Historic Gloria Dei not a typical church

PHILADELPHIA— Ironically, Christian Street here is home for what may be expected, a church.

Still, Gloria Dei, or as it is often called, Old Swedes Church, is not your typical stained glass house of worship. Upon entering the courtyard of this historic landmark, you stand on the grounds of an active congregation.

One that has been so since 1677.

Gloria Dei Church and Cemetery in a winter blanket of snow (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service and Gloria Dei Church).

“It’s the oldest church in Pennsylvania and it’s the oldest brick building in Philadelphia,” Jeanette Woehr, church historian and Sunday school teacher, said. “My family has been a part of this church since 1827.”

The history behind the church is somewhat astounding. With construction for the original buildings starting in 1698 and completion in 1700, the early Swedish colonists’ arrival into the states meant the need for a place of practicing their Christianity.

After much debate on the location, the name of the current site, Wicaco, meaning ‘a peaceful place’, and Tinicum, which was further south, were written on two slips of paper. A man who could not read was elected to choose the winner, and Wicaco won. Thus, the church was created.

Built to model an upside down ship that signified the Swedish journey across the nearby Delaware River, the church remained Swedish Lutheran until its conversion in 1845 to Episcopalism.

Church membership flourished and, in 1845, a balcony was added to the church.

Unfortunately, the original ceiling proved to be too heavy for the structure and it had to be expanded. As a result, the entire church was given much-needed restoration in 2000. From the brick faces of the churches’ exterior to the exquisite array of mulberry and aqua blue tints displayed in the pulpit’s single stained glass window, major renovations were made. However, the authenticity of the church was preserved.

“Benjamin Franklin was a good friend to the church. These are the lightning rods that he made just for us,” said Woehr.

Yet, Franklin was not the only famous visitor.

Betsy Ross was married here and the father of ornithology, Alexander Wilson, is buried in the cemetery. This famous cemetery, which is one of the oldest burial grounds in Philadelphia, is also the resting place of early American explorer Daniel Boone’s sister Margaret.

Although it is common for an historic church to have a cemetery on its property, the idea of having to walk through a cemetery in order to enter the church, especially at night, gives some visitors an eerie feel.

Outside of the normal church services that take place each Sunday at Gloria Dei, which simply translates into “Glory to God,” the church’s role to the community is remains significant.

Boasting a sign of equal proportion to the church’s nameplate, visitors are encouraged to keep their dogs on a leash at all times.

Many individuals in the neighboring community use the open green space at the venue to give their pets much needed exercise, and the church welcomes the additional company.

“We are very active with the community,” said Woehr.

Yet, this is an understatement. With various fundraisers and clothing drives that take place all year long, there are two major events that bring people from all walks of life, and appeal to even the non-religious.

For three days each December— the weekend before Lucia Day on Dec. 13— children and adults can be treated to Gloria Dei’s reenactment of the holiday.

Complete with a young girl’s head crowned in candles, this celebration marks the beginning of the Scandinavian Christmas season while helping to benefit the church at the same time.

Still, if mimicking the celebrations of Scandinavian culture is not of primary interest, the church bi-annual flea market is another option.

On two occasions, during the months of May and October, the church becomes flooded with artifacts that have been collected and brought to the church to be sold.

An all-day affair, the tables are offered to vendors at $20 each, where the options of what can be sold are nearly limitless.

“This is a good market here. Old Swedes is a very historic church and they provide a good group. I’ve been doing this for 18years, and it helped put my daughter through University,” said Marquita Green, a vendor and antique collector.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., buyers are graced with the presence of a wide assortment of items.

From fur winter coats, to precious family gemstones and an occasional Jessica Simpson biography or MAD magazine comic book, there is something for everyone at the flea market. To make things more interesting, prices are negotiable.

“Well basically, everything we don’t sell we pack up. Some of it will go to the Salvation Army to help others, and everything else we’ll bring back next time.

Still the turn out and the prices are so good that I don’t believe we’ll leave with much,” said Clifford Calhoun, a first-time vendor.

Although Old Swedes constantly has a lot going on, there is always someone willing to give a kind smile and caring walk around the property. You may even find yourself ushered into the kitchen for a bite to eat.

Because the members of the congregation realize the significance of the church, they encourage the approximately 15 minute cab ride from downtown to witness this historical monument.

From the replica of the Angel Gabriel hanging in the sanctuary, to the 300-pipe organ that was installed in 1902, the church is filled with memorabilia that dates back to the over 300-year history that it holds within its walls.

Each of these items helps sustain the memory of what Gloria Dei’s establishment was about and, with all of the excitement it continuously emits, much of what it will continue to be in the years to come.

“I’d encourage [tourists] to go to the Liberty Bell. The problem with a city like this is that there’s a lot to see, and it is a little spread out, but I would come here because it’s something that you can do rather quickly, there’s no lines, there’s not a lot you have to worry about, and there’s free parking. Its history without all the fuss; it’s a good place,” said Dave Sampiri, a church member of 14 years.


If You Go

Location: The church is located at 916 South Swanson St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19147 (on the corner of Columbus Boulevard. and Christian Street).

Church services: at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Sundays,

Sunday School service directly following the first service and preceding the second (this class is for toddlers, pre-schoolers and pre-teens)

Other Quick Facts:

  • The congregation has about 300 members
  • The hanging ships found inside the church are exact replicas of the Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Gryp that brought the first Swedish colonists to America.
  • This church is the first in Colonial America where an organ was used. It was first played in 1703 for the ordination of Justus Falckner who was the first Protestant clergyman ordained in America.
  • The Rectory and Sexton’s house were not built until the 1830s. The Parish hall was built in 1863 and the Roak House (named for past rector Craig Roak) was built in 1969.
  • The scroll in the hanging Angel Gabriel’s hand reads “Rise up ye dead.”
  • The wood carving of the cherubs with spread wings and open bible hanging below the organ was brought from Sweden prior to 1646 and translates from Swedish to “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Glory to God in the highest.”

Contact Information: Telephone: 215-389-1513, fax: 215-389-7817
National Park Service Web site:
Church Web site:

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