Old Swedes FoundationOld Swedes Church • Wilimington, DE

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Old Swedes Church

Old Swedes Church, in Wilmington, Delaware, is the oldest church in the United States standing as originally built and still in use as a house of worship. It was erected in 16981699 by descendents of the Swedish colonists who crossed the Atlantic aboard the Kalmar Nyckel in 1638. Today, visitors can see the church's vibrant history through some of the remarkable artifacts found there. Early parishioners donated the planks and logs for the black-walnut pulpit; the altar candles were presented to the church by Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1988 as a gift from the Great Copper Mountain Mining Co; Tiffany created the Bayard memorial stained-glass window; and the warden's church chest dates from 1713. Reflecting over three hundred years of American history, Old Swedes Church has a unique story to share.

Designated as a Registered National Historic Landmark on March 29, 1963, three hundred and twenty-five years after the Swedes landed in this country, it was recognized for its unique role in worship by numerous communities of local immigrants throughout its history:

  • Swedes at Fort Christiana and the colony of New Sweden,
  • Dutch in the area centered at New Amstel (now New Castle, Delaware),
  • English in New Castle County and in colonial Pennsylvania,
  • Americans who originated from many nations and now reside in the state of Delaware.

Old Swedes Church Diagram
The mixture of historical and modern fixtures reflects the history of worship at Old Swedes, which began over 300 years ago and continues today.

The pulpit is the oldest known pulpit in the United States. Made of black walnut, it has a canopy and support board. The pulpit was carved by Joseph Harrison, a cabinetmaker from Philadelphia, who used wood given by members of the congregation. The canopy was designed to help project the speaker's voice. The hand-carved dove above the pulpit is a modern gift from Sweden.

The altar is also modern and fashioned from black walnut with paneling that echoes the design of the pulpit. It is at least the third altar at Old Swedes.

The pews are reproductions of the originals and were built in 1899 using patterns and descriptions from early church records. The pews could be closed to keep out drafts in winter; worshippers often brought heated rocks or pans of hot coals into their pews to keep themselves warm. The pews were raised off the floor so their doors would not catch on the uneven bricks. Through the 1700s, in keeping with the Swedish custom, men sat on the right and women sat on the left. Both sides sat facing the altar.

 

Hendrickson House

Originally built along the banks of Crum Creek, in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the Hendrickson House is a unique example of a Swedish colonial home. After over 250 years in its original location, the house was dismantled, moved to the site of Old Swedes Church, and reconstructed.

Now located beside the Burial Grounds, the Hendrickson House invites visitors to glimpse what the private life of a Swedish colonial family would have been like. Historians believe that the house was built in the early 18th century. The Hendrickson House was the home of Swedish farmer Andrew Hendrickson and his wife, Brigitta Morton. Born in the New Sweden colony Andrew and Brigitta made a home in their new house that was both Swedish and American.

 

Burial Grounds

Stepping through the gate of the burial grounds at Old Swedes Church, visitors are transported through four hundred years of history. At every turn there are gravestones marking the final resting place of the powerful and ordinary; men, women and children from the very early years of settlement in Delaware to the present time. There are over 5,000 gravestones in the churchyard. These gravestones vary from very simple fieldstone markers to lavish stone obelisks with ornate sculptures. The early grave markers help tell the story of the people of the New Sweden Colony.

 

Labyrinth

Constructed in 2001, the labyrinth at Old Swedes is painted on a 42 foot concrete stage. It is modeled after the one in the Chartres Cathedral in France. The Chartres design has four distinct quadrants and eleven circuits. In walking, this type of labyrinth the walker will meander through each quadrant several times before reaching the goal. The practice of walking a labyrinth dates from the 12th century and inspires spiritual thoughts about the path to salvation. Walking the path, which is intricate but has no dead ends has a calming effect which cleanses your mind and frees your spirit. Located adjacent to the amphitheater in the parking lot the Labyrinth is accessible 7 days a week.