Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Episcopal Church

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by Melissa Mandell of Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Gloria Dei Church, which was dedicated in 1700, is the oldest church in Pennsylvania and among the oldest in the country. Swedish colonists held their first Christian worship in 1677 in a log blockhouse along the Delaware River. Land owner Sven Svenson donated ground to the Swedish Church for a permanent structure, and in 1698 laid the foundation for Gloria Dei. Gloria Dei served as a Swedish Lutheran Church for 150 years until it became part of the Episcopal Church. In 1942, the National Park Service designated Gloria Dei as a national historic site. In 1999, Gloria Dei completed an almost total restoration in time for the 300th anniversary of the church building. The church, its buildings and historic burial grounds are open to the public for tours.

The church houses many historical artifacts related to Swedish American settlement. Replicas of the two ships that brought the first Swedes to Pennsylvania are suspended from the church ceiling. A wood carving of two cherubs with a Bible was brought from Sweden before 1646, and the Swedish baptismal font was imported in 1731. The church’s stained glass window is one of the earliest examples of American-made stained glass and dates to the mid-1800s.

The church stands as a living monument to Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhood and earliest European settlers. The first Swedish colonists came to the New World in 1638 as a business venture and settled in the area around Wilmington, Delaware. A second group established a settlement at what would become Philadelphia in 1642 under Swedish governor John Printz. “New Sweden” extended from the falls of the Delaware River at Trenton down to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, and also included a smaller number of Dutch and German settlers.

But this prime riverfront land was not uninhabited when the first Swedish colonists arrived. The people that came to be called Delaware Indians, along with other native groups, had already been living, hunting and fishing in Delaware and Ohio River valleys for more than 10,000 years. The Delawares called themselves Lenni Lenape, meaning “original people.” The “original people” in South Philadelphia called this area Weccacoe—”peaceful place.” The Swedes who settled here did manage to coexist relatively peacefully with their native neighbors. In 1654, the Swedes and Lenape signed a Friendship Compact at Tinicum on the Delaware River southwest of Philadelphia.

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