hung in a nearby walnut tree. Here is a short video about the building of the church. And here is a nice history.
Architectural drawing for Old Swedes from here
Blue granite, in the wall of the church, along with what our guide said was shards of glass from broken dishes, I believe, the white flecks in the mortar.
Bricks in the church floor. This particular section is the only section where the bricks are arranged in a herring-bone pattern. 
Holy Trinity, or Old Swedes, from the front, and the grave yard around it.
View from behind. 
Part of the grave yard. A plaque lists the names of 44 veterans of the Revolutionary War who are buried in the grave yard. Other notables are James Harrison Wilson, a Union general in the Civil War, at least four U.S. senators, and Thomas F. Bayard, Sr., secretary of state under President Grover Cleveland. 
This picture is taken from the balcony. The black walnut pulpit to the left is the original and it is in its original location. However, priests after Bjork found it too high and had it shortened.
This church chest dates from 1713. An original key hangs behind it on a door. 
The modern altar was designed to match the pulpit and is dedicated to the ten priests of the Church of Sweden who served the congregation. The last Swedish priest, Lars Girelius, left in 1791.
The altar window is probably German. It replaced plain glass. It was installed in 1899 during a restoration funded by the Colonial Dames of America. 
Other stained glass in the church.

The James A. Bayard in this memorial window was a U.S. senator. He was one of three Bayards that were U.S. senators, one of which was also the first mayor of Wilmington. A fourth was secretary of state under Grover Cleveland and a fifth was lt. governor of Delaware.
A grave stone in the church floor from 1786.
The balcony, viewed from near the altar, was built in 1774, as were the pews in it. 
The organ and pews in the balcony. The organ was built in 1965.
Looking across the balcony.
These pews are reproductions from 1899, when the church was refurbished.
A view from the back, underneath the balcony, toward the altar.
The bell tower was built in 1802. The bell had been purchased in England in 1772 and was placed in the bell tower when built. 
Judy ringing the bell. 
Graffiti carved in a side door, from 1798 and 1839. 
Initials in a side door carved in 1711.
Old Swedes (Holy Trinity) celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1999. It is now approaching 317 years. The memorial to the right of the banner is to Thomas F. Bayard who was secretary of state to President Cleveland. 

Holy Trinity now bills itself as the "nation's oldest church building still used for worship as originally built." I also find it listed as the nation's 13th oldest church. Lutheran Church services were held in Swedish until 1791 when the last Swedish priest left the congregation. At that time an Anglican was called in preside over church services and the charter was amended four years later to allow the calling of one ordained in either the Lutheran or Episcopal Church. Holy Trinity has been an Episcopal church since then and is now part of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware. 

Two other churches were built by the Swedish about the same time and of similar architecture. Both are also known as "Old Swedes" and are also now part of the Episcopal church. Gloria Dei in Philadelphia, about 30 miles away, was built in 1677. Its dimensions are the same as Holy Trinity and many of the same construction crew helped build it. Trinity Church in Swedesboro, New Jersey, about 20 miles away, was built in 1703 (with the current building completed in 1784).

There was something, or a lot of somethings, that I really liked about Old Swedes. I liked how old it was, including the old graffiti, and how it related to a part of U.S. history I knew nothing about. I loved the setting, the beautiful trees surrounding the church, the interesting old stone in the walls and the old grave yard. I loved the interesting configuration inside, the brick floor, the boxy pews and the balcony. Old Swedes would be a building I would love to attend church in today. It oozes history. 


  1. I love old cemeteries next to old churches. A very interesting building, including that old graffiti!

  2. I really appreciated the knowledgeable guide who took us through the building, shared her insights, and let us ring the bell. This was a fun and--as you note--very educational stop.