Wednesday, September 21, 2016

WILMINGTON, DELAWARE: OLD SWEDES CHURCH

Delaware, with about 900,000 people, ranks 45th in population among the United States (although 8th for population density), and with only Rhode Island being smaller in area, it is 49th in land mass. By way of comparison, Los Angeles has a population of over 4 million people in one-fourth of the space.

I had never had my sights set on any tourist destinations in Delaware, which I thought of as a tiny, nondescript state, in spite of the fact that it was one of the original Thirteen Colonies and was actually the very first state to ratify the Constitution and thereby the first to be admitted to the Union in 1787. However, Bob wanted to spend some time there so that he could check off the state high point, and while we were at it, we decided we might as well take in the sights, such as they are.

Well, I was all wrong about Delaware. In fact, now I realize we need to return to Delaware because we missed seeing the state capitol building in Dover.

The Dutch and the Swedes, who were the first to colonize Delaware, left their mark on the area. After stopping by the state high point, the first place we visited was Old Swedes Church, a National Historic Landmark built in a single year and consecrated on June 4, 1699.  That's about as old as it gets for structures in the U.S. In fact, the church claims to be "the nation's oldest church building still used for worship as originally built."
The church was consecrated on Trinity Sunday and named "Holy Trinity Church," but over the years it became known as "Old Swedes Church." Information at the site informed us that this stone church is "a rare example of Swedish colonial architecture." The brick bell tower on the front was a much later addition.


We started our tour at the Hendrickson House, built in Pennsylvania in 1690 by Andrew Hendrickson, a colonial Swedish farmer. Eight children were raised in this house when it was but one room with a fireplace downstairs and a large bedroom above. Later remodeling enlarged the house for succeeding generations, but it eventually fell into disrepair and was scheduled for demolition. Luckily, some historical group got involved, and the house was taken apart and reconstructed on the grounds of Old Swedes Church in 1958. It now serves as the office, a museum, a gift shop, and a genealogical research center:
 We made our way through the wonderful graveyard (more on that in a bit) and to the church, the blue granite of its walls mined locally and then pieced together like a crazy-quilt:

 The builders might have gotten their inspiration from the bark of trees in the neighborhood:

Old Swedes is 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 20 feet tall. That is a lot of rocks. A painting of the man who led the building effort and then was the first minister, Dr. Erik Bjork, is prominently displayed inside:

The interior of the church is quite simple, which is just what I would expect for a church built in one year's time at the end of the 17th century--actually, it was much larger and better than I would expect. Part of that is because Old Swedes has been remodeled and redecorated many times during its 300+ years of existence.


The stained glass window that dominates the front was installed in 1899: 

The black walnut pulpit, however, is one thing that is as old as the church:
 

In contrast, the pipe organ in the balcony was added in 1965:


I liked this view of the churchyard from one of the upper windows--no cars in sight:

Beautiful stained glass windows probably date to the 1899 remodel:

I really love this tender family scene of the boy Jesus helping Joseph in the carpentry shop while Mary spins yarn. Note that Jesus is carrying a cross:

Now tell me, is it a good idea to put the key to your front door where everyone can see it?

No wonder J.A. carved his initials in the door in 1711! Really, you need to hide that key!

Judging by all the carving on the woodwork, the preachers over the years must have been pretty boring:

I'm not sure dead bodies make good footings for a wall, but I can't argue with the fact that the wall has stood for a long time:

There are many more bodies and markers outside. The oldest stone still visible in the churchyard is engraved with the initials "MB" and is typical of the simple markers of the late 1600s and early 1700s:


"Our Mother," Catherine Willis, died in 1882 at age 53:
 

 There are 44 Revolutionary War Patriots buried at Old Swedes:

The bell tower was an 1802 addition. Our guide allowed us to ring the heavy bell by pulling the rope. I'll bet the neighbors love that.

I'm moved by the dedication of these early settlers who wasted no time in building a house of worship, and who were followed by succeeding generations who maintained it and improved it.
Too often we Americans build for a generation, then tear buildings down to construct the Next Great Thing. It's nice to know that some efforts feel worth preserving.


2 comments:

  1. I loved Old Swedes, one of my favorites of the churches we've visited. Lots of fun history and a beautiful simplicity, a kind of church it would be fun to attend.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a very pretty church, with interesting rock walls and quite spectacular stained glass.

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